Remembering 'The Longest Day'
|Dawn on the 6th of June, 1944 witnessed one of the largest airborne invasions in
history with more than 130,000 men landing along the beaches of Normandy in northwestern France - D-Day.
The consequences of that action were enormous with the Battle of Normandy won some 80 days later, Paris liberated only days after that, and the fall of Berlin within a year. "Operation Overlord" as it was code-named, was an attack of massive scale on Hitler's "Fortress Europe" and marked the beginning of the end of World War II and the eventual liberation of the continent. This Sunday marks the anniversary, of the invasion of Normandy.
This Friday, a Kewanee man, Clarence Hicks, will be among those honored by the French government for their part in D-Day and the liberation of France in the days that followed in a special ceremony at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
"France has never forgotten the sacrifice made by all of its allies and wishes to recognize your bravery," said Consul General Dominique Decherf' of the French Consulate in Chicago, in an invitation sent to Hicks and other Illinois veterans.
Hicks was 18 years old and working at the Walworth in Kewanee when he was inducted into the Army in 1943. He was assigned to the 771st Field Artillery Battalion as a cannoneer. The unit was activated at Camp Bowie, Texas, in April of 1943 and trained in Louisiana and Camp Hood, Texas, from November of that year until January of 1944. They didn't know it at the time, but they were being trained to take part in what was a closely guarded secret - the invasion of Europe.
Pvt. Hicks remembers seeing "nothing but sips" in the convoy as they left New York for England. He recalls being on deck one day in the Atlantic when a destroyer went racing by, then heard an explosion. A German submarine had been sunk by the destroyer, but not before it sank a freighter. The transport ships, where Hicks had a bunk on the water line of one, had escaped and all arrived safely in Liverpool on July 1.
On Aug. 20, 1944, the 771st landed on Utah Beach, already seized by the invasion on June 6. The unit was assigned to Gen. George Patton's fast-moving Third Army. Hicks' unit was constantly moving from one division to the other - serving with 12 in all. "They always sent us to where we were needed," Hicks recalls. More than once, Patton's pace left them surrounded by Germans, but each time they were able to escape.
Their first action was taking German submarine facilities at Brest, on the Atlantic coast southwest of Utah Beach. From there, they marched east, across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and were about to march on Prague, Czechoslovakia, when the Germans surrendered.
They participated in the assault on the Siegfried Line, the Battle of Ardennes and the drive to the Rhine.
One of their closest calls was at Bastogne in what was to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. "It was Christmas time and it was colder than all get out," Hicks remembers. He and several others had been drafted to dig gun emplacements at a small village in Luxembourg. They were told to leave all identification and personal items behind. One large gun was brought in and shifted from one emplacement to another in a "fire-and-move" strategy to make the Germans think they had more firepower than they actually did. When the Germans finally attacked, Hicks' unit was moved to low ground - the last place you want to be in a battle, and narrowly escaped with their lives. The officer who gave them the orders was later reprimanded.
Hicks' unit was in charge of four 4 1/2 -inch howitzers capable of firing shells a distance of 12 miles. Three of the guns were lost at Bastogne and had to be replaced. In January of on 1945, the 771st salvaged four abandoned German 150mm howitzers, reconditioned them, located enemy ammunition and, in two days, fired 1,700 rounds on enemy strongpoints, while continuing firing operations with their regular battery of guns. The battalion was commended for its unusual performance.
According to Department of Defense documents obtained by members of Hicks' unit after the war, the 771st occupied 81 firing positions and moved 2, 492 miles across the face of western Europe. In 257 days of combat, they fired 34,046 rounds - or about 1,208 tons - of ammunition, both American and German.
Members of the unit received four Silver Stars, 48 Bronze Stars, 28 Purple Hearts and five Air Medals with 11 clusters.
Hicks received four Bronze Battle Stars, the American Campaign Medal and the Victory Medal.
The unit was being shipped to the South Pacific to face Japanese forces but - with a wife and son at home - Hicks had enough service points to stay in France and was reassigned as military escort patrolling roads - on a motorcycle - along which ammunition had been stored.
"The only ticket I ever gave out was to an officer for speeding - and it stuck," Hicks recalls proudly.
He was discharged with the rank of Private First Class on Nov. 29, 1945, returned to Kewanee and went back to work at the Walworth. He received a citation for "meritorious service" from Illinois Gov. Dwight Green, but is especially proud of the words on a piece of White House stationery signed by President Harry Truman which extends the "heart-felt thanks of a grateful nation"
The 771st Field Artillery held its annual reunion in mid-May at Gettysburg, Pa., which allowed many, including Hicks, to visit the new National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"I was impressed with how beautiful it is," Hicks said. "You can't beat it!"
He was accompanied by his wife, Ione, and sons Clem and his wife Georgia of Kewanee, and Lon and his wife Cris of Prophetstown.
"They were the ones who got me there," Hicks said.