North Carolina

D-Day: Only the beginning – with the end nowhere in sight

With Saturday comes another anniversary of D-Day as the light continues to dim on the generation that fought it.

Seventy-one years have passed since Carolinians such as Andy Andrews of Black Mountain and Walter Dickens of Monroe got their first taste of combat when they rushed ashore at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, the pivotal day historians tag as the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

It was more of a beginning than an end. Long after D-Day’s first anniversary, the bullets would continue to fly in the Pacific theater and other parts of the world.

A year ago, I wrote a series of stories to honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day through the eyes – and distant memories – of Andrews, Dickens and others like paratroopers Harold Eatmon of Mint Hill and E.B. Wallace of Waxhaw. The fighting took another 11 months and horrific losses during battles in countries such as France, Holland, Belgium and ultimately Germany before the Germans surrendered.

Last month, we observed the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. But May 8, 1945, wasn’t celebrated by all Americans.

A year after D-Day, thousands of U.S. Marine and Army troops were still two weeks away from capturing Okinawa, the last in a hopscotch of islands that Allied forces needed for a plan to force Japan’s unconditional surrender. Offshore, U.S. Navy ships absorbed daily attacks by Japanese kamikaze (suicide) planes as their guns pounded hills above the landing beaches. Army Air Forces planes bombed targets inland to soften the Japanese defense.

As they fought to take control of Okinawa, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers, Marines and sailors prepared to take part in what would have been history’s greatest battle – Operation Olympic, code-named Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese homeland.

They knew the fighting would be fierce.

Practicing street fighting

On a speck of an island called Iwo Jima, taken before Okinawa, Marines Coy Shue of Charlotte and Wally Duncan of Mint Hill had witnessed Japan’s Bushido – the way of the warrior – where death was honorable and surrender no option.

Both were assigned to the 4th Marine Division. Shue, 93, had already survived three amphibious landings. Yet as soon as he rushed ashore he was certain he wouldn’t walk off Iwo and wanted to pray – but didn’t know how. Suddenly, as a spray of black volcanic ash kicked up, he remembered the Lord’s Prayer he’d learned as a boy in Charlotte’s North Davidson Street mill village.

He recited it before inching any further, asking God to: “Deliver us from evil.” Shue witnessed constant evil on Iwo and said the prayer twice daily. “It was just hell,” he said. “Every day of it.”

Duncan, 90, had been wounded on Saipan and sent to recuperate on Maui in Hawaii, where the 4th was based. He made it back to his unit in time for Iwo Jima. On the fourth day, he and Shue looked up and saw the American flag flying atop Mount Surabachi – its hoisting by five Marines and a Navy corpsman an iconic image of the war.

By the time the Japanese surrendered the island in mid-March 1945, more than 6,800 Americans had died; 17,000 were wounded. Of the 22,000 Japanese entrenched on the island, more than 18,800 died either in battle or by ritual suicide.

Only 216 were taken prisoner.

“We were supposed to take Iwo in five days and then proceed to Okinawa to reinforce the 1st and 6th (Marine) divisions,” Duncan said. “But we got all shot up, and it took 26 days.”

So a year after D-Day, Shue and Duncan were back on Maui, practicing street fighting on fake streets with fake buildings.

“When we invaded Japan, they were expecting a lot of street fighting to go on,” Duncan said. “When the war ended in Europe, we were happy for those guys. But we weren’t much in a mood to celebrate – we were headed for Japan, and it was going to be bad.”

More than a half-million Japanese troops were poised to meet their advance. Five thousand kamikaze planes stood ready; the Japanese would use poison gas. Civilians were prepared to fight.

Ending the war

Another Normandy veteran I wrote about last June was Henry Hirschmann of Charlotte, a German-raised Jew who survived five months of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp only to be released to go to America. Here in his adopted land, he joined the Army and couldn’t wait to fight the Germans.

He did with the 693rd Field Artillery, aiming 105 mm howitzers at the Germans all across Europe. In May 1945, his war was over – but his sadness only beginning.

Hirschmann volunteered for occupation duty, first in Austria where his unit ended up. But he asked to be transferred to Frankfurt, Germany, near the town where he grew up, so he could search for his parents and two brothers.

Years later, he confirmed they’d died in the Holocaust and has carried the sadness through life.

Andrews, now 91, a machine-gunner with the 1st Infantry Division, thought his war was over, too. On D-Day, he was among the third wave onto Omaha Beach and was wounded four times in about 150 firefights from France to Germany. On D-Day’s first anniversary, he was assigned to occupation forces in Bamberg, Germany – dreaming about returning to his home in Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga in Tennessee.

But in early August 1945, Andrews was suddenly ordered to southern France and put aboard the USS Mount Vernon, an ocean liner bought by the Navy to move troops.

It was bound for the Pacific.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was going home,” he said. “But the captain of the ship said, ‘We’re going to the South Pacific, and we’re going to end this damn war.’”

What Andrews and others didn’t know is that a year after D-Day, several B-29 Superfortress bombers had landed on Tinian, a Northern Pacific island captured with Guam and Saipan in the island-hopping campaign. Tom Ferebee, born and raised in North Carolina, was the bombardier of one of the bombers named Enola Gay. The plane would carry the world’s first atomic bomb to Japan on Aug. 6, 1945, and it was Ferebee’s job to aim the 9,000-pound uranium-235 bomb named “Little Boy” at the city of Hiroshima.

A second bomb was needed – dropped on Nagasaki – three days later to force Japan’s unconditional surrender.

That day, Aug. 9, the Mount Vernon was on its second day of cruising toward the Pacific. It abruptly changed course. “The captain came on the public address system and stated: ‘Now hear this, now hear this: We are headed for New York City,’” Andrews said. “‘The war is over; Japan has surrendered.’

“We cheered. We cried and hugged each other. It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

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A fear of forgetting

A year ago, I wrote this:

“All these men and other World War II veterans I’ve interviewed came home after the war and got on with their lives. They went to work and contributed to the postwar baby boom. As a group, they are gracious, humble men – grateful for the attention.

Many rarely talked about the war, unless they were prodded. Never did they brag about the audacious courage they showed during those months in Europe (and other parts of the world) as young men.

Yet all these years later, their battles are etched in memory – images that make them appreciate all the more their lives at home.”

Now, as they lose their final battle – against time – they worry that later generations will forget what they did for the world.

“People are prone to forget, and we don’t teach history like we should,” Wally Duncan said. “Seventy years ago, we thought we’d fought the last war. But look at what has happened since. If we don’t remember the past, the same mistakes will keep happening.” David Perlmutt