William J. Stanley: Veteran Story

Normandy Beachhead, June 1944. (U.S. Army photo)
Normandy Beachhead, June 1944. (U.S. Army photo)

This article is submitted by David E. Stanley for his father, William (Bill) J. Stanley, who was in the first wave at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The following recollections are taken directly from William J. Stanley's personal memoirs.

After a month at Fort Dix we were taken to New York and boarded the Louis Pasteur, a converted French luxury liner. Luxury was hardly a description of the ship. Ten thousand men boarded her for a nine-day trip across the ocean. The crossing was rough. Many men suffered seasickness. The ship was crowded. The amphibious brigade men did not become seasick, but we suffered the effects of those who did.

We played cards and joked to pass the time. We held each other up emotionally. After several days of sea and sky, homesickness joined seasickness. The underlying feeling was fear of the unknown. Buddies became close!

On March 3rd, we sat at Plymouth, England, delighted to set foot on land once more. I had advanced two grades and arrived in Europe as a Master Sergeant. The only place for us was in an amusement park where our battalion pitched tents and tried to cope with the rain and tempers of men living too close. Men who were anxious to get to war! When we went into town, there were scuffles with the British servicemen, and the British girls seemed only to be interested in the Americans with brass on their uniforms. It was a depressing, miserable three months.

Three weeks prior to departure from Plymouth, they began to pull all men with past infantry experience out of the boat brigade and put us into infantry. I was put on a landing craft where I sat for three weeks in the rain. I found myself trying to keep my head clear.

On June 1st, in the cold rain, with waves crashing over our decks of the boat, we set out. It was a miserable six days. My fellow soldiers, not used to the rhythmic rocking of the sea, became seasick. The chill and dampness bit through my uniform. I was beginning to realize the severity of war, and we weren't there yet. The sky was dark with hundreds of bombers, and I remember the fear erupting inside me as the storm and cold played havoc on my exterior.

At three in the morning on June 6, 1944, we were off-loaded to LCM crafts, about thirty-six feet long, each holding about 40 men. Each of us occupied about one square foot per man and carried over 125 pounds of equipment.

We circled for one and a half hours in the storm, then headed for the beach. One hundred feet from shore, my landing craft hit a sand bar. Thinking we were on the beach, the coxswain dropped the ramp, which was a signal to disembark. We ran into twelve feet of water. There was widespread panic. The weak and nonswimmers drowned. The war ended for them one hundred feet from the invasion on Omaha Beach. The shock, fear, and reality of what happened is indescribable.

When my feet touched the beach, I made my way to shore, stumbling and pushing bodies of my American comrades aside. There was one way to go -- ahead. Gun fire hit the water, and bodies became sandbags and protection. Not one American son could ever be prepared for this. Everything was instinctive and I kept moving ahead.

We huddled behind the sand dunes on the beach while the artillery continued firing toward us. The choice was either to huddle there and be killed by gun fire or move forward. We regrouped and moved ahead. We gradually advanced and the beachhead was established.

After the second day, there was a lull in the fighting and divisions began reforming. We molded again into a fighting force. We were a close knit group.

We began moving ahead. I saw gliders with dead pilots and dead paratroopers hanging from trees and house roofs. We kept moving with little resistance, scared and tired. We passed through small villages, at times were shot at by French collaborators. After three days we had a twelve-hour reprieve where I fell into an exhausted sleep. The weather had broken. The shone brightly, and for the first time I felt a degree of warmth.

For the next three months, we moved slowly, steadily forward, fighting by day and digging in at night. Occasionally we were hit at night. I became resigned to one fact -- kill or be killed. I saw buddies wounded and killed, but could not comprehend it actually happening to me. One day it happened to me. While I was making a routine check of my platoon, I was hit in both knees by a burst of machine-gun fire. I was placed on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to the emergency field hospital.

My legs were splinted. I was given morphine for the pain. I was awarded a Purple Heart, and thought I had the "million dollar wound" -- a ticket home for sure. The war would be over for me. I was elated.

I longed to see the U.S. again. With an intravenous in each arm, I was moved to the field hospital on the beach. I watched chaplains comfort the wounded and dying, and listened to the constant groanings of pain, day and night. It was a frightening experience, and I longed to get out of there.

Chaplains stopped by and asked if they could write my family for me. I told them there was no one to write to and to please take care of those around me. By this time, I had been molded into a true career soldier and my buddies were my first concern.

A day or two later, I was loaded on a Navy hospital ship. I believed we were headed for the States, but we landed at Plymouth, England. I was admitted to a military hospital. My knees were operated on by the British, and for three months, I recuperated. The bullets were removed. Two full leg casts were applied. I recovered. Eventually I was allowed passes. One of the first things I noticed was the attitude of the British people. They had done a 100 percent turnaround and were actually friendly.

I was loaded on a troop ship, still thinking I was being sent home. We landed in Cherbourg, France, and I was reassigned to heavy boat company as captain of a large tugboat. I towed barges to ships too large to put ashore and transported cargo. This went on until the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Again they pulled men who had infantry experience and assigned us to infantry units then near Belgium. I was a platoon sergeant and back in the fighting. The Germans were throwing everything they had at us. We retaliated, slowly moving forward.

About two months prior to the end of the war, some of the veteran combat NCOs were pulled to the rear to train incoming replacements. I was doing this when the war ended. The CO called a formation and announced the Germans had made an unconditional surrender. The war was over! Ended! I don't remember the CO dismissing the formation. Men reacted every way imaginable. The celebration lasted a week. No close-order drills, no recruits to send to the front. German and French whiskey came from somewhere. We drank, and laughed, and drank some more. It had been a long, long war.

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