West Virginians on D-Day

Times-West Virginian
June 5, 1994

'I saw hundreds of boys dying that day. God was with me'

By Debra Minor Wilson

They say D-Day really began in 1942 when the first American soldier landed in England for training.

For Pricketts Creek native Arnold Vincent, D-Day began in March 1942 when he was drafted, months after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

"A lot of people from Marion County were being drafted," he says. "They took everybody."

At the time, he was 30 and working at Alcan Aluminum in Fairmont.

"I chose the 82nd infantry," he recalls. He's a spry gent, slight in build, but always with a twinkle in his eye.

"I wanted to try the Airborne because I wanted to try the gliders. They told me, 'You'll go.' So now I'm a life member of the 101st Airborne."

Such a modest statement. He neglects to add that the 101st is also known as the Screaming Eagles, one of two U.S. paratrooper units to land first on the Normandy countryside. The other is the 82nd, All-American.

Beside fighting in Normandy, Vincent was in the major battles of Ardennes, Rheinland, Central Europe. He has received the Good Conduct Medal, Bronze Star, Distinguished Unit Badge, Europe/Africa/Middle East service ribbon, American Theater service ribbon and World War II Victory Ribbon.

He was with the first wave that landed on Utah Beach.

"God was with me that day," he says softly. "I never even got scratched. I just took things as they came. But I saw hundreds of boys dying or wounded that day."

Before embarking for England, he received basic training at Fort Hayes, Ohio; Camp Claiborne, La., and Fort Bragg, N.C. He arrived in England in October 1943, one of more than one million American G.I.s participating in Operation Overlord.

"I trained for nine months before I saw combat," he says.

He became leader of the machine gun squad of Company B, 327th Glider Infantry, 101st Airborne. He would leave the force in 1945 as a staff sergeant.

"I was stationed at Reading, England. It was a nice enough place, if you could dodge the bombs.

"There were thousands of Americans over there. The British loved us. They couldn't do enough for us. But the people in Holland appreciated us the most. They called us their liberators."

The English invited the Yanks into their homes for dinner, but Vincent says they were told not to go.

"They didn't have all that much food and we were paid a lot more than they were. Besides, the U.S. government was giving us everything we wanted to eat!"

Like most military men, he has a few tales to tell of his time overseas.

His only Christmas in England was cold and snowy.

"We'd gotten some turkey for the holiday and I was starting to eat mine. I'd gotten me a turkey leg. Well, it was around midnight and wouldn't you know it, they started shelling us.

"I had to drop my holiday turkey in the snow near my fox hole. The next day, I remembered it and decided to eat it. It was frozen, but did it taste good!"

Although the invasion was to be a cooperative effort involving several nations, Vincent and his buddies trained exclusively with fellow Americans.

And according to Vincent, the soldiers knew what was going to take place.

"They told us what was going to happen. We took oaths not to tell.

We knew we wouldn't be in England for long; we knew we were going to France. "We knew where but not exactly when. There were rumors, but no one knew for sure. Or at least they weren't telling us.

"They had tables set up, models of the coast of France, made of sand. They showed us exactly where we'd land.

"They must have been afraid someone would go over the hill, because they had armed guard[s] every five or six feet. But no one did."

As June 1944 approached, the men were taken to a staging area, where huge landing crafts and landing ships were being loaded with soldiers, equipment and tanks. He recalls this with a laugh. "At the staging area, they fed us all we could eat. We joked about it, saying we were being fed for the slaughter!"

One night, he and his buddies had a very special visitor.

General Dwight D. Elsenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force and later President of the United States, was meeting with the men one last time before they left.

"He shook hands with everybody, or tried to. He shook my hand. He was a kind commander."

"We didn't think of coming home. We knew without a doubt that God would let us come home."

Activities began stepping up. The men sensed the something big they'd been training for was near.

It was.

It was Monday, June 5, 1944. A storm was whipping the Normandy coast, churning the English channel. Allied weather forecasters predicted the storm would break. Eisenhower had to decide: to go or stay.

He decided to go.

So Vincent, along with thousands of other American and Allied soldiers, shipped out for France. They were part of the largest armada in military history, before or since. They were going to defeat Hitler's Nazi soldiers.

"I don't remember how long it took us to cross the channel," he says. Time, age and happier memories have blurred some memories for him and other D-Day veterans.

He and the other 30 or so men in his machine gun squadron loaded into the Higgins assault boat that would take them to Utah Beach. Utah was the first assault area in the American sector and formed the right flank of the invasion area that swept on east along the coastline of the Bay of Seine.

Each carried up to 70 pounds or more of equipment, supplies and artillery. Many drowned in the churning waves of the ocean.

Others drowned within sight of the beaches when their assault boats sank.

"They dropped the front end of the assault boat and we marched into the waves," Vincent recalls. "I marched smack dab into a shell hole! Almost went under. The water was very rough; I almost drowned. I did lose my gun in the water."

There was "a lot of fighting going on. The parachuters had gone in first. There was all kinds of noise. We got bombed in the water. Balloons (blimps) were keeping the German plan[e]s from coming in too close."

This factory worker got his first taste of the horrors of war on Utah Beach.

"There was lost of dead boys there on the beach, I'm sorry to say. I never could figure out where we went to on the beach. We had to keep a watch out for those German machine guns.

"We had no real objective, except to fight. Getting my men to the top of the ridge was my objective. Men were falling everywhere. We didn't lose too many in our outfit.

"We were all trying to survive. What else could you do? Those crickets (small metal clickers given to soldiers) were no good. The Germans would hear a click and shoot you."

He's quiet now, gazing out the picture window of his attractive home on East Grafton Road. A deer appears on the ridge across the road, and he watches her delicately prance across the field. His wife Grace watches him silently, knowing that he's remembering and needs some time.

"I lost a very good friend, from Grafton, name of Kirby. He died in a bayonet fight with a German one cold night. He's buried in the old National Cemetery in Grafton."

The ridge he mentioned was only about half a mile away, but he says it took him and his men a couple of hours to reach it.

"We started fanning out then, and everything broke lose. It was rough. Tanks had trouble getting from the ships to the beach, and some sank. Assault ships were sinking and men were drowning.

"There was heavy fire and light fire; machine guns and artillery and shelling."

By the end of June 6, the 101st had secured its objective (the beach exits) but had had 1300 casualties, with two-thirds of its men scattered and unaccounted for.

The whir of an occasional car on the road is the only sound heard in the room now. Arnold Vincent is silent, remembering events half a century ago that have stayed with him, that will never leave him. There are no more jokes or smiles; the awfulness of D-Day is washing over him once again.

He clears his throat and continues.

"But you know, I made it all the way through the war without a single scratch," he says brightly., "That's amazing. God was watching over me, that's the truth. I've never even had to apply for disability."

He lays a pocket-size New Testament Bible on the table, its brown leather cover worn at the corners, its delicate thin paper yellowing with age. Tapping it with his index finger, he says this is what protected him. Through Normandy. Through the Bastogne. Through all of World War II.

"This was given to me by the pastor of the church I was attending when I was drafted. I carried it with me always. And I was given this prayer, a prayer to St. Joseph." It reads:

"O, St. Joseph, whose protection is so efficacious and whose success before the throne of God is so prompt, I place in your blessed hands all my hopes, confidence in you, all my interests."

At the bottom of the page is added, "All who carried a copy of this prayer in the Civil War and World War I retur[n]ed without injury."

And a few from World War II, too.

Military and Wartime