D-Day Veteran Explains to His Daughters What World War II Was Like

American assault troops in a landing craft huddle behind the protective front of the craft as it nears a beachhead, on the Northern Coast of France. Smoke in the background is Naval gunfire supporting the land. 6 June 1944. (Photo: U.S. Army)
American assault troops in a landing craft huddle behind the protective front of the craft as it nears a beachhead, on the Northern Coast of France. (U.S. Army photo)

D-Day veteran Roy Arnn participated in the Normandy invasion on Omaha Beach with Boat Crew #8. What follows is a letter that he wrote to his two daughters, Lynn and Su An, explaining some of the events of the war.

November 10, 1990

Dear Lynn & Su An:

We had snow for a couple of days, but the sun is shining now. It appears that we will have a wetter and colder winter than last, so everyone says.

While attending my Army unit reunion, 146th Combat Engineering Battalion in Lake Havasu City, AZ, on October 9th, there was a discussion about our not having told our children about our Army experiences. They said there were many cases where the children of G.I.s said they wanted to know about what their fathers and mothers went through, especially in combat, but their fathers never spoke much about it.

I don't remember or know whether I ever said much to you girls or not, so I will take this time to tell you what happened as I recall it so Josh and Matthew will know someday what combat could be like and not what they see on T.V. I was living with my mother and working, at the open pit copper mine in Ruth, Nevada, to help support my younger sisters Vera, Darlene, Neva, Peggy and my brother Lue.

Ray, my brother, was two years older; he was married and living in Ely, Nevada. Mother was working in the post office. The government started the draft and I wasn't that concerned about being drafted, so I decided to buy a car because we had no way to get around. I went to a garage in Ruth to look at an old used car and was going to take it for a test drive when the news came over the radio that Pearl Harbor was bombed [no TV then].

I told Mr. Hall, the garage owner, that under the circumstances, I did not think I should take the car because I knew that I would be drafted pretty soon and would not be able to afford it on Army pay. He told me that if I wanted the car to take it, and if I was drafted, I could finish paying for it when I got home from the Army. While I was in the service, Grandma A learned how to drive it.

I will finish the story about the car later. Oma enlisted in the WACs [Women's Army Corps] and quit teaching school in Ruth, beginning the Christmas holiday of 1942. We had dated a couple of times before then. I was drafted on January 28, 1943 and then shipped to Fort Douglas, Utah, where I was sworn into the Army on Feb. 4th.

From there, I was shipped to Camp Swift, Texas, near Bastrop, TX, where I went through basic training. My group then became the 146th Combat Engineering Battalion. Soon after that, I received my PFC stripe, then corporal, and at the end of training I became a Sgt.

During our training, I attended demolition school and became a squad leader. Just before we were shipped overseas, I had one-week furlough to go home to Ruth, NV, to visit the family. We were sent by train from Texas to Boston on Oct. 9. After a week or two there, we were loaded on a British ship and sent to Liverpool, England. The ship we were on was fast enough to outrun German submarines so we didn't have to go by convoy.

A lot of us were seasick most of the time, and even though we had a submarine scare one evening, it didn't take away the seasickness. Upon arriving in Liverpool, we took a train south to Barnstaple, south of the Bristol Channel, where we started our invasion training on an old golf course. The club house was turned into the headquarters building.

We lived in tents, with five men to a tent. For training, we made obstacles just off the beach out of cement, ditches, iron, etc., to stop tanks. I was over the mine and booby trap squad on our boat crew, and we practiced picking up mines and booby traps and also laying them. We used giant firecrackers instead of TNT and dynamite for practice, and I'm glad we did because I would have blown myself up a few times had we not.

We did have a few accidents and fatalities during training. As we were practicing making hand grenades with quarter-pound blocks of TNT, one of the fellows (Pvt. Vest) was killed when the grenade blew up as he pulled the fuse lighter. I turned around just as he was being blown backwards. The Lt. and I rushed over to him.

We made a stretcher out of our rifles and took him to the hospital in a truck. His arm and leg were blown off and he was burned with internal injuries. On the way to the hospital, he kept asking me to put a blanket around his foot as it was cold.

He died soon after we arrived at the hospital so we went back to our tents. I was smoking at the time but couldn't smoke or eat dinner as I kept smelling and tasting burned flesh from picking him up and putting him on the stretcher. I think I took about three showers that evening with G.I. soap before trying to eat again, and I still couldn't overcome the smell of burned flesh for about three days.

One day, Lt. Ross, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, came to us and said things were happening and that we would be leaving for the south coast of England for final briefing and the invasion. I think we went to Portsmouth or Southampton.

After arriving in Portsmouth, we were given a briefing about every day and told of our assignments. After being shown photos of the obstacles and being briefed on where we were to land on the beach in France, we were no longer allowed outside the fenced area, and there were guards about every 50 feet. We were assigned to boat crew #8 and were to land in the first wave on Omaha Beach with the 1st Infantry Division.

The Ranger Battalion was to land and climb the cliffs to our right. Our boat crew's job was to make gaps through the obstacles at low tide so that the second wave could make it through as the tide would be coming in. The 1st Division was to attack the German positions.

My assignment, as Sgt. with three other men, was to clear the area of mines and booby traps in a gap from the obstacles inland, which I think were about 50 yards from the obstacles to the tide high-water mark.

We knew that it was getting close to invasion time as [we] were loaded on an LCT [landing craft tank] about a week before the invasion. While on board and waiting, the fellows in my squad wanted to grow goatees and mustaches and I told them to go ahead. They said we all had to or none so I agreed.

The day before we left port, June 4th, Capt. Howard told me to have everyone shave their beards off. I told him that I had checked beards with the gas masks on and they did not interfere, in case we got gassed by the Germans. He said to shave them off anyway and I refused. He said that he would court-martial me, and I told him to go ahead as none of us might be alive tomorrow anyway.

All the ships moved out on the 4th, and during the night, we returned to port because the weather was so bad. We did take off the next night, June 5th, so we could hit the beach at daybreak on June 6th. Somewhere in the English Channel, we had to transfer from the LCT to our assault boat [LCM] which we had towed behind us.

We each had a pack of plastic explosives [about five lbs. each] that we carried on our chests and backs. These could be used to blow up the obstacles on the beach. I also had a mine detector, my rifle, a coil of rope with a triple hook on it, and a couple of rolls of tape that would be used to mark the gap or lane from the obstacles inland. The rope was to be used by throwing it ahead of me and then dragging it back to trip any booby trap wires, etc.

We were all pretty seasick after getting into the assault boat because of the rough water, and we were using the puke bags that we had around our necks. As the assault boat neared the beach, machine-gun fire hit around the front of the boat and some of the seasickness left. When the ramp went down, we started for the obstacles.

I was one of the last ones off of the boat as we had to put a rubber raft, filled with plastic explosives, into the water so it could be taken to the beach. We waded in about two feet of the water to reach the beach. As I went through the obstacles, I disposed of the plastic explosives that were on my back and chest and then hit the ground as a machine gun in a house to our left pinned us down.

I was trying to get the mine detector out of the box but couldn't as the lid was jammed. There was no place to hide in the open, and people in the house kept firing. As I got my rifle up to my shoulder to shoot, a tank came up out of the water. The gunner put a shell into the house. About the same time, a sniper shot at me. The bullet kicked sand in my face and passed under my left armpit, which caused me to flatten out.

At the same time, a shell from a German 88 artillery piece exploded near my feet. Had I not been flattened out, the shrapnel from the artillery shell would have probably killed me. Instead the shrapnel hit my right shoulder and leg. The explosion and concussion seemed to push me into the ground and knocked the breath out of me.

The force of the explosion blew my helmet off and cut the corner of my left eye. I soon lost sight in my eye because blood was running into it. I turned to look back of me and tried to yell to Corporal Lee to get a medic. He looked at me with astonishment and started screaming for the medic as though he were hit. Max Norris was the medic and as he tried to get the rifle from my shoulder; it hurt something awful. I found out later that the scapula and clavicle were broken besides the deep wounds in my shoulder and leg.

He took my first-aid kit and gave me a shot of morphine, also some sulfa drugs, then bandaged my shoulder and leg. I must have been one of the first ones hit as calls for medics started coming from all over. As I lay there wondering just how badly I had been hit, the tide water started to go around me from the incoming tide. I tried to get up and run or crawl to the high water mark, but I couldn't get my leg to work. I fell back down a couple of times.

The Germans were firing everything they could, and Lt. Ross told me to stay down and he would come out to get me. He crawled out to me and I put my head on his butt and grabbed his leg. He crawled and dragged me to the high water mark where I stayed for most of the morning. As he left, he was wounded in the leg. Later that day, some of the fellows in my unit [I can't remember their names] tried to get me on a stretcher and on to one of the small assault boats returning to one of the larger ships at anchor.

They took me down near the water to wait for an assault boat. About that time, the Germans started hitting the beach with artillery so the fellows picked me up in the stretcher and started back to the high water mark. As the shells came near, they dropped me to hit the ground, and one of the shells hit so close that it blew me out of the stretcher, and a small piece of shrapnel hit me in the little finger on my left hand.

The fellows loaded me back on the stretcher and left me at the high water mark as they had other work to do. I prayed to God before we hit the beach that morning. ... Things on the beach did not look good. There was one soldier near me that was crying and asking for his parents.

Other wounded soldiers were nearby and also a couple of dead bodies that the tide had washed in. Some time that afternoon, some fellows picked me up and moved me to an aid station. While lying on the stretcher, I guess I went into shock and started to shake. One fellow sat on me to keep me from bouncing off the stretcher. Soon after that, Max Norris [our medic] had taken me back to the water and got me on an assault boat back to a LST.

At a reunion in Denver many years later, Max [who became a doctor] told me that every time I breathed, bubbles would come from the wound in my shoulder as if my lung might be punctured, but it wasn't. I felt safer on the LST as the doctors had cut my clothes off and attended to my wounds. I found out then how big the holes were in my shoulder and leg. The clothing that we wore consisted of two sets of pants, with one treated in case of contact with some sort of gas and the other with a map made of a very thin material sewn into the seat of the pants in case we were captured.

These helped stop the bleeding in my thigh because a piece of my pants, about six inches square, had been jammed into the wound. I soon found out that the LST we were on had not unloaded, and it made a run for the beach that evening with more shelling.

As soon after the LST had unloaded its supplies, we started back to England. Most of the wounded were on stretchers on the side of the tank deck. While I was about half asleep, Capt. Howard, with his arm in a sling [the one who was going to court-martial me], stopped to ask me how I was doing.

He pointed out Lt. Ross sitting on a stretcher across the tank deck. The captain never said anything about a court-martial. I believe we arrived back in England on the afternoon of the 7th or 8th. Evidently the doctors on the ship had tagged us in some manner, to identify us as critical, because as soon as we were unloaded off the ship in southern England they rushed some of us directly to an ambulance for delivery to a tent hospital. [They didn't have helicopters then!]

There were three others on stretchers in the ambulance with me. The driver drove so fast that every time we went around a corner, it hurt. One of the fellows told him to slow down because it hurt so much and the driver said, "I don't want any of you fellows to die in my wagon." I won't say what the fellow told him in response.

We were in the tent hospital for a few more days before they put us on a train and took us further north to a general hospital. The tent hospital reminds me of those in the television show "M.A.S.H." The general hospital was near Coventry, England. I was a bed patient for three months, kept mostly with soldiers from the 101st and 82nd airborne. My left eye was swollen and closed with a big black and blue mark covering the side of my head, where the helmet hit me as it was blown off.

It was about a month before I could see from my left eye. My thigh was bandaged, and my right arm was strapped to my chest so the bones would heal. Since my left hand was bandaged, someone had to feed me for about two weeks. The beard that I had grown was longer so one of the nurses was going to shave me. Instead of clipping the hair first, she took a safety razor and tried to shave me. She delicately put the shaver between two fingers and made one stroke; as the razor skipped, it took hair and hide.

A few days later, a soldier came by with a straight edge and shaved me. After about two months, my wounds had healed so that they could sew up my leg and shoulder; although I still had to remain in bed for another month. After three months, they transferred me to a convalescent hospital for rehab. I was in the rehab hospital for three months. When we had been told that we were all scheduled to go home, Eisenhower put out an order that anyone who could do any kind of work for two hours a day had to go back because of the Battle of the Bulge.

Even though I tried to lift my right arm, I couldn't because the muscle had been torn out. They put us on a small vessel, and we went back to France [and landed at Le Havre late December 1944]. They then put us in 40 & 8 box cars and sent us to a replacement pool near Paris.

We celebrated Christmas and New Year's near Paris, but did not get any passes. From Paris, they sent us to Luxembourg where we were supposed to be in an artillery outfit. The warrant officer there looked at us in disgust and said we should all be home; we agreed. I still couldn't use my right arm, and some others were walking with canes, etc.

The weather was cold and snowy. A few days later, they put us in some 6 x 6 trucks and sent us back to the replacement pool near Paris. From there, we went by 40 & 8 boxcars to Marseille in southern France. It took about a week to get there, and after living in a boxcar for a week with no heat, etc., I could understand how hobos feel.

After arriving in Marseille, they assigned me to an Army base post office where I stayed for about nine months. I exercised my arm every night after work by trying to toss a baseball to a fellow from Maryland. I started out by just using my wrist until I could throw overhand. It seems as if it took about four or five months to accomplish it.

I got to come home with some of the fellows from my original outfit as they came through Marseille. I was discharged from the Army and arrived home in Ruth on December 15th. I was planning to take the car I had bought [on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed] to drive to California to pick up Oma so we could get married.

The car, which was a Dodge sedan, had been driven by Grandma and others. It did not have good tires, etc. Besides, Grandma A had run up a rather large bill at Goodman & Tidball for groceries and other things so I used my discharge money to start paying off the bill, which left me broke.

Oma and I had been corresponding while we were in the service. She received her discharge from the Air Corp as a lieutenant and started teaching school in Auburn, California. We decided to get married during our correspondence. Since after I got my discharge I couldn't drive to California to pick her up, she quit her teaching job and came to Ruth on the bus. After I borrowed $100 from her, we were married New Year's Eve.

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