Western Pennsylvanians look back on D-Day 75 years later
Warren Goss will never forget the rigorous training he went through in England leading up to the D-Day invasion.
Particularly what it didn’t prepare him for.
“They didn’t train us for when you would see the front gates open up and a machine gun would cut the first row down,” Goss said during an interview at his Sewickley home, trying to keep his emotions from surfacing.
“You can’t imagine. You just can’t train people for that.”
Goss, 94, traveled to France this week to once again be on the beaches of Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944.
He will let the memories, many of them nightmarish, wash over him like the water in the English Channel did on the day that marked the beginning of the nearly yearlong fight to liberate northwest Europe in World War II.
Goss joined the Army in 1943. He served in the 4th Infantry Division and then volunteered for the 531st Special Brigade, a unit of combat engineers which landed in advance of the first wave of the D-Day invasion.
“They told us, ‘A lot of you guys are not coming back. If you don’t want to volunteer for this, you don’t have to.’ When you’re 18 and foolish, that’s what you do. You’d never do it again, though,” Goss said.
During training, Goss and his fellow soldiers in the special brigade ran every place they went. They would run up and down hills with full packs during the day, and then go out on patrols at night.
“They trained us for everything you could expect to happen. But they didn’t train us for what happened,” Goss said.
When he arrived in Normandy, Goss crawled down a net that had been dropped off the side of his ship and got into a Higgins landing craft. The water was rough and the guys in the boat were seasick.
“They were puking. There was puke all over the floor. They were puking on each other. They were damn sick. It was just terrible,” said Goss.
They lined up all the Higgins boats and then went onto Utah Beach, one of five allied landing zones given special code names. Omaha Beach was the other one used by U.S. soldiers.
When the boat ramp dropped, the men directly in front of Goss got hit.
“I saw what happened to them, so I went off to the side,” Goss said. “We couldn’t see land, but the Germans could see us. I landed in water up to my chest.I was holding my gun up and riding the waves to get in. I made it to the beach. A lot of guys didn’t.”
Goss’ job as a rifleman was to lay down covering fire and keep the Germans pinned down so engineers could come in and blow up the land mines and help get the troops in. There was really no place on the beach to take cover, he said.
“The Germans had obstacles — big iron X’s stuck in the sand — and they had mines tied to them,” Goss said. “I took cover under the obstacles as best I could. I was lying by one of these things being shot at, only they weren’t shooting at me. They were trying to hit that mine to blow a lot of people up.”
Goss said the group he was with ultimately ran into a German patrol and got into a hand grenade fight. He and two other Americans made it out of that and ended up in a farm yard.
“Two French girls between 12 and 15 led us to the barn to hide, and that’s where we spent the night,” Goss said. “They came and got us when the Germans were gone. I’ll never forget what those girls did for me.”
Goss went on to fight in the Battle of the Rhineland, Ruhr River and the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He spent 33 months in the Army and was awarded a Bronze Star for carrying a soldier who had lost his leg to safety. He also was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest honor bestowed on both civilian and military personnel for service to France.
A ship loaded with junk
Pittsburgh resident Howard Pfeifer didn’t know what was in store for him in the spring of 1944 when he left a New York shipyard on a ship that seemed fit for a scrap yard.
Two days after the USS Exford left New York, its engines stopped working while crossing the Atlantic.
Pfeifer, a quartermaster in the Merchant Marines,was part of a crew that steered the ship in four-hour shifts. They repaired the engines and got it going again.
The Exford hooked up with a large convoy of ships carrying troops and tankers carrying fuel. It was the first hint they were headed somewhere important.
“The ship dead ahead of us was a tanker, and there was this tremendous explosion. The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine,” said Pfeifer, 95.
Pfeifer watched as the tanker dipped and then capsized.
The Exford made it to England, where there was another curious development. As soon as it arrived, the crew unloaded everything they had on the ship.
“We came back from shore leave and I said, ‘What the hell are we loading?’ ” Pfeifer said. “As it turned out, they weren’t loading it with anything worthwhile. It was scrap metal, junk. Now we’re leaving England and as we were pulling out, it was quite obvious that things weren’t the way they should be.”
Pfeifer and the crew soon learned they were headed for Normandy.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Pfeifer said. “It was six o’clock in the morning, and we could see the beach and hear all this noise. There were all these ships of every kind and size — they were everywhere — and we’re headed for the beach in this old ship.”
They got up as much speed as they could and rammed the ship into Omaha Beach.
“We swung the ship as much as we could to the right and then dropped all four anchors,” Pfeifer said. “We abandoned ship, got into smaller boats that they had and then they dynamited the ship, blew the sides out, so the ship would sink and it became a dock. They needed someplace to tie the fighting ships and smaller vessels so the troops could come in.”
And with that, Pfeifer and the other members of the crew headed right back to England and soon returned to the United States.
Pfeifer was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his service on D-Day. After the war, he worked in the construction industry and became a vice president at Minnotte Manufacturing Corp.
Raising the flag
Master Sgt. Wesley Garrard was a 24-year-old military policeman in the Army’s First Division when he headed for Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, in the second wave.
As he got close to the beach, a shell landed beside the landing ship tank he was in, and the boat began to sink with 10 soldiers on board. When the gates dropped, Germans fired machine guns at the boat, instantly killing one soldier and wounding four. Garrard bent down to grab what he was carrying and avoided getting hit. Suddenly, he had to drop everything and swim to shore.
“To swim from the boat to shore and not get hit by bullets was a miracle. Good thing my dad was a good swimmer,” said Garrard’s son, Bob.
“One of the tanks came up beside dad, and it’s a wonder that he didn’t get run over. He saw a colonel run over to the tank and heard him say to the captain inside, ‘If you don’t get this thing going and shoot out that pill box, I’m going to climb in there and kill you myself and then I’ll shoot out that pill box,’ ” Garrard said, referring to the fortified structures that Germans constructed to fire upon Allied forces storming the beach.
The tank shot out the pill box, clearing a path for Garrard and others to go up a road from the beach to the village of Colleville-sur-Mer.
As an MP, he was charged with directing traffic off the beach. With the Germans in retreat, French residents took down the Nazi flag over their village and raised a French flag. When Garrard arrived in the village on June 7, 1944, he took down the French flag and hoisted an American flag, announcing the Allies had succeeded in taking the beach.
“He wanted them to know the Americans were there,” his son said.
Wesley Garrard earned a Bronze Star for his service in the D-Day invasion. Following his discharge in 1945, he worked briefly for Glenshaw Glass Co. before starting a 40-year career with the Postal Service. He served as assistant postmaster and postmaster at the Glenshaw post office.
After returning home from the war, Garrard brought the French flag to Shaler American Legion Post 785, where he was a member. The flag was placed in a drawer and remained there for nearly 70 years.
Four years after Wesley Garrard died in 2011 at 91, members of his family visited Legion Post 785 and discovered the flag.
“Our family did not know Wes had kept the French flag,” said Bob’s wife, Holly.“The Legion commander graciously gave the flag back to the family.”
Garrard’s family decided the right thing to do was to return the flag to the rightful owners, the residents of Colleville-sur-Mer.
Twenty members of the Garrard family are in France this week. On Friday, they will attend a special ceremony and present the “drapeau” to the village’s mayor, Patrick Thomines.
The family intends to go to Omaha Beach to honor Wesley Garrard’s memory.
“I can’t wait to stand on the site on the beach where dad said he landed and say to the family, ‘This is where Grandpa landed, and this is what he did,’ ” Bob Garrard said.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].