This Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of the beaches of Normandy, France in Operation Overlord during World War II. Codenamed Operation Neptune and often referred to as D-Day, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history.
On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which, “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. The cost in lives on D-Day was high. More than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded, but their sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 Soldiers to begin the slow, hard slog across Europe, to defeat Adolf Hitler’s troops.
Former Effie resident, the late Donald Anderson, was in the U.S. Army serving with medical troops in 1944. At 23 years old, Anderson served with the 4th Infantry Division, when the Normandy Invasion was carried out and he landed on Utah Beach.
Anderson had an old folded letter on lightweight air mail paper which he had written to his mother one year after D-Day. Anderson’s daughter, Sandy Evensen, of Cohasset, provided a copy of that letter (first published in the Western Itascan Review WIR newspaper on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994).
The letter reads as follows:
“A year has gone by now since the invasion of Normandy. I never have been able to tell my full story of it before, but now the censorship rules have been lifted.
“It actually started for us early in the spring of 1944. We went on two big practice maneuvers on the English Channel and landed on English shores. These maneuvers were on a big scale and so real that we were never absolutely sure whether we were going back to England or on to the German held shores of Europe. We had all our equipment and everything with us, it was just as real as a simulated exercise could be.
“About the middle of May we left our friends at Tiverton and were put in a marshalling area near the coast. We called this place a ‘concentration camp’ because we were not allowed to leave the grounds or talk to anyone. Those restrictions were necessary, of course, for security reasons. While in this marshalling area we waterproofed our trucks and vehicles so they would not drown out even if driven under water. Otherwise, we had very little to do - just sat around and waited.
“Finally, we were called into the mess hall and briefed. The briefing officer opened with words something like this, ‘I want you men to know that this is not a dry run. This is it, the big show. We are going to play an important role in the invasion and our job is a difficult one. The orders from Supreme Headquarters are that the beaches will be taken at all costs, we will not turn back.’ Then he went on to tell us more details about how deep the water would be, the kind of obstacles the Germans had installed there to prevent us getting ashore and just about how the beach would look. The ship’s crew that was to carry this particular group across the channel was present at this briefing also. I will never forget the look of astonishment and anxiety on one young sailor’s face. He was just a kid, maybe 17 or 18, and the news that he was to take part in the invasion really scared the poor boy. Most of us expected it though, and accepted it with serious, silent thoughts.
“Then on June 2nd or 3rd we loaded on trucks and drove to Dartsmouth where we boarded ship. I was on an LST, down in the hold or tank deck as it is called on these ships. We stayed in the harbor until evening and then shoved off to sea, bidding England a last farewell. As we advanced to sea, more and more ships joined our convoy, and at last it was a mighty fleet. I was on the lead ship, the first to set sail for the invasion. Later on, a big naval ship took over the lead, but ours still held the record as being the first to start. While at sea, there were constant alerts for air raids, U-boats, E-boats and floating mines cut loose by the mine sweepers. We encountered no trouble with any of these however. While on ship we just strolled around the crowded decks in the day time and slept down below at night. Everyone was sweating out the crossing and what we were getting into when we hit shore.
“We wondered, too, what our own individual reactions would be under fire. The invasion was scheduled for June 5th but word came down that it had been postponed 24 hours. We turned back towards safer shores and milled around until it was time to start again.
“On June 5th they told us to go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep. No one felt like sleeping though with such big things about to happen. The ships pulled in about 11 a.m. and anchored several miles off shore. We went on deck and watched the aerial bombardment which started at midnight. Then about two hours before dawn, the naval guns started their barrages. It was a noisy and flashy sight, all those guns firing into the darkness. During this time, the airborne troops were already parachuting down but, of course, we would not see that. Just before daylight the small landing craft from our ship were dropped down and the Seabees went off with their demolition charges. We watched them go with a hope in our hearts and a prayer on our lips for their safety and successful completion of their mission. About the same time, our own Infantry troops were loading on landing craft from other ships. For a while the channel seemed full of crowded landing craft and then they were off.
“About 10 a.m., the big barge that we had towed across the channel was brought around to the front of our ship and secured. The big gaping doors opened up and vehicles drove off the ship onto the barge. It felt funny riding down a gangplank from a ship to a raft with only the sea around you. It was rough that day, too, but we finally got loaded and started for shore. Our barge was equipped with outboard motors but a large landing craft took us in tow or we never would have got there. As it was it was almost mid-afternoon when we landed. Enroute to shore we saw our first battle casualties, lifeless bodies floating around in life belts. Victims of ships less fortunate than ours that never reached shore.
“We kept telling ourselves and hoping that the beaches would be secured when we got in and that we would meet no opposition. We watched artillery shells explode all along the beach though, and even before we got off the barge, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Our truck was the first off this barge and a bulldozer towed us to assure us not getting stalled in the four foot deep water.
“The tide had gone out and the beach was littered with grounded landing craft and ships as well as trucks and tanks that had been knocked out by enemy guns. As we drove out of the water, shells started falling all around us so we stopped the truck (next time we will know better and keep moving) and sought safety behind a big landing ship. We felt excited but not really scared as we hovered on the wet sand against the ship. If we had known that the ship was loaded to the rails with demolitions and ammunition we no doubt would have felt less safe. As we lay there a piece of shrapnel cut my pant leg and left a black and blue mark on my leg but didn’t really hurt me any.
“When we went back towards our truck, I saw black liquid pouring from underneath. We first thought it was oil but discovered that a piece of shrapnel had torn a gaping hole in the radiator and it was coolant running out. Some of us took off on foot across the beach and others went on in the truck, now without a cooling system.
“Shells were still falling and thick, as we ran across the beach towards the sea wall. About halfway there another fellow and I worked on our first battle casualty. He had been hit by shrapnel in the arm and had a broken leg. As we stopped and started to render first aid he pleaded with us to leave him there, protesting that we would be wounded or killed too if we stopped. We had our job to do though and applied some hasty dressings and carried him to an aid station set up in a pillbox on the edge of the beach.”
Interviewed 50 years later, Anderson told of how he remembered some of the first bloody casualties he saw: “It was hard to handle and you got lightheaded, but after a little bit you hardened to it. Some people we could help and some were beyond help but we had to do what we could.”
He said, “A doctor that I had previously had was hit directly by one of those artillery shells and killed on the spot; just blew him up. I knew the man very, very well, a captain and a very fine fellow.
“One individual that I helped treat about four or five days after D-Day was a paratrooper who dropped in with a parachute and broke his leg when falling right into enemy territory. It was night and he ripped his parachute up, crawled into a brushy wood and laid there for five days. He had one day’s ration and a canteen of water. When he was found, he was real weak. They called for medical help and I went over there. His leg was badly broken, his upper leg was off to the side and very swollen. He was in pain; I gave him a shot of morphine and it was one time I could see morphine really go to work. In 10 minutes he wanted to sit up. I put a splint on his leg. He had lain there five days, kept quiet and watched the Germans come and go and when the Americans got there he let them know he was there. We had good field hospitals later, but the first day or two there was nothing available.”
“As I looked around now, I saw a little depression in the ground and in it lay the bodies of several dead American soldiers. Others lay here and there all over the beach amongst burned and wrecked equipment. Some were only wounded so we went to work on these men. We worked there an hour or two applying dressings, giving morphine shots and carrying the wounded to the aid station. It was loose seashore sand and it was really a job carrying a man very far on a litter. I suppose we tried to hurry and work ourselves out faster than we should have. All this time the Germans kept pouring 88s in at us.
“We went on up behind the sea wall and as soon as a few trucks got back there, the shells started coming in there, too. That showed the Germans had observers giving the gunners the targets. We all had shovels or some kind of a tool and started digging foxholes or trenches between the patients. Three of us spied a nice long, deep trench and when the next shell started whistling in we dove into it. Now this trench was not built for shelter but had been used for another ‘essential’ purpose. The odor was far from pleasant, but the trench gave such wonderful protection that we wouldn’t leave it. We had no more than sought shelter in this trench when a big barrage started and we laid down in it flat on our bellies with our noses buried in the bottom. These shells were all dropping very close and one hit just away from the edge of our trench, and the concussion almost got us. I called to the boys in there with me to see if they were alright, but only one fellow answered. I shook the other fellow and finally he mumbled that he did not know if he was hurt or not. It was just the blast though and he was OK in a few minutes. We were almost afraid to look around when we climbed out of our little shelter, thinking that surely some or maybe all the rest of our detachment may have been wiped out. Everyone was OK though, so we took care of those who had been less fortunate and then moved off the beach entirely toward our new CP.
“A truck had taken our truck in tow so we were now on foot and had a lot of equipment to carry. The traffic was heavy, all going inland, so we started walking down the ditch. Then someone shouted, ‘Get the --- out of that ditch, it is full of mines!’ We obliged and started walking again and finally got a ride on a snowbuggy and trailer. When we got to the CP, General Roosevelt pulled in behind us. He had come in with the first waves in the morning and was dead tired. He strolled around with his cane, bareheaded and praising the courage of his men. He was really a character as well as a leader.”
In June 1994, Anderson remembered Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., son of the former president. He was the first general officer on land, according to Anderson, and he went in with the first wave.
“At the CP, we had time to think back at what we had just been through. We were not so scared while it was going on, but now when we looked back we couldn’t quite understand how our little group got across the beach without one or all of us becoming casualties. Men were being hit all around us, but somehow we escaped. The only answer was that God was looking especially after us that day and I think every man thanks Him for his watchful care that night.”
A week before his interview with the WIR in 1994, Anderson said he received a call from someone with a heavy accent who asked, “Is this Sgt. Donald D. Anderson from Effie, Minnesota?”
“I told him this was Don Anderson but it’s a long time since I’ve been a sergeant,” said Anderson.
The caller was from Australia and told Anderson he was an 11-year-old boy and in London when the city was being bombed and children were being taken out so they would not be killed. The man had been evacuated and remembered being surrounded by the 4th Division troops and one man named Donald was good to these children, buying them candy and playing games with them. The caller could not recall the last name of this “Donald” and the only ID the caller remembered was the tattoo of an eagle the man had on his chest.
He asked Anderson how he could go about finding this man. Anderson told him the soldier may not have come back but the caller intends to continue trying.
Don Anderson passed away in January 2000 - living 55 years after that fateful day on June 6, 1944.