- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2014

Herb Wood knew something big was about to happen when he saw a line of low-flying planes in the English sky above him.

Far from his home in Washington state, the 21-year-old had enlisted with the Army Air Corps after college and was assigned as a medic with the 371st Fighter Group, stationed in Hampshire, England.

Unbeknownst to him, hundreds of thousands of U.S., British and Canadian troops were preparing a massive incursion into Nazi-controlled France, to storm the beaches of the Normandy coast in the D-Day invasion that was a key turning point in World War II.

On June 5, 1944, Mr. Wood was working outside when he looked up and saw about 30 planes in a row.

“They turned right over me and went back right across the [English] Channel,” he told The Washington Times at his home at the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, Virginia. “It would be impossible [for the invasion] to have been any other day but tomorrow.”

He spent hours that day painting black-and-white stripes onto the planes’ bodies and wings.

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“The reason was so that they wouldn’t be confused with German planes,” he said. “You can see in old pictures, you know when the picture was taken because the plane either has black-and-white stripes or it doesn’t.”

Early the next morning, the planes joined Allied troops as they forced their way onto the French sand.

Mr. Wood said the men at his camp made it a point to monitor the “bomb line” on the map.

“We were interested how we were doing, where was the front,” he said. “We looked at the map, the black line, every day.”

That black line showed where the allies had pushed forward. The farther east, the better they were fighting.

The invasion, Mr. Wood said, “was not only well-planned, it was planned in great detail. It’s probably a masterpiece in planning in great detail.”

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Caught on a ‘hedgehog’

Getting more than 100,000 troops across the Atlantic Ocean was one hurdle, but bringing them ashore was another challenge.

The Allies used 36-foot-long flat-bottomed Higgins boats to ferry the troops to shore.

Charles “Buster” Shaeff Jr. was a Navy diesel mechanic, one of the men who kept those boats running. On June 6, he made three, six-hour round trips between the larger ships and the shoreline.

“We had a pretty good idea what was there and what we had to do,” Mr. Shaeff, an 88-year-old resident of Lynchburg, Virginia, said of his first trip inland. “As an 18-year-old, you don’t do a lot of thinking. You just follow orders.”

The boats were lowered into the water at about 3 a.m. June 6. In one of them, Mr. Shaeff took off with his crew and soldiers for the three-hour trip to shore.

“It was still dark. We couldn’t see a whole lot,” he said.

He dodged gunfire for three trips, bringing the men close enough to disembark before speeding the boat back out to sea. During the final trip at high tide, the boat sailed over a “hedgehog,” a large steel spike that ripped out the bottom of his boat.

The crew was close enough to shore to back off the hedgehog’s metal arms and beach the boat before hopping a ride back in another Higgins, Mr. Shaeff said.

“At 18 years old, you look around you and [you think] anything that’s going to happen is going to happen to someone else,” he said. “Fortunately, it did.”

Where’s Normandy?

When Carter Fisher and his shipmates got the news that they would be involved in the D-Day invasion, they hit the books instead of the deck.

“About six weeks before the invasion, they didn’t really tell us [details], but told us we’d be in Normandy,” said the 89-year-old resident of Warrenton, Virginia. “Because we didn’t study as well as we should have in school, everybody was asking, ‘Where is Normandy?’ We had to dig out some books and start studying.”

Mr. Fisher spent D-Day aboard the USS Arkansas, one of the older battleships in the Navy’s fleet.

Though he was assured by his more experienced shipmates when he joined that he wouldn’t see much action aboard the old ship, “we found out differently,” he said during a visit to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, about 20 minutes from his home.

At about 2 a.m. on June 6, the Arkansas anchored a mile off the coast of Normandy and waited three hours for the sun to rise.

The Arkansas provided cover for the troops that day by firing shells with a 15-mile range over the heads of the Allied invaders.

“We tried to do the best we could,” said Mr. Fisher, who was stationed below deck to help prepare and send up shells for firing.

“This ship was old. Everything was done the old method,” he said. “The new ships had hydraulics.”

His ship stayed offshore for four or five days, continuing to provide cover for ground troops as they moved inland, Mr. Fisher said.

“I think everybody expected to be there two or three days,” he said. “But you didn’t say anything about quitting.”

Like the movies

A massive invasion means a massive cleanup, and part of that job went to Raymond Anderson.

The Longville, Minnesota, native was 21 when he found himself part of a cutter crew with the Army, a team tasked with collecting and chopping up anything metallic left in the wake of the surging troops.

“There was a lot of equipment coming back,” the 91-year-old recalled, sitting in a chair at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northeast Washington. “My outfit took care of a lot of that stuff.”

Mr. Anderson joined the Civilian Conservation Corps after he graduated from high school because work was scarce. That was where he learned to cook, a skill that would prove useful.

“The service decided what you’re going to do at any one time, but you’re a fighting man first,” he said.

In the spring of 1944, Mr. Anderson boarded a ship bound for the British isles and ended up in Southampton. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he had no idea about the impending invasion.

“They never even let us know we were going overseas,” Mr. Anderson said. “Nobody said anything about nothing. Secrecy was the word of the day. I don’t think even our commander knew until the last minute.”

Mr. Anderson is quick to clarify that he was not on the front lines of the fighting. “I did what they asked, I did what they told me, I didn’t have to kill anybody.” But he said it was hard not to miss the sights and sounds of war.

“It’s the same thing like you see in the movies,” he said. “There were so many airplanes in the sky, you couldn’t imagine. The whole sky was filled with planes. It was a huge operation. Sometimes things were so loud, the noise drowned out the noise.”

‘Not just any day’

Several days after the invasion, Mr. Wood and his fellow men began the trip across the English Channel to Normandy.

When he arrived on the beach, he noticed that wrecked ships had been towed out to help break the waves.

“I wondered, ‘What happens next? Are we going to be all right?’” he said.

Mr. Wood said the beach was remarkably clean by the time his unit arrived. Some hedgehogs were still visible, but not much carnage.

“There was not a lot of hand-to-hand [combat],” he said. “Anything like that would leave a mark.”

Signs of war that remained included bomb craters in the fields.

“Some crew picked up all the body parts and the Germans ,” he said. “It left you with the impression it must have been a horrible place for people to be.”

A stench hung in the air, but its source was dead oxen on nearby farms caught in the crossfire, Mr. Wood said.

The troops made their way home or inland as the war progressed, and the Allies defeated Adolf Hitler.

“There was no other way to deal with Hitler except to get him out of Europe,” said Mr. Wood, 91. “It was an essential first step that had to be done. Everybody expected that. D-Day was not just any day.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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