- World War II veteran Norman Hunt gives Rotary an account of his times and travels
June 6, 1944. A day that will live in history as D-Day, the beginning of the liberation of France from control of the Nazis by the Allied forces in World War II.
While Americans slept on this side of the Atlantic, the first reports came of Allied forces landing on the beaches along the English Channel. As reports came into New York City newsrooms, it would be many hours before Americans would awake to learn of the great fight -- and the great victory -- as American forces repelled the Germans, according to radio station recordings of 1944.
Today, Norman Hunt, Ph.D., a retired professor of psychology, is a man of slight build and white hair. He is a gentleman in the old-fashioned and best sense of the word, a gentleman made, not broken, by his D-Day experience.
Hunt, a Clay County resident for many years, has many World War II collectibles, which he shared at Wednesday's meeting of the Brazil Rotary Club in the Elks Lodge. He has vintage 1940s-era publications in his collection, now brown and crumbling with age. He has his Eisenhower-style jacket, complete with various insignias earned during the war.
He even has an original red Nazi SS arm band and German mess kit, Bouncing Betty land mine, German potato masher grenade and an anti-personnel mine made of wood and plastic (no metal) to make it undetectable. But as he speaks, the most precious souvenirs are obviously in his recollection of the war.
Today, Wednesday, he is taking 30 minutes to speak about D-Day. One feels the cold water of the English Channel as he wades in it, chest deep with friendly fire from 16' guns clearing the way by shooting over their heads.
"It sounded like a freight train above us," he says.
The anti-gas suit allows no air to reach the skin. A waterproof gas mask likewise protects against some of the enemy's nastier weapons, poison gas. A Mae West life preserver can be inflated with a canister of pressurized carbon dioxide.
The life preserver was so named due to the probably artificial charms of the movie star of the same name.
One of Hunt's fellow soldiers stepped in a hole and began sinking due to the heavy anti-gas suit and other gear. The gas mask began to choke him and when the Mae West inflated, it pushed the mask even harder against his throat.
"He was drowning and choking to death at the same time," Hunt said.
The soldier was rescued by Hunt and another soldier and floated until he could get his feet beneath him on the floor of the Channel once again.
"As far as I could see were ships and landing craft," Hunt said.
Paratroopers landed inland the night of June 5 to begin the invasion. Hunt and his fellow soldiers had been briefed with topographical maps in England before the invasion began. The men were warned that if the landing went badly, they were not to retreat and "we were told that if things went very badly, they would build a monument saying the 306th was here and remains here," Hunt said.
Assuming the worst, the landing on Utah Beach took place during low tide, so German innovations could be more easily seen. Not only had the German flooded inland areas, leaving just one road from the beach inland, but they had constructed underwater barriers designed to tear holes in the hulls of any ships attempting a landing. So, the briefing was only partly helpful when the invasion began.
Hunt was a member of the 306th Quartermaster Battalion under the command of Gen. Omar Bradley. After the landing, Hunt's unit was responsible to keep supplies flowing between ships and a supply dump five miles inland.
Supplies were transported by large trucks, outfitted for land as well as sea with large propellers at the rear. Cargo nets would fill the trucks which would float and then drive to the inland dump. One hundred sixty men worked around the clock to supply the troops who pushed back the enemy on their way to liberating France.
Although history records the D-Day invasion was highly successful and broke the backs of Hitler's forces, the invasion was only part of the story. Ten days after D-Day, a terrible storm hit the Channel, beaching the supply ships.
"No more supplies could come in until we straightened out the ships," Hunt said. Fortunately, there were enough rations to feed the troops until the supply line could be re-established.
Two of the duties of the 306th were to keep German prisoners of war busy and to maintain cemeteries. Five thousand German POWs were kept in two stockades, but there were no attempted escapes due to the mine fields and other impediments.
During World War II, soldiers who became psychologically impaired due to battle fatigue were taken out of the fighting and assigned to units like the 306th Quartermaster Battalion.
One of the responsibilities was to bury the dead Allied soldiers in the French cemeteries.
"It seems strange to give men who were already depressed the responsibility of working with dead bodies, but that's the way it was," Hunt said.
The Americans suffering from battle fatigue worked extra hard to honor the memory of their fallen American comrades. They would not allow German POWs to even touch the bodies of the dead American soldiers. Instead, the battle-fatigued workers would place the bodies in the graves and then allow the German POWs to fill in the dirt.
At the end of the war, the French people celebrated by banging pans and making noise with whatever was at hand.
Hunt remembers the joy but he also remembers seeing the battle-fatigued soldiers huddling under tables in fear, thinking the noise was caused by the war.
Hunt is one of a group of men whose numbers are growing fewer and fewer every day -- soldiers who fought for freedom from tyranny in the last world war. One wonders if history will truly live after they are gone or if America will be doomed to repeat the past.