Looking back from the 70th anniversary, D-Day seems so long ago. But 35 years ago, it was still fresh in the memories of many who experienced it. Raleigh Times writer Dave Simpson sat down with some veterans in 1979.
It was 35 years ago today that William E. Walton guided a large cargo glider plane into Nazi-occupied France.
His assignment was to transport eight soldiers, a Jeep, 400 gallons of gasoline, ammunition and machine guns eight miles behind enemy lines.
Walton’s role was one of thousands in the major offensive of World War II. On June 6, 1944 – D-Day – Allied forces landed in German-occupied France.
“It was like fireworks over the fairgrounds. I never thought I’d get out of that one,” said Walton.
That night he walked several miles single file with other glider pilots to Omaha Beach, the American designation for one of the landing zones.
More than 2,000 of the Allied forces were killed during the first day of the battle.
On the beach there was a continuous stream of men and equipment, of supplies coming in and the wounded going out. “It was an awesome sight,” Walton said. The pilots were to return to England so they could fly more gliders back to France.
He said the first three landing crafts he boarded exploded when they struck underwater mines, causing him to swim for the netting of another boat each time.
Another American soldier was Edward M. Isbell, who parachuted into a barrage of flak and rifle fire above a German command post on the French coast on D-Day.
“We were scared to death,” said Isbell. The invasion, known as Operation Overlord, initially was planned for June 5, but a storm on the English Channel forced Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower to postpone it. “We were disappointed because we were ready to go and get it over with,” said Isbell, who was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
The next night the paratroopers were issued seasickness pills, a sign that the invasion would occur within hours.
“We were trying to catch ‘em by surprise. Everything was kept secret. We didn’t even know until we took off that this wasn’t going to be another dry run,” he said.
Shortly after 1 a.m., the paratroopers began their jumps. Isbell said as soon as the C-47 transport planes crossed the French landfall, the Germans opened fire.
“We got some heavy flak right off. The right engine was hit and it caught fire. We started losing altitude, so all 21 of us had to bail out before the drop zone.
“We were right on top of a German command post with four machine guns. Just our luck. Most of the men got shot up pretty bad.”
Isbell said the Germans illuminated the night sky by sending up flares. He said rifle and machine gun fire whizzed past him, sounding like a cracking whip. He estimated that a dozen paratroopers were killed before reaching the ground.
“One guy who had me in his sights kept picking on me. The shots were coming pretty close, so I dropped my head, became limp and played like I was dead.”
The surviving paratroopers were scattered over a large area in an apple orchard, unable to rendezvous. They had been ordered only to use their bayonets before daybreak. Isbell said they could not open fire then because they might panic and accidentally shoot each other. “We were in No Man’s Land and unsure of who we’d meet next,” he said.
By this time the troops were coming ashore. Isbell said fighter planes were bombing nearby German installations. He said 16-inch shells fired from Allied ships moved slowly enough to be seen before exploding.
Isbell’s mission was to capture a small French town and a bridge. He lost some of his equipment in the landing, only keeping five bandoliers of ammunition, two antitank grenades, an M-1 rifle, a canteen and two chocolate bars.
He said he was too scared to be hungry, but had difficulty remaining awake. He moved at night, cutting German telephone lines and trying to rendezvous with American troops.
After five days he was captured by some young German soldiers. Isbell was a prisoner of war for 11 months.
On the German side news of the invasion was played down, said Hans Stadelmaier, who now is a professor at N. C. State University. On D-Day he was in Yugoslavia working with the German air force. He electronically monitored American planes bombing Italy and southern Germany, unaware of what was happening in France.
“That invasion just crept up on us. It didn’t immediately hit us as something of any historical significance. We had no idea this single military operation had the nucleus for a complete sweep across Europe and back in to Germany,” said Stadelmaier. The Raleigh Times 6/6/1979