New York D-Day vets recount their story
PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — The ranks of those who survived one of America’s most monumental military events ever are getting smaller and smaller each year.
But there are still people alive who were there on that “Day of Days” 70 years ago on the coast of France, where nearly 200,000 soldiers took part in the greatest military invasion ever.
They’ve got a story to tell. And what a story it is.
“I wouldn’t want to have missed it for the world, but I wouldn’t want to do it all over again,” D-Day veteran Henry Gurney told the Press-Republican during a recent interview at American Legion Post 83 in his hometown of Whitehall, about 25 miles south of Ticonderoga.
Gurney, 89, was part of the American Army’s Second Division, which landed at Omaha Beach on June 7, otherwise known as D-Plus 1.
Many historical accounts of D-Day portray the combat ending on the beachheads by mid-afternoon of June 6, but that was not the case.
“There was still a lot of action going on, and the beach got crowded quickly,” Gurney recalled.
His unit was dropped about 200 yards off shore, in water up to his neck. With about 50 pounds of gear on, Gurney said, it was all he could do to keep his head above water and make it to land.
When he got there, the 19-year-old private took cover behind an iron criss-crossed structure designed to slow down craft and soldiers from invading. The obstacles were known as “Rommel’s asparagus,” after Germany’s notorious Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was in charge of protecting the French coast for the occupying Germans.
“When I was behind that thing, I could feel the bullets pinging off that metal,” Gurney said.
“We were in a crossfire of machine guns.”
One bullet tore through the right sleeve of his jacket, making his heart jump.
One remembers the strangest things from combat.
“I remember a German bomber flying overhead real slow, and no one was shooting at it,” he said.
“We could see the German insignia clear as day, but no one shot at it. I couldn’t figure it out.”
The rest of his time on the beach was extremely chaotic and hectic, and death was all around.
“We lost 3,000 men on Omaha Beach. If the people back home had any idea of how many casualties we had, there would have been an uproar, and people would be demanding that we stop fighting,” Gurney said.
“That was the price we had to pay, but we didn’t know it at the time.”
Gurney eventually made his way off the beach and to the Carantan Peninsula. His unit’s objective was to make their way to the coastal town of Brest, a submarine base for the Germans, and to liberate it.
On their way, a soldier tripped a land mine, causing a German hand grenade known as a “potato masher” to launch into the air above Gurney and his comrades.
They all hit the ground.
“It landed with a thud right near us, but never went off. If was a dud, thank God.”
That wasn’t the only lucky moment for Gurney that trip.
Near St. Lo, Gurney got hit with a sniper bullet right in the middle of his helmet.
“It went through my helmet, through the helmet liner and out the back,” he said.
“It must have been on an angle because it only scratched me a little.”
Gurney was confused by the shocked looks on his buddies’ faces, but he didn’t realize anything had happened until he felt the trickle of blood roll down his face.
He wiped his minor wound with a handkerchief, put a bandage on his head and moved on.
“I didn’t get a Purple Heart for that because there was no record of the injury,” he said.
“All the guys wanted to know why I wasn’t dead.”
Gurney kept his bullet-riddled helmet as a good-luck charm, but a few weeks later he would not be so lucky anymore.
A high-explosive mortar round blew up near him, knocking a big chunk of his helmet off by his right ear. He suffered a serious head would and was taken off the field and eventually to a hospital in England.
But even his trip to the hospital was eventful.
“I was a scout, and they had given us camouflage uniforms, which were new at the time. When they put me on the ship to go back to England, nobody had ever seen a camouflage uniform before, so they thought I was a German,” Gurney explained.
“So they put me in the cargo hold of the ship with all of the German prisoners.”
Gurney thought it was strange that he didn’t recognize any of the soldiers he was put with or their uniforms, until he noticed a soldier standing on the stairs, looking down at him.
It was Russ Norton, an old friend from Whitehall.
Norton took him out of the hold and brought him up to the hospital unit topside.
“I got a bed with a nice mattress and a hot meal, all because of Russ,” Gurney said.
The head wound ended Gurney’s time in France as part of D-Day, but his combat career would pick up again that November in Belgium.
He was sent to a replacement depot in Bastogne, the town made famous in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I had Thanksgiving dinner in Bastogne,” he said.
Little did he know that about three weeks later, the Germans would mount a last-ditch offensive there to drive the allies back. Gurney spent the Battle of the Bulge with the 104th Division in the Hurtgen Forest getting pounded by mortar fire and freezing.
“The trees were exploding everywhere,” he said.
“We had these winter coats, but if they got wet, you froze and they became so heavy.”
He eventually made it to Germany, where his unit got into a scrape with a larger German outfit near the Elbe River.
Gurney was a machine-gunner who kept up fire while his unit escaped.
“I kept hosing them to try to just keep them down so our guys could get away,” he recalled.
“I would run back, turn around and fire a burst or two and do it again. It was a .30 caliber, and you could fire it from the hip. Then a guy got me with a lucky shot in the stomach.”
The bullet tore through his uniform and tobacco pouch and bent his belt buckle. It also caused a serious wound in his stomach.
That act of bravery ended the war for Gurney, who was sent to an Army hospital on Long Island to recover.
“The Germans surrendered when I was in the hospital, and everyone was very happy.”
He was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions that day near the Elbe River.
Ken Kirkey of Massena was also at Normandy 70 years ago.
Kirkey and his unit of 42 other soldiers parachuted in the night of June 4 to set up drop zones for the paratroopers who would be floating in the night before D-Day.
“The general came to us and told us he had a very dangerous mission for us and if anyone didn’t want to go, they didn’t have to,” Kirkey said in an interview conducted by Mike Magilligan of SUNY Canton for the Veterans Living History project for the Library of Congress.
“Of course, we all said we would go.”
His plane got hit, and Kirkey was the last one out, but he was way off course. Of the 27 drop zones they were to set up, only nine appeared to have worked.
Kirkey was eventually taken prisoner by the Germans at St. Lo on June 11.
“The Americans did not take St. Lo until July 19, so that shows you just how far inland we were,” he said.
Charlie Alexander of Canton was also at Normandy on D-Day.
He landed on the beaches and helped carry wounded soldiers back to transport ships during the fighting.
“At first, you are very scared, but then you get used to it,” Alexander recalled in his interview.
“You get calloused to it, I guess.”
Alexander remembers walking on a transport and spotting a German officer on a stretcher with an impeccable uniform.
The officer called out to Alexander, who turned around, expecting to answer a fellow American. But he didn’t see any. He turned back, and the guy called out again.
“I turned around, and he (a German officer) was looking right at me,” Alexander said.
The officer spoke perfect English, Alexander said; it turns out he had attended college in the United States and was a dentist for the German army.
“I spoke with that guy for about 20 or 30 minutes that day,” Alexander said.
The anniversary on Friday, June 6, will be celebrated with grand ceremonies in Normandy, with all of the government dignitaries, as it should be.
Gurney will be there to witness it.
If the trip is anything like the North Country Honor Flight that he and five other area veterans took to the World War II Memorial last September from Plattsburgh, Gurney will surely be moved.
“In Plattsburgh, they had huge crowds to send us off, military people and vehicles and an escort of motorcycles, and they all cheered for us.
“They did so much for us,” he said stifling his tears. “They really made us feel like heroes.”
Well, Henry, that’s what you and your buddies are.