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Veteran of Normandy Landings: 'When They Needed Me, I Went'

In this June 3 photo, Army veteran Rollo Worden, 91, smiles at his home in Yakima, Wash. He took part in the World War II invasion of Normandy, France. (Sofia Jaramillo/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)
In this June 3 photo, Army veteran Rollo Worden, 91, smiles at his home in Yakima, Wash. He took part in the World War II invasion of Normandy, France. (Sofia Jaramillo/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- In the heavy fighting in France during World War II, 12 men serving around Rollo Worden would die or be badly injured in a day.

Six soldiers would hurriedly replace them; so green that they didn't know how to dig a foxhole, three or four would quickly be killed by the next morning, Worden told the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Such ongoing losses are the reality of war, and Worden remembers it all too well on the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day assault on German-occupied France in 1944.

"How I made it through I have no idea. There was no way I could have," Worden said in an interview at his Terrace Heights home.

"It really takes a toll on the mind."

Drafted into the U.S. Army at 18, Worden was a recent graduate of Yakima High School when he headed for 17 weeks of basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas.

When his brother was killed in the war, he came home for the funeral and then returned to Wolters for a few weeks to help train fellow replacement forces.

Soon, he was headed for additional training in England. Then came the day when a freighter carried Company A of the 12th Infantry Regiment through "a heck of a storm" in the English Channel on the way to the fighting in France.

It was the largest invasion force in history. More than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline.

More than 9,000 Allied soldiers died or were wounded, but the invasion led to the retaking of France and marked the turning point of World War II.

Worden's regiment, part of the 4th Infantry Division, was ordered in to augment and resupply the 4th, whose history stretches back to the Civil War.

That mission was part of the reason Worden had a perilous entry to the already dangerous Utah Beach, under enemy fire as one of the D-Day offensive's key assault points.

Worden was bundled in two life jackets when he jumped off the landing craft to head for the beach.

"I landed in about 12 feet of water -- 10 or 12 -- and went under because I was carrying too much equipment," Worden said.

However, he managed to make it ashore with the dozen mortar rounds he had -- twice as many as he was supposed to carry, along with his battle pack, M-1 rifle and .45-caliber sidearm.

Worden is quick to point out that he wasn't part of the initial force that stormed the beach. His wave of soldiers came later June 6 or perhaps the next day.

Regardless, heavy fighting was still being waged at the beach, just as it would at each of the five major battles for which Worden received individual Bronze Stars. He earned one more for his overall effort.

Soldiers were supposed to fight for two weeks and then rotate to the rear for a week. It didn't happen that way as the casualty count rose and fighting continued.

"We never got the weeks off -- just one continual fight from the time we got into it until it was over," he said.

Worden spent more than a year in overseas service out of his two-year enlistment.

He knew from the beginning that it would be hard duty.

"I was scared," he said. "I figured, 'Well, I'm going to make it,' and then just went."

At 91, Worden is among a dwindling number of service members who can speak from personal experience about the harrowing D-Day.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that some 430 World War II veterans die each day, with none expected to be alive by 2036.

More than 16 million served in the armed forces during the war; fewer than 697,000 remain today.

Of the group of Yakima men he knew who enlisted about the same time he did, Worden says he believes only one other is still alive.

Though he survived combat, Worden's return from the war was not easy.

He was discharged in November 1945 after more than two months of treatment for war-related injuries at the Camp Butner hospital in North Carolina.

He returned to Yakima, where he would meet his future wife, Ann, at a party hosted by his sister. They have been married since June 13, 1948.

As his physical condition worsened from war-related injuries, his wife once told him that she would be there to push his wheelchair when he needed that help.

"We are still very much in love," Ann said.

Worden said being hit by a log that flew off a German bunker during an attack -- along with the impacts of numerous explosions — left his spine with a series of micro-fractures.

Six years ago, he had surgery to slow his spine from cutting into nerves, potentially leaving him unable to walk.

Even with the surgery, he must use a wheelchair to move around and a walker to support himself as he stands.

Beyond the physical costs, the images of war and the bad memories still play through his mind.

Growing up, his children, Larry and Linda, knew not to surprise him when he was sleeping. The shock was too much.

At the craft store he owned for more than 20 years with Ann in downtown Yakima, he would sometimes lose himself in that blank space between then and now.

"You'd stare out the window for a half an hour and not realize it -- reliving the war is what happened," he said.

The flashbacks are the worst, he says without elaborating.

"It was terrible, of course," he says, offering a soldier's simple explanation for those who have never been on the front and cannot understand.

He remembers crying and yelling for the enemy shelling to stop during particularly bad barrages.

"You get out of your head," he said.

Yet he returned to combat even when medical treatment might have allowed him to leave the battlefield.

As a sergeant, he was in charge of mortar teams and didn't want to leave them behind, the same calling decades later that drove soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to return to serve multiple tours.

"You just know they are going to get wiped out if you are not there to direct them," he explains about caring for his unit, even as he acknowledges the craziness of going back.

The Battle of the Bulge was his last major engagement.

By then, Allied forces were so short that military units were mixed together on the battlefield in order to keep fighting.

On May 8, 1945 -- now called V-E Day, for Victory in Europe -- 5,000 enemy troops surrendered where Worden was assigned.

"They could have overwhelmed us with no problem. They had had enough war," he said.

Years later, Worden would return to Utah Beach for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day assault.

"That did a lot of good," he said.

"I realized it was just a beach. All the tank traps and barbed wire were gone," he said.

Along with a dozen other members of the 4th Infantry, he received a commendation for his service at a special ceremony held by the French government at Omaha Beach, another key assault point.

He believes the war was vital for preserving America's independence.

"If we hadn't been alert, we would have been done in, between the Japanese and the Nazis," he said.

Today, he watches game shows where college kids wonder if the United States fought Russia in World War II (the Soviet Union was a major ally) and laments that today's generations lack an understanding of World War II's significance.

When others focus on Christmas and Thanksgiving, he remembers his comrades and their war on D-Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day.

"My holidays are different than everyone else's," he said.

Looking back, he does not regret answering the call to serve his country.

"When they needed me, I went," he said.