Sunday, June 6, 2010

D Day

Area veterans recall D-Day
More than 425,000 Allied and German troops died during the Battle of Normandy, which began with the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, commonly known as D-Day.

The term "D-Day" is used to simply note the actual beginning of the operation.

It was the largest amphibious war operation ever undertaken. On that first day, there were 160,000 Allied troops, 5,000 naval and merchant vessels, in addition to hundreds of bomber and fighter aircraft. The assault phase of the Normandy invasion continued until June 30, 1944.

The Normandy landings were the first successful opposed landings across the English Channel in more than eight centuries.

Historians believe the invasion of Allied forces at Normandy represented a major breakthrough and played a key role in the Allies' eventual victory over Germany.


Sumter native Charles Jenkins, now 85, is a 1942 graduate of Edmunds High School. He was 19 and serving in the Navy when he helped steer the Landing Ship Tanker (LST) 282 to Normandy and unloaded American soldiers and tankers on D-Day.

Jenkins said he knew it was an important initiative, but he said he failed to understand its overall significance.

"I was 19 years old," he said. "I was just doing my job. We didn't think much about why we were doing it."

It wasn't until later when Jenkins realized that the Normandy invasion was essential if Hitler and Germany were to be stopped from "taking over the world."

"Looking back, it was one of the most important things that has ever happened," he said.

 Harold Kirk has plenty of memories — good and bad — of the Normandy invasion. He still likes to pull out some of his mementos to help him remember. Kirk said he doesn’t want to forget. He believes D-Day saved the world and is proud to have been on the crew of a destroyer tank.

On that first day, Jenkins said, the noises of war were deafening from his vantage point on the ship.

"And we could see the fighter planes flying over us," he said.

Jenkins never left the ship and later that day, Jenkins and the crew were on their way back to England to gather additional Allied forces and equipment.

In the next two to three weeks, Jenkins made three trips to Normandy. The signs of war were less noticeable on each of the returning trips, he said.

During the next couple of months, Jenkins stayed busy carrying out his responsibilities as a crew member of a huge Navy ship.

"You were kept so busy that you didn't have time to be afraid," he said.

Sixty-six years later, his most vivid memories focus upon the events of Aug. 15, 1944.

"We were just off the coast of southern France," Jenkins said. "We had a shipload of men and equipment and were just about to unload them when the German bombers struck."

Jenkins' Navy LST ship was destroyed by German Radio Patrol Bombs. Of the 300 men on board the LST 282, 200 were killed.

"I was up on the bow of the ship when the Germans struck," he said. "I was blown off the deck and into the water."

Jenkins said he spent about two hours in the water before he was rescued by an Allied boat.

Even though his injuries were not life-threatening, he spent a month in a hospital in Italy before returning to Norfolk, Va. He never returned to military action.

At 85 years old, he still receives treatment for the physical and emotional scars he suffered when the ship he was on was destroyed.

"I still take pills to calm me down," he said. "And that's because of what happened on that day."

Jenkins said the Navy LST 282 was specifically targeted by the Germans.

"We were the only ship they struck," he said. "We had a couple of high-ranking officers on ship, and they knew that."

Jenkins said he has talked very little about his war experiences and particularly the events of that fateful day in August.

"It's a little easier talking about it now," he said. "But I only talk about it when somebody asks me questions about it."

Harold Kirk, 85, was also 19 when the Allied forces began the Normandy invasion on June 4, 1944.

"I was in England, and I remember listening to the radio and hearing about it," he said.

It would be almost three weeks later before Kirk and his Army 771st Tank Destroyer Battalion would join the invasion.

At that time, Kirk was one of six men assigned to a destroyer tank.

"My responsibility was security," he said.

Kirk said his unit met very little resistance in France, but the soldiers could see plenty of evidence of the destruction that took place before they arrived.

"Our mission was to seek, strike and destroy," he said. "I guess you could call it a mop-up operation in France because we didn't see too much evidence of the Germans."

The action heated up later that year for Kirk in Holland and Germany.

Ten of the company's 12 tanks were destroyed, and more than 100 men were killed or injured.

Kirk said he didn't receive the first scratch.

"I figure the good Lord was watching over me," he said.

He had "several close calls," however.

"One time I was walking around my tank when I stopped to light a cigarette," he said. "I was still smoking back then. And about the time I stopped, I saw a puff of smoke right in front of me. If I hadn't stopped to light that cigarette, he would have gotten me."

There was another time when Kirk's company was in a heated exchange of gunfire with the Germans.

About 6 inches of Kirk's Garand semiautomatic rifle was sheared off just above the stacking shivel, he said.

"I was without a gun for about 24 hours," he said.

Kirk said he fired many shots at the Germans in Holland and Germany, but he doesn't know if any proved fatal.

"You would fire and move on," he said. "You didn't have time to check to see what happened. And really, you didn't want to know you were responsible for killing another human being. You didn't want to, but you did it if you had to."

Lee County native Norwood Hatfield, 87, looked back on his time as an Army soldier during World War II with The Item a year ago at his home near Wisacky.

Hatfield and about 1,100 soldiers in Company C were part of what is known as "D-Day plus 10."

Hatfield said his company arrived off the Normandy coast about a week before landing in France on June 26, 1944.

"We were just sitting off the coast of France because of a storm," he said. "On D-Day, we were training in Wales."

Twenty-six soldiers in Hatfield's company were pulled out to join the D-Day invasion, he said.

"They needed some men to fill out the holes," he said.

Hatfield believes all of those soldiers were killed, including one who had become his best friend.

Of the 1,100 soldiers in Company C, Hatfield said he is the only one he knows who made it back home.

"I don't know of any others," he said. "I guess you can say I am the lone star that made it. Now we had many to come as replacements and some of them made it."

The constant presence of death deeply affected everyone, Hatfield said.

It got to the point where you didn't want to know the names of the soldiers fighting next to you, he said.

"It was easier to lose somebody if you didn't know their name," he said.


Today, Hatfield said, he is filled with pride when he reflects upon World War II.

Looking back, he said he believes the Allies were on the side of Good and the Axis powers were Evil.

"We saved the world," Hatfield said. "I really believe that."

As a 20-year-old serviceman from Lee County, Hatfield said he was focused upon survival.

"I didn't think about the importance of what we were doing," he said. "I was trying to get through one day at a time. I had a job to do, and I tried to do it the best I could. But I was proud to serve my country."

Jenkins said he is proud to have played a "small role in the Allied victory over Germany."

"I thank the Lord every day that I made it back," he said. "And I think a lot of the ones who didn't make it."

Jenkins has no doubt World War II was necessary.

"Germany had about all of Europe," he said. "Hitler was going to take over the world."

Kirk said 19-year-old soldiers didn't spend time thinking about reasons for war.

"You did what you were told to do," he said. "You didn't question it. You didn't worry about why you were doing something."

By April 1945, Kirk said, he and his fellow soldiers began to realize the importance of the Normandy invasion.

"That was the turning point of the war," he said. "We (Allies) had lost everything. Germany had control of Europe, but Normandy put the Germans on the defensive. And by April 1945, we were able to recover Europe to its rightful governments."

Kirk said he still looks back with pride on what the Allied forces were able to accomplish.

"We have a responsibility to protect the right for countries to choose their governments," he said. "Countries should be able to choose for themselves."

Hatfield, Jenkins and Kirk recognize that all military jobs are important. They, however, are particularly proud of their individual roles.

Almost 10 years ago, Jenkins received a small booklet from a daughter of one of the men who lost their lives on Aug. 15, 1944, on the LST 282.

"She sent this book to the survivors," he said.

The booklet is actually a compilation of stories she found on the Internet about the LST 282's involvement in the Normandy invasion and World War II.

"I've read it several times," Jenkins said. "And I'm going to read it again. It's been awhile. I don't think we should forget."

Jenkins said he wishes schools would spend more time teaching our youngsters about the Normandy invasion and World War II.

"It's our history," he said. "I don't think we should forget it."

Kirk's grandson helped him buy a World War II-era Garand semiautomatic rifle on the Internet several years ago.

Kirk also has a book about World War II destroyer tanks and toy miniature destroyer tank that he pulls out from time to time.

"I get a good feeling when I get these things out," he said. "I feel like we accomplished something very important. The destroyer tankers supported the infantry."

Kirk and the others will never forget the people.

"We had this special comradeship," he said. "It's hard to explain. We were like a family. That's the best way to describe it. We were a family."

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