D-Day Story: William D. Townsley

This graphic tells the story of how the France beachhead was supplied on "D-Day". 6 June 1944 (Photo: National Archives)
This graphic tells the story of how the France beachhead was supplied on "D-Day". 6 June 1944 (Photo: National Archives)

I am Townsley, William D., service number 38370280. Residence at the time of enlisting in the army was Bangs, Texas, located about 125 miles west of Fort Worth. I was born August 8, 1923. I entered the armed service February 1943 at Abilene, Texas.

After that I was sent to Camp Swift, Texas, near Austin for my basic training. I made sharpshooter. I was assigned to the 146th Combat Engineers Battalion, Company B and left the States the 9th of October, 1943 en route to England. We rode in the Martina, fourth size to Queen Elizabeth ship. We had approximately 28,000 troops on board, one third more than supposed to be carried.

We docked in Liverpool, England. I don't remember a whole lot happening at that time. It was raining and muddy where they stationed us. At that time England was in blackout at night. No one could go to town on pass. We had our flashlights blocked off so there was only a small hole in the glass to see through.

When coming to a street intersection you could barely make out where you were. We finally settled down on the south coast of England by the town of Barnstaple, England. It was winter and we burned coal in our tents at night.

It was at Slapton Sands where we started our demolition training. This is where we studied mines, hand grenades, TNT, C2 satchel charges, and so forth. We practiced on what we called hedgehogs. They were like little girls jacks in shape, but were about 4 feet in height. Our demolitions really worked fine on these.

One day we were practicing tying short fuses on blocks of TNT and throwing them like hand grenades. One of our men drew back to throw and it went off. He lived till he reached the hospital. He was our first casualty. His name was Melvin Vest. I kind of liked working with demolition but I saw it could be pretty dangerous also, if not carefully seen after.

We finished our demolition mines and booby traps and moved forward to the coast where we stayed in some nissen huts, waiting to cross the English Channel where we were furnished our OD clothes and gear we would be needing.

About this time or a little before we were divided up into boat crews. I was in boat crew number 8 and our lieutenant was Wesley Ross. Our medic was Lt. Max S. Norris. I always thought I was in the service with some of the best guys there were. Strict, but good. And I saw where it really paid off in the long run for me.

In the last camp of preparation we were shown films of how the battle was to be carried out, how we were to land and what we were supposed to do. We had it all down in films and in our minds. I had one close buddy, Willie Brandt that always worried about the crossing. He thought we were going to be shot like sitting ducks. I told him they wouldn't do us that way. He was found on the beach D-Day, no bullet holes in him. I don't know whether he died from shock or explosion.

Finally it came time to get on our little boat. I think it was an LST. It had a half-track, an armored tank, besides boat crew 8. It sure was crowded. We barely had room to get around by day, at night it was something else. Those army blankets sure were fine quality. I would tie one side of my blanket to the side of the boat and the other side to the tank very tight like a hammock. Before morning it was nearly hitting the bottom of the boat.

The blanket had stretched so much but would all shrink the next day and the same thing the next night. I think we were on the English Channel four or five days.

I want to back up just a little. Before leaving the States we got to go home on a week or ten day furlough. I went with my girlfriend to a fortune teller to see what my future was going to be. I knew I was going to be shipped overseas. I wanted to know if I was going to come back. She told me I was going to have a close call but I was going to come back alright.

Now for the roughest part of my life, the June 6th D-Day landing. About two or three o'clock in the morning we were woken up to transfer onto our landing barge. A small landing boat with the front door to let down so we could run out on the beach. I was already sea sick, not much sleep, hungry, cold, but the boats began taking their places heading for Normandy Beach. I landed on Omaha.

Airplanes started striking the target on the mountain ahead of us. The big ships started shooting their rockets into the beach. This seems so odd, after 50 years have passed, I still can't tell this story without choking up and shedding a few tears. This is only the third time I've attempted to tell this story. That filming crew did a good job at taking pictures but they didn't see very little of what was fixing to happen.

As I said, the planes were bombing the gun nests on the hillside, explosion after explosion. The ships firing their rockets from their ports were lighting up the whole area. This was between 5 and 5:30 a.m., just at daybreak. It was foggy that morning. I thought if I live through this it would have been the biggest Fourth of July I have ever seen in my whole life.

I am 6'5", and was told take the mess kit spoon with me that morning. I wondered why. It was time to embark from our landing barge. Instead of being on the beach, I was under my arms in water. Some of the shorter guys, it was over their heads.

I was in the first wave landed on Omaha Beach. The tide was coming in about 4 feet at a time. I walked out on the beach for about fifty feet. I thought this wasn't going to take long. I had my full field pack, satchel charges, bangalore torpedo for the barbed wire entanglement, my rifle and a cartridge belt on, a pretty good load in itself. And all of a sudden all hell broke loose. I was under machine gun fire, it criss-crossed over my head, how I got through was a miracle.

At the barbed wire, I tied on my torpedo, and tied on my satchel charges on a hedgehog. It was like the ones we practiced on, four foot tall with a 1 inch I beam, 8 feet by 7 or 8 feet tall. When I saw the purple or violet smoke I knew it was fixing to go off. It was a ticklish situation. I could not get up and run on account of bullets over my head.

Just before my tying on my demolition I was shot on my right lower buttock. If I had put my hand on it I would have lost it. On my left, about eight foot, I saw the same string of bullets. One shot a hole in my buddy's canteen. I can still see, to this day, a stream of water the size of a lead pencil coming out.

At a fiftieth year meeting with army buddies, I remembered this buddy's name was Anthony Lala from Louisiana. I didn't know until this meeting that he was shot in his hip. Lt. Ross told me it was not a life threatening condition, but he died from shock.

The tide was coming in about four or five feet at a time. It hit my feet and I knew next time it would be over my head. I had to move forward. Every fifth round was a tracer and I would watch the high and low places on the ground as a guide where to go. This is where my mess kit spoon came in handy. I would start a hole in the pebbles with my spoon and take my feet and push out a furrow to get a little lower in the ground.

I said a prayer or two and thought about what the fortune teller had told me. I thought if it gets any worse, I may not live through it. When I was tying on my satchel charges, a bullet hit the other side of it and it fell down where I could smell the heat off of it. I wanted that bullet for a souvenir but it was too far away for me to reach for it. I moved to the right far enough for the falling debris to miss me. It sounded like fence posts falling around me. I was lucky, they all missed me. Some small pieces hit me but no damage.

There is no way I can use words to explain all that was going on. Hollering, shouting, blowing up, seeing men shot, trying to survive. I finally got across the beach, I think about 11:00. This is what's in my mind. They had given us a K-ration. I wanted to wait until 12:00 to eat. I had a pretty good spot under the embankment. I could see fire trucks being blown up, men trying to come in and getting shot like fish in a barrel. I was doing pretty good until a half-track parked beside me.

After his first shot I could not hear anything. He was firing a 35 millimeter hauser. It was still a comfort to me. I had rather hear than dodge bullets. That evening we assembled on the hillside by the ocean. It was a pretty steep hill. Seem like about 300 yards high. We dug a foxhole. I went nearly to the top of the mountain to dig mine. My good buddy, James W. Krahl, from Oklahoma, boat crew 7, was just to my left and rear.

The reason I went so high on the mountain, I thought if a German comes by with a hand grenade and threw it, it would go over my foxhole. We were lucky no one came. Thank the Lord.

I worked on the beach the next day, this is on D-Day plus one. It consisted of clearing the debris so trucks, half tracks, tanks could drive through from their boats. This was our mission, to clean up the beach for passage. Of course this was a dangerous mission also. Some dud rounds and ammunition hadn't been fired. One bulldozer operator got blown off his dozer from the like. I would like to make this little comment. I found a blown up half-track on the beach. I think the driver had been blown to pieces. Anyhow I saw a pair of nice leather gloves. I always wanted a pair. I put my left hand in the left glove and it fit fine. I was trying to put the right one on and was having trouble putting my hand in it and discovered it still had three fingers in it. I pulled off the left one and laid them both down. This poor guy had a better safety razor than I did, so I traded razors with him and went on with my business. There were pieces of barbed wire entanglements, pieces of steel, and blown up equipment all over the place.

The first night I had my buddy Krahl look at my buttocks to see how bad I was hit. The bullet had gone in and come out about two inches where it went in, a flesh wound, and left holes in my pants and underclothes. It was the next evening, D+1, that I had my medic to look at my wound. He made a field dressing on it for me. I don't know what happened. I never was turned in for a Purple Heart. My medic, Max S. Norris, got hit also and went to a hospital in England.

We sailed from Southampton in the early evening of June 5th and were soon in very choppy water. I had been many thousands of miles on troop ships, but had been unable to overcome my sea sickness. So the crossing was a misery for me personally. We, the officers, tried to persuade the men to get some sleep, but for the same reasons we could not sleep, neither could they. And, the conversations that went on during the night were many and varied. I don't remember too much about them, but as we were second flight and not assault troops, most of the people aboard seemed to be wondering whether the leading troops would have cleared the beach and established some type of beachhead, because we were not equipped for close combat, bearing only personal arms. In my case, it was a simple 38 Webley pistol.

Hopefully, we expected to be able to wade ashore and establish temporary rallying points behind the beach, so that our vehicles could be told where to go immediately after driving ashore. I spent some time with the skipper of the LCI on the bridge during the night. Fortunately, the night was warm and fairly quiet. There was also plenty of hot, sweet tea which Private Blair had rustled up somewhere.

Our voyage was running on schedule. We were due to land at about 7:30 as I recall it, so about an hour beforehand we donned oilskin waders tied with tapes under the arm pits. The LCI slowed down but we could see nothing in the direction of the shore. Everyone became edgy because of the unexpected lack of noise. Gradually, the coast came into view and there was still no firing, shooting, or other action. And, suddenly there we were, nosed onto Juno Beach, at a village called La Riviere. The ramps went down on each side of the ship and we were off.

As Private Blair stepped off the ramp into the water carrying the front end of the motorcycle, he tripped on something under water and stumbled, allowing the bike's engine to dip under water. Fortunately, I was still on the ramp, and I was able to cling onto the bike like grim death and, eventually between the two of us, we got the bike ashore.

Of course the magneto was soaked in salt water, and by all the laws of science, the engine should not have started, but start it did at the first kick. I told Blair to stay and keep the engine running until it had dried out say fifteen or twenty minutes. In the meantime I removed my waders which had split in the water. Incidentally, Private Blair's had not. And, my boots, socks, and clothes below the waist were completely soaked. I had no handy change of clothes so everything had to dry on me.

Fortunately, again the day was warm and I did not suffer unduly. Time was rolling on, so I established B Echelon in its correct location and found the MTO's of 8th and 9th DLI in their proper places and made sure they understood their orders. The MTO of 6th DLI was not to be found although we knew he was ashore somewhere, because he had been seen earlier on.

By that time the bike had dried out, and so I rode it inland and located Brigade Headquarters about a mile from the beach, reporting to the Brigade Major and Staff Captain that we were ashore. I had to hurry back to the beach because it was about time for our vehicles to start coming ashore.

While I was strolling up and down trying to work out what was happening, I met General Montgomery. He spoke to me and asked if I was still doing the same job as when we met on the beach in Sicily, just under a year before. I explained my job, and he moved on his way, humming to himself, and distributing cigarettes to anyone who wanted to take them.

Happily, our vehicles started to arrive just then, and I satisfied myself that they were being well received and directed by the unit representatives. I noticed with great pleasure that our mess and cooks' truck had arrived. I held them for a few minutes while I made sure everything else was working properly. And, then I went with them back to B Echelon, where Private Blair had some somewhat sad news for me. I had left my rucksack with him and he had begun to unpack it for me, upon which he discovered that the bottle of scotch had broken and soaked the towel and ruined the cigarettes, staining everything it touched a bright yellow from the cigarette wrapper.

It was by now early evening, and as phone lines had not yet been laid, I went to Brigade HQ for last orders of the day, and finally returned to B Echelon quite late at night. I found it to be well organized and I went to sleep in a bivouac put up by Private Blair, who was already asleep somewhere else. That was my D-Day.

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