A few weeks ago I was celebrating a friend’s birthday. It was just before Memorial Day and talk naturally drifted to Memorial Day types of things. It was during a conversation with one of the partygoers that I found out his mother’s boyfriend was part of the D-Day landings at Normandy. My friend was quite taken aback when I started jumping up and down with absolute glee asking if I could please get an introduction and talk to him. Not about the fact that he was dating at 90 years old but that he was part of the Normandy invasion.
Eventually I was able to grab an hour with Joe Brader to get a feeling for what it was like being part of such a significant chapter in history.
Before I get to Joe, I need to set the stage.
D-Day is a military term referring to the day on which, “combat attack or operation is to be initiated.” The most famous of these days is the day of the Normandy landings during WWII or “Operation Overlord.” Planning for this invasion began in 1943 at the Quebec Conference in Canada. Hitler’s armies had control over most of mainland Europe and the Allies knew that if they didn’t do something big to gain some control they would lose the war in Europe. Hitler would be expecting a big hit and he was on the lookout. The obvious choice would be an invasion at Calais, the shortest distance across the English Channel. The planning team instinctively knew that Hitler would be expecting a large-scale attack in this area so they chose to attack further south at Normandy.
At the planning table were commanders from the United States, Britain, and Canada. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed to be the Supreme Commander of the operation. That meant the proverbial buck stopped with him and with the planning of this mission there would be a lot of bucks! Just think about it. Not only do they need to plan the strategy of an invasion, there are hundreds if not thousands of logistics to work out. First, they have to figure out the transportation. How many people will they need? What in heavens name will they wear? Now, this may sound silly, but it’s something that needs to be thought through. Especially since they would be wearing the same clothes for an unknown period of time without the benefits of a good old Maytag.
Not only did this team need to plan the main invasion, but they also had to have a full plan to mislead the opposition. Thus, Operation Bodyguard was put into play. Set builders from the motion picture industry built full army bases complete with fake armies, planes and jeeps and set them up in England just across the channel from Calais. French resistance and German double agents helped to steer Hitler’s sight toward the pretend mission. And, of course, Enigma played a large roll in this so the Allies could “listen in” on the German plans and know that their ruse was working.
Then there were the battle logistics. Here are just a few choice ones to chew on:
- 156,000 Allied troops
- 5,000 ships and landing craft
- 50,000 vehicles (and with that must come all of the necessary accessories to make them run)
- 11,000 aircraft
- 13,000 paratroops (And parachutes. Mustn’t forget the parachutes.)
- 156,000 plus backpacks for the troops. Each of these weighed about 75 – 80 pounds and contained items like:
- Vomit bags (!)
- Anti-seasickness pills
- 200 francs of invasion currency (printed in the U.S.)
- French language guide (handy!)
- Paperback novel (I don't know the title(s) but how did they choose a novel that everyone would want to read?)
- Condoms (landing in France with high hopes?)
- Extra candy bars (awesome)
- An extra razor blade (I'm guessing packaged along side the condoms)
The original invasion was planned for June 5th, but poor weather scuttled the mission and plans resumed again on June 6th. (And this was tricky because the timing was based on the moon and tide cycles and if the bad weather persisted they would need to wait it out a few more weeks.) The operation happened in 5 phases:
12:00 AM: Phase 1 – Airborne Drop
1:00 AM – 4:00 AM: Phase 2 – Operation Bodyguard
3:00 AM – Phase 3 – Aerial Attack
5:00 AM – Phase 4 – Naval Attack
6:00 AM – Phase 5 – The Invasion
- 6:30 AM: Utah Beach – Led by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.
- 6:30 AM: Omaha Beach – Led by the US 1st Infantry Division
- 7:25 AM: Gold Beach – Led by the British 50th Infantry Division
- 7:25 AM: Sword Beach – Led by British 3rd Infantry Division
- 7:30 AM Pointe du Hoc – Led by 2nd Ranger Battalion
- 7:55 AM: Juno Beach – Led by Canadian 3rd Infantry Division
At the end of the day there were approximately 9,000 casualties (3,000 which may have been fatal.)
The stage is set. It’s a HUGE project. HUGE! There are a lot of parts and pieces and it’s going to be scary out there. For any project you can plan and plan and plan and there is always something that can go a bit awry. But I digress. On to Joe!
When I got on the phone with Joe, the first thing he asked me was if I had read the article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He was very disappointed to find out that I had not read the article (although I had heard about it.) The main theme of the article is about love. It talks about his upbringing. (Born and raised in St. Louis, MO.) Health scares as a child. (Joe has 9 lives.) D-Day. (I’ll get to that soon.) The bowling alley. (Where he worked, flirted, and was a bit of a lady’s man.) His wife. (Who has since passed away.) Until lastly we discover the one he rediscovered. (His current lady love whom he met at said bowling alley.)
To understand his experience you need understand Joe a little better. He dropped out of high school to work at the bowling alley, which was his fathers business. I suspect it had more to do with meeting girls than it had to do with having a job. On his 18th birthday, July 1943, he was called to serve his country. After some basic training at Camp Grant in Illinois, Joe was sent to become a Medic with the combat engineers building pontoon bridges. Before he knew it he was on a ship to Liverpool and then 12 days later he was on a landing craft headed for Normandy Beach, still only 18 years old. Below is his account (slightly edited):
I was supposed to land at noon on the 6th, but it was between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon when I landed on Utah beach.
We got on the boat on a Monday and I guess it was Sunday morning the Major, the doctor head of the first aid station, he took the whole crew, the 6 or 7 of us, out near the shade of a tree. He showed us snaps of the gun placements that the Germans had. He told us where we were landing and where we were going.
We didn’t think we were going to die.
We got on landing craft and stayed one day in dock. The next day we got in line. There was a whole line of landing crafts. Two rows as far as you could see in both directions. Mine was an LCT (Landing Craft Tank). There were 8 trucks behind me and I was in the jeep right at the front gate. We were 5 days on the water and it was storming. There were times the waves were so high that you would turn around and see nothing but water. And then you would get to the top and see the whole line of boats. It was pretty scary then.
As we were getting close to the beach the shelling started and we pulled up behind a destroyer. Evidently it was the marker to turn in and the pilot turned in and saw the shells hitting the water up in front of us so he stopped the boat and let the gate down and said “get off.” We were way out. The jeep sunk and we had to swim in. I had my full field pack on my back, first aid kits on both sides strapped to my legs. My life preserver didn’t work so I swam and I swam as far as I could go and I looked up to heaven and I told the lord that I was done and I knew I was gonna drown and I straightened up and my feet hit sand.
Then when I got to the edge of the water and I plopped down and I thought, “well, I gotta rest.” I was pooped! I looked about 8 feet in front of me and there was just the bottom half of a GI laying there and I thought “I gotta get out of here.” So I got up and went as fast as I could over to the road that went parallel to the beach and I knew that when I got to that road I had to turn left to catch up with the rest of the company. I got there and started down the highway and in came more shells and I saw a disabled truck on the side of the road and decided to slip under there. When I got there, there must have been fifty guys already underneath. So I just walked down the road. I was the only one on the road and I felt that I had a shield around me. I wasn’t even scared at the time. I caught up with the company.
The night of D-Day we moved up a half a mile or a mile. I don’t know how far it was. I could see small arms fire. I could see the bullets flying. They had tracer bullets in the machine guns. I could see them flying. We finally got to a place a field where we could set up and stay overnight. We camouflaged the trucks. I was trying to sleep underneath the trucks and a German airplane came over. We could hear him circling. It sounded like he shut his motor off. But apparently he was flying right down for us which was why we couldn’t hear his engine. And the bomb hit less than 100 yards from where I was. I guess it was 2 bombs really. I just lay there and shook and prayed. I was so scared.
The next day we set up the first aid station. There were a few wounded people that we took care of. Then another airplane come along. We dug some foxholes. Slip trenches. You know where you lay in in case of attack. There was a wounded captain laying there in the first aid station and when the airplane come over he was in the slip trenches before we could get there. [hearty laughter] I was so surprised that he could move so good with a bullet hole in him.
I had a wonderful conversation with Joe learning a lot about what it was like for one man in war. There were the exciting parts like the time when they moved forward of the front lines and their Captain and a jeep driver were captured by the Germans. The story ends well as three weeks later the Infantry captured them back.
There were the “mundane parts” like trying to treat a paratrooper whose legs had been rubbed raw from carrying grenades in his pocket. He stopped for help at the aid station but was in too much of a hurry to get back to work to get bandaged up. Joe did what he could to patch him up and send him on his way. There were also the boils to be lanced and the fingers to stitch up.
Moments of normalcy were rare but could be found. When food was a bit scarce some country boys found a field with cows and butchered one so they could have some fresh meat. They dug a hole and filled it with gasoline as a way to cook it. While it wasn’t very tasty it was meat. And then the time that one of the cooks was able to cobble together enough ingredients to make a birthday cake for someone. Food was not as scarce as you would think, seeing that they had planned the invasion to last 3 days and it took 30. There are the stories of discovering that a naval ship had come in fully stocked and soldiers figured out how to barter “souvenirs” for food.
There are the tales you expect to hear from a soldier. Especially a young medic who relayed the time he was unexpectedly faced with a soldier and a critical wound to the neck that he did not know how to treat except to get him as quickly as possible to a doctor. He does not know the fate of that soldier but he is still troubled by it all.
Toward the end of the war his unit did come into a town with a concentration camp. The doctor in charge told his guys to go and look at what was happening. They were told not to assist as there were designated teams to do that, but they needed to see it. “It seemed like it was all Polish prisoners. You didn’t know which ones were alive and which ones were dead. They were lying there on stretchers all over the place. Just skin and bones. And that was really terrible. I can’t . . .”
What surprised me the most in my conversation was how routine it was. Joe stressed to me that everyone had a job to do. My analogy is that you were trained to be one cog in a very large machine. If you were out of order the wheel didn’t turn properly. As a medic he was not allowed to carry a firearm. I asked him if that was frightening to him not being able to defend himself. “Well, you just did what you had to do. You didn’t worry about firing a gun at anybody.”
There were a lot of questions that I wanted to ask but out of respect did not. (Where did you go to the bathroom?!). Being a project manager I was really wondering about the logistics of it all. The fact that he was able to receive mail a few times a week I find to be remarkable.
The part of our conversation that touched me the most was when Joe told me that his mother had passed away while he was overseas. On VJ day of all days. (He believed the excitement of the day is what caused the blood vessels to burst.) The Red Cross informed him of her passing but said they would not be able to get him home in time for the burial so he would stay put. I just can’t imagine how hard that would be. It’s one thing to manage the horror that is happening around you. That is your job, your training. But there is no training in losing a parent.
Joe came home in January 1946 via a small boat that was built to carry fruit along the Florida coast that became troop transport. (Based on the description of that winter passage I am thinking that may have been the scariest part of his service!) Somewhere in his home is a framed “Thank You” letter from General Eisenhower that was given to all troops who were deployed on D-Day. Well deserved.
Thank you, Joe, for your brave service to this country and for calling up that same bravery to talk to me.
NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.