‘D-Day: The Campaign Across France’ – A New Book Captures Veterans’ Stories

2/28/2012 • HistoryNet

"On our way to the beach my boat got hit twice. We landed. The ramp went down. The boat got almost full of water. It was still a little rough. When I got off the boat, I was up to my shoulders in water. Getting out of the boat I had to climb over several bodies that were just laying there, floating in the water.

"I was the first one on the beach [but] I wasn’t the first one off the boat. The boat took a hit up in the front. And the others got shot; when the ramp went down they started through the water. The lieutenant made the shore all right. Other guys got hit going through the water. You couldn’t run through the water…the water was up to your shoulders. You had to struggle, you’re holding your rifle up and trying to move your legs, and you have eighty pounds on your back, you’re not moving very fast. As soon as the water gets a little lower you could put one foot after the other, and they were shooting."

That account of the D-Day invasion was given by Vincent “Mike” McKinney of the 16th Regiment, Company E, who landed in the first wave. It is taken from a new book, D-Day: The Campaign Across France. It incorporates memories from World War II veterans into a well-researched narrative of the preparations for D-Day, the invasions on June 6, 1944, and the drive across France that followed. Many of the stories—which come from veterans of the American, British, German and other nations’ forces—were obtained in exclusive interviews by the book’s author, Jay Wertz, and have not been seen before. Others come from previously printed memoirs. Original maps and extensive use of period photographs complement the text and help add context.

This is the second title in the War Stories: World War II Firsthand series from Weider Publications. The first work in the series, The Pacific – Volume 1 – Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, won top honors in the History: Military/Political category of the USA "Best Books of 2011" Awards.

Major General (ret) David T. Zabecki, Ph. D., senior historian for World History Group, in writing the book’s foreword, said, "Although I remember them when many were still in their 30s and early 40s, the members of the Greatest Generation are all now in their mid-80s or older. They are passing fast, but fortunately their voices can still be heard. The critical value of books like this one is to preserve their memories and their voices for future generations. A book like this, however, is a selective sample by its very nature. It is only possible for those who survived the war in the first place to speak and tell their stories. And as the war itself slides farther back into the historical past, the pool of living vets diminishes until all the voices will finally fall silent."

Download a pdf of Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki‘s complete foreword by clicking on his name.

A few of the veterans whose stories appear in the book. Click to enlarge.
A few of the veterans whose stories appear in the book. Click to enlarge.
Here are more examples of veterans’ memories, excerpted from the book.

Beachmaster Joseph P. Vaghi of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion, described the chaos on Easy Red Beach.

“My first awareness that what we were doing was for real was when an 88-mm shell hit our LCI(L) and machine gun fire surrounded us. The Germans were in their pillboxes and bunkers high above the beach on the bluff and had an unobstructed view of what we were doing.

“The atmosphere was depressing. The top of the bluff behind the beach was barely visible; the sound of screeching 12- and 14-inch shells from the USS Texas and the USS Arkansas offshore were sounds never heard by us before; the stench of expended gunpowder filled the air and rocket launchers mounted on landing craft moved in close to the shore and were spewing forth hundreds of rounds at a time onto the German defenses. Purple smoke emanated from the base of the beach obstacles as the UDT prepared to detonate another explosive in the effort to clear a path through the obstacles to the dune line."

Hans Eckhardt, a seventeen-year old from the Sudetenland, volunteered and received admission into the very competitive Luftwaffe flying personnel program. He was placed on active duty in the fall of 1942.

“We spent a short time in Germany then we were shipped out to France near the west coast for Luftwaffe training regiment. So we did what was called in America boot camp. We were trained with guns, machine guns and mortars and we were also kind of manning the Atlantic defenses. There were three battalions and every third night we were on the alert. We slept in our uniforms, with our boots on, and we practiced that within three minutes we were down out of the barracks and into trucks where we were ready to go to the coast where there were fortifications. This was an early response in preparation for D-Day. It was in late 1942.

Jackie Volkl was a member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1944.

“We went on the Isle de France, which was a cruise ship, all by ourselves. There were no other ships around. No escort. Cruise ships could go faster than any submarine and that was why cruise ships like the Isle de France and the Queen Mary always went alone. In the spring of ’44 we landed in Scotland where all the ships landed, and it took us nine days to cross the ocean. One time we stopped dead in the water and everybody was scared to death, because they knew there had to be a submarine around some place but nothing ever bothered us. We got to England and were sent down to southern England and I was assigned as secretary to the commanding officer of the base. It was a base of supplies for the GI’s getting ready to go across to Normandy. Of course we didn’t know it was Normandy at the time.”

Medic Charles Shay recalled his D-Day on Omaha Beach.

I was operating independently, treating the wounded. And then there was much confusion and chaos, and the officers and the sergeants, the enlisted men that were able to make the beach, they began to organize the men to proceed inland and eventually, the beaches became much calmer because the men that proceeded inland had knocked out many of the…much of the opposition. It became a little bit freer to move up and down the beach, and that’s just what I did. I moved up and down the beach looking for wounded people.

“I found a fellow medic [who] had been seriously wounded. I knew that he was dying because he had a very serious stomach wound. He was probably bleeding internally, which I could not help him with, and I gave him a shot of morphine. I bandaged his wounds as best I could, and well, we said goodbye to each other because I knew that he was dying and we would never see each other again. I laid a wreath on his grave up in Omaha Beach, up in the cemetery. He had been awarded the Silver Star posthumously for his actions.”

Lieutenant John Marr of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Infantry Division, remembered this action against the German 91st Airlanding Division at Gray Castle.

“People were out in an oats field, and beyond in another field as well, adjacent field, to the right flank of our attack. And so there was a tremendous exchange of fire in there, and as daylight broke, the attack failed, but not before a soldier named DeGlopper, Charles DeGlopper, had gone on a rampage with his Browning Automatic Rifle. And he took out a lot of the defenders, and kept going until they finally killed him. He was the only guy to win the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Normandy operation with the 82nd Division.

Click here to learn more about D-Day: The Campaign Across France.