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Centenarian WWII vet recalls Normandy coast: ‘War is horrible’

Soldiers in cargo vehicles move onto a beach in Normandy during the Allied Invasion of Europe, D-Day, June 6, 1944. After fierce fighting, the Allies established a foothold in northern France.

The Fifth Armored Division of the U.S. Army was the first unit to break through German lines in France and land on German-held soil during World War II.

Patrick Bowman should know. As a captain with the Fifth, the Pennsylvania native landed on Utah Beach in France after D-Day in 1944.

"It was a difficult landing, believe me," he said. "We lost a lot of men, but that is what wars are all about."

At the Normandy coast, the gliders were the first to go in, Bowman recalled, then the paratroopers, then the infantry. Unloading tanks and trucks for the invasion was a difficult and dangerous job, he explained.

"War is horrible - I don't care what anybody says," Bowman said. "But it's like General (George S.) Patton said, 'If you don't kill the other guy, he'll kill you.'

"All we did was a lot of shooting. We found a lot of dead people - from both sides - laying along the road. I remember scolding one guy because he moved the leg (of one of the dead soldiers) into a bent position, and he said to me, 'I just wanted him to look more comfortable, Captain.'"

Born in Derry Township - before it was actually Hershey, he said - and a 1932 graduate of Cornwall High School, Bowman turned 100 years old on Sept. 1. He now lives with his wife of 75 years, Dorothy, at Elmcroft in Lebanon, Pa. They are the parents of five children and have several grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Initially drafted into the Army, Bowman ended his war years as a major. He served in the Army from 1941 to 1949.

"I was promoted from time to time," he explained. "But that's a long, drawn-out process."

After basic training at Fort Belvoir, Va., Bowman set sail on a troop ship bound for Camp Chiseldon, England. He saw combat in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany.

At the time he was inducted into the Army, Bowman was already married and the parent of one child. He worked as a manager for the F.W. Woolworth Co., a position his superiors took note of when they needed a managerial type to aid in the occupation of Germany after the war.

As a new recruit, Bowman was trained in the Mojave Desert, Tennessee and in New York.

"We did a lot of training," he said. "We had to learn combat with machine guns, with rifles, ... and once we were stationed in England, we had six months of training to invade Europe."

Bowman's commanding officer was Gen. Lunsford Oliver, and Oliver's superior was Patton, commander of the Third Army. In particular, Bowman recalled the Battle of the Bulge, fought in Belgium in late 1944 and early 1945.

"At 5:30 in the morning, the artillery shells began to fall; we didn't know what was going on," he said. "Those were dangerous days."

Stationed in England, American soldiers getting ready to invade France were told to exchange their shillings and pounds for "invasion francs," Bowman said.

"When we got ready to land in France, we were to use invasion francs, and I helped the finance officers that were doing this," he said. "The men turned in their money before they were to get on an invasion ship, but many were pressed for time and had to leave before they got their francs, so here I was stuck with a large amount of francs - and they weren't mine. So I went to the division commander to ask him what to do, and he said, 'Bowman, it's your problem.'"

Bowman solved that problem by stuffing little moleskin pouches with the francs and filling his coat pockets with them before the invasion. Once again on land, the soldiers would look for him to get their francs.

"Every once in a while a hedgerow would part, and someone would say, 'Hey, Captain, I gave you some money,' and I got most of it, not all but most of it, given back to them," he boasted.

Once the war ended, there was still much work for the armed forces to do, Bowman said.

"After the war came the big, big job of occupation in the captured lands," he said. "It wasn't easy to occupy a country."

Because he had managed a store, Bowman was put in charge of opening post exchanges for the troops after the war.

"They wanted that done wherever we had troops, and there were millions of men; it was an imposing job," he said.

When American troops entered a village, the first order of business was getting rid of any arms that could be used by a sniper, Bowman said. All the citizens had to turn over their weapons. Once confiscated, it was a simple matter to get rid of all the firearms.

"We laid their weapons across the curbing and ran our tanks over all of them," he recalled.

While destroying weapons was a necessary precaution, it also made it nearly impossible for the villagers to hunt game, Bowman added.

"And they were very hungry," he said. "Just like in the U.S., all their efforts went into waging war. They had nothing left. Their factories were bombed out, and there was very little food - if you can just imagine what a conquered country looked like."

Bowman wasn't always on the front lines but commanding from various headquarters, he said.

"We liberated quite a few of the men in concentration camps, but I personally wasn't in on any of that," he said. "I know they were taken to hospitals and given meals."

Bowman did observe some of the Nuremberg Trials, military tribunals meant to prosecute German leaders after the war, he said.

"A lot of sadness goes with wartime," he said. "Some bodies were never returned."

The Fifth Armored was also the first unit to liberate Luxembourg, Bowman said. He recalled that, when the Germans were close to capturing that country, the heads of the government, including royalty, fled to England.

"When we got close to liberating them, Gen. (Dwight D.) Eisenhower gave orders for them to return, so they could run their own country," he said.

At a dinner held in Millersville, Lancaster County, years after the war, Bowman met the current Luxembourg ambassador, and the two reminisced about the war.

The ambassador told Bowman his father had been captured by the Germans and was made to work in a German factory until he escaped to the mountains, where he managed to survive until the end of the war.

"In Luxembourg they treated us very well," Bowman said. "But what else could they do? We were the occupiers; we were the liberators."

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