CARY, N.C. — During the Battle of Normandy, the U.S. Army sent young Pfc. Jim Sansom ashore at Omaha Beach not in a tank, but in an ambulance. His only weapons were basic medical supplies.
It was D-plus-5, five days after the initial invasion of June 6, 1944, when Sansom and other medics with the 110th Infantry Regiment, part of the 28th Infantry Division, drove up the blood-stained beach in the wake of what remains one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history. Just days before, more than 150,000 troops – delivered by more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft – had poured onto 50 miles of beaches in Normandy to try to wrest control of France from German forces in World War II.
This year, a local group wants to add a new memory to what local veterans recall about their service during World War II: a trip to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Normandy.
“It’s never too late to say ‘Thank you,’ ” said Sunny Johnson, who with a handful of others is trying to raise money and find Triangle-area veterans and “guardians” to make the trip. Johnson, Laura Cash and Ryan Combs all worked on the Triangle Flights of Honor that took more than 800 World War II vets to see their memorial in Washington from 2009 to 2012.
Like those trips, the journey to Bedford – including the chartered bus trip, meals and a night in a hotel – would be to free to veterans. The group will arrange for medical personnel and other helpers but would like for each veteran to be accompanied by his or her own guardian, who would pay their own way.
“We’d like that to be a family member, someone who could share that memory with the veteran,” Johnson said.
The group will need about $30,000 to take about 100 veterans and their guardians.
While all veterans can apply for the trip through the group’s website, www.operationomaha.org, if the project doesn’t raise enough money to take everybody who asks to go, Johnson said preference will be given to those who served in the June 6, 1944, assault or came ashore at Normandy in the first 30 days afterward.
No one knows how many veterans of the campaign survive. Of the more than 16 million U.S. troops who served in World War II, fewer than 1.7 million remain, and they’re in their late 80s and 90s. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 29,000 World War II veterans are living in North Carolina.
Others from around the state are expected to make the trip to Bedford, where the D-Day memorial opened on June 6, 2001.
April Cheek-Messier, president of the memorial foundation’s board of directors, said she expects 8,000 to 10,000 visitors for the 70th anniversary weekend events, which will include recognition of all veterans in attendance, a military flyover, a jump by the Golden Knights parachute team, oral history stations where veterans can record their stories, a reunion tent where they can sign up and connect with others who served in their units, and a bus parade through the town of Bedford where the streets will be lined with people who appreciate the value of military service.
Connections to battle
Most of the people of Bedford still have a connection to the Battle of Normandy, Cheek-Messier said. Many of the town’s young men served in the same infantry unit during the war, and 30 or so were sent to Normandy. Nineteen died on the first day of the assault, and four more, including two from different infantry companies, were killed later in the campaign. In proportion to the town’s 1944 population of about 3,200, Bedord’s loss in the Normandy invasion is thought to be the highest per capita in the nation.
Today, 50,000 to 75,000 people come to the town each year to visit the memorial, which includes a listing of the names of the 2,499 Americans known to have died in the attack before midnight on June 6, along with the names of 1,914 Allied troops who perished.
Sansom worried he might be killed, too, as the landing craft that carried his ambulance headed for the beach on June 11, 1944.
Once the boat hit the beach, Sansom saw the tangles of barbed wire that had ensnared the first waves of troops and the empty German pillboxes on the shoreline, but he had no time to stop. The group moved quickly inland and headed for their first assignment: a captured German field hospital in the Cherbourg peninsula to prep injured prisoners to be sent to southern England.
From there, Sansom was sent back south to Sainte Mere-Eglise, which had been liberated from German control, to work in a field hospital for Allied casualties.
He and the other medics worked 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., handling 20 to 30 patients a night, most that had to be carried on stretchers from place to place.
“They were liable to be wounded anywhere: stomach, legs, all over,” he recalls. At 92, he can still remember the motion of pulling soldiers’ broken legs to help a doctor set the bones in place.
After about six weeks, Sansom recalls, the unit packed up their tent and moved it about 10 miles southeast, following the combat troops as they gained ground on their way toward Paris.
From there, he says, they were sent to set up another hospital, this time in a school building south of the German city of Aachen. That was in October.
He spent Thanksgiving posted at a farmhouse with 10 riflemen from the 28th near Luxembourg, and was still there on Dec. 16 when the Germans launched the Ardennes offensive, later called the Battle of the Bulge. German troops had been staying in the woods 600 to 700 yards from the farmhouse, Sansom said. That day, they launched mortars at the house, and then machine-gun fire.
“A couple of bullets broke the window of the room where I was staying” and ricocheted inside the room, Sansom said.
One of the men was shot in the head and killed. The rest were left with no way to communicate with their unit. They set up in the loft of the barn, where they fired at German soldiers they could see.
The next morning, German troops found the men in the loft and took them prisoner.
Sansom was taken first to German field hospitals where he helped tend to patients. He was later taken to a prison camp at Limburg, and then to one at Bad Orb.
His most potent memory of prison camps is of being cold and hungry; at Bad Orb, 12 men were given a loaf of bread to share each day, and each one got about a quart of thin soup. U.S. troops liberated the camp on April 2, 1945.
Sansom, a native of Evanston, Ill., had trained as a medic at Camp Butner and was sent to Fort Bragg when he returned from Europe. He got out of the Army in 1945, married a North Carolina girl and stayed here.
He eventually went to work in the composing room at The News & Observer. In the 1960s, he helped launch the Raleigh Rescue Mission.
Sansom has always liked to travel, on vacations with his family as a kid and on his own as a teenager, when he hitch-hiked all over the country.
“I’d go to Bedford to see the memorial” if the trip can be arranged, he said. “I was always somewhat adventuresome.”