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History & CommunityDerek Stevens 06/09

Derek Stevens 06/09

With the invasion under way there was undoubtedly a feeling of excited interest in the classroom. Headmaster ‘Charlie’ Freeman had fixed a Daily Telegraph map of the invasion area to the wall and gradually small flagged pins showing Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack and the Canadian Maple Leaf inched inland. As British troops approached Caen however there was a stall in the movement of the Union Flag.

American casualties were being flown back to hospitals at St Leonards, north of Bournemouth, Blandford, where a special road had been built between Tarrant Rushton airfield and Blandford Camp. Merryfield airfield near IIminster was receiving wounded to be ambulanced to Musgrove hospital in Taunton, to Sherborne, and to Axminster where Mrs Wall, serving as a stenographer for the US Army  at the time, remembers hearing some of the American medical staff remark “The Limeys are stuck at Caen!”

Caen did prove a tough nut to crack and the historic town had to be blasted and bombed to ground level with 4,000 tons of bombs before the British flags started to move forward again on that map on the classroom wall. The newsreels at the cinema were full of it all of course, and my desire to become a fighter pilot was increased as the camera took us on  strikes  against enemy fuel dumps and  supply trains on the French railway system. RAF Hawker Typhoons, their wings and fuselage  striped with  black and white invasion markings, would dive down from the heavens unleashing batteries of rockets which would hurtle towards their targets with great fizz. All thrilling stuff, but my young mind never considered the fate of the unfortunate French engine crew and the train guard.

An intriguing contribution to the success of the invasion was made by a band of native Americans. Attached to a US Army Signals company sixteen Comanches were employed, no, not as smoke signallers as some joker might suggest, but as ‘code talkers’, their job being to transmit and receive messages in their own unwritten language. Indian ‘code talkers’ had been used in the First World War with great success and were also being used at the time in the Pacific where the US Marine Corps were using a war party of Navajos in their war against the Japanese.

It is not too hard to imagine the danger the man wearing the red cross on his helmet had to face when he heard the frantic cry “Medic… hey medic!”. As one said “There are few things worse than being a rifleman in the infantry, but being a medic is one of them. When the shelling and shooting is heavy  the regular GIs can press themselves deep into their holes and don’t need to go out on a mission of mercy”.

It was one of those medics, an army surgeon of the 16th Infantry Regiment who was to leave his new bride a widow in her home of Lyme Regis. They had married just prior to the invasion. She lived a widow until her death in 2005. Captain Apanasewicz had been hit and badly wounded himself but insisted on crawling to other wounded soldiers around him on Omaha Beach, injecting them with morphine. He was evacuated back to England but died shortly after. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and is buried in the American Cemetery in Cambridge.

But the most sombre task was for those of the Graves Registration Unit. After sorting out the quick from the dead it was their job to ensure the identity and the internment of the bodies, German as well as American, all remains handled with equal reverence. Airborne troops alone had lost over 1,000 troops, a loss as brutally high as those on Omaha Beach but harder to recover as they were scattered over a wide area of Normandy in crashed and burnt out gliders, hanging from trees or drowned in flooded marshes. Many were shrouded in their own parachute silk. German POWs were put to work digging graves whilst the French handled and moved the bodies and maintained the burial sites.

Technical Sergeant Hagual of the Graves Registration Unit made this observation, “If every civilian in the world could smell this stink, then maybe we wouldn’t have any more wars”. By the end of the invasion 31,744 Americans would be buried in Normandy.

With echoes of what had happened to communities in Britain during the First World War when whole swathes of a town’s young population were reported to have died in the trenches, similar calamitous news was received by the Virginian town of Bedford, a small town of 3,200 souls. Early on Sunday, July 16, 1944, Elizabeth Teass, a teletype operator for Western Union, switched on her machine in her office behind the cosmetic counter in the local drugstore. Her heart sank as she started to read the incoming message from the main office at Roanoke. “We have casualties’”, the message started, “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret”. She had seen these words before, telegrams announcing the death of a local boy had been arriving, on average, at the rate of one a week.

She waited for the message to end but it did not. Line after line it clicked on. It was clear something terrible had happened. Little wonder that mail sent to serving soldiers overseas had been returned to sender with no official explanation. Elizabeth called the Sheriff, local doctors, the local taxi service and the undertaker to deliver telegrams to family after family. Of the 35 of the town’s soldier sons involved in the invasion of Normandy, 22 had died in combat. These were soldiers of the US Army’s 116th Infantry Regiment who had spent their last months training in Devon, a countryside not dissimilar to that they had left in their homeland of Virginia.

Twin brothers, Ray and Roy Stevens, both sailed to the D-Day beaches but in different assault craft. Roy’s craft hit an underwater obstacle and sank at sea, leaving him floundering among the waves. Shedding his heavy equipment he managed to get to the beach. Four days later, in search of his brother, Roy came across a cemetery and the first grave he found had Ray’s dog tag attached to it.

As a salute to all those courageous men who fought mightily on those Normandy beaches 65 years ago it is pertinent to recall the sentiments of Sgt. John Ellery of “The Big Red On” who recalled “The first night in France I spent in a ditch wrapped in a damp poncho and thoroughly exhausted. It had been the greatest experience of my life. I had made it off the beach and reached the high ground. I was king of the hill and I felt ten feet tall. My contribution to the heroic tradition of the United States Army might not have been greatly significant but at least, for a time, I had walked in the company of very brave men”.

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