It is an easy trap, looking back at historical events, and thinking that the outcome was inevitable.
Those who lived through it know better.
Sixty-six years ago Bob Lowry was among the British and American troops storming the beaches of Normandy. His division was assigned to Omaha Beach, one of five code named beaches in France. The crescent shaped beach faced bluffs rising 100 feet and taller lined with German troops who were arrayed to throw the invaders back into the ocean.
The sacrifices made June 6, 1944 would move forward the effort to free Western Europe from Nazi control and later prevent Communist rule.
The first story was published in the Tribune marking the 50th anniversary of the event. Following is a personal story Bob Lowry wrote when the movie Saving Private Ryan came out. He shared with us this week.
Published May 27, 1994
Recalling the horror
World War II vet describes the invasion of Normandy on D-Day
By Katherine Martinez
NIPOMO — Bob Lowry couldn’t talk about the horrors of his D-Day experience until 20 years after it happened.
Lowry was only 18 when the Allies invaded the beaches at Normandy on June 6, 1944, a surprise operation that helped in the successful liberation of France from German occupation during World War II.
Successful, but bloody.
The 69-year-old retired junior high teacher discussed the brutal experience while seated at a table in his Nipomo home, which he and his wife Vel, 64, moved to from Camarillo two years ago.
The couple is traveling to France for the 50th anniversary of the “liberation” as part of a six-week vacation through Europe.
They’re looking forward to the trip. But Lowry said it will be an emotional one.
Outgoing and quick to smile, Lowry’s face became somber when he described D-Day, which marked the largest seaborne invasion in history.
“It was a horrible experience,” he said, with clasped hands. “To see all the dead bodies and young kids my age.”
He was part of the 116th Regiment, 29th Division, Company C. After traveling by ship from Southhampton England, the 209 men in his company came ashore at Normandy with other U.S. troops on a site code-named Omaha Beach, one of five landing areas.
With German forces constantly firing at them from the cliffs, the men had to make their way through metal railroad ties sticking out of the ground, and barbed wire. One young fellow from Lowry’s squad designated to cut the wire was shot through the heart as he did his job.
A Col. Canham finished the work.
“I’ll never forget him,” Lowry said.
German troops shot the automatic rifle out of the colonel’s hands
He went up and grabbed the snips and he finished cutting the wire,” Lowry said, “And they got him through the right arm.”
“We were just laying there, frozen and scared.”
Another soldier lying half in the water said “Bob, help me.”
“I started crawling back to him,” Lowry said, disobeying previous training.
But a row of machine gun fire ripped by.
“I just told him, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you and turned around,” Lowry said with tear-filled eyes and a voice choked with emotion. “I never knew what happened to him. I never saw him after that.”
The colonel led the way. Lowry dodged fire and dove into a trench. The area was strewn with soldier’s bodies and parts of bodies that the others had to step around. The troops later renamed the beach “Bloody Omaha.”
After making their way past a field in which German soldiers shot at them from the trees, they reached a road that afternoon. Forty-two of the 209 men were left.
“I matured about 40 to 50 years that day,” Lowry said. “It was something I hope we never have to see again.”
Memories of the time after D-Day, after troops had moved inland, are equally sharp. Lowry, who received two Purple Hearts for being wounded twice in the war, fought tears as he recalled images of a soldier who had a piece of shrapnel in his left eye, and a sergeant in a foxhole who was killed when half his head was blown off in a direct hit.
His regiment received a Presidential Unit Citation and a French Croix DeGuerre for its participation in D-Day.
Nightmares plagued Lowry for a few years. After serving three years in the Army, from 1943 to 1946, he went to college, got married and became a teacher.
He and Vel have a daughter, Marsha, who lives in Paso Robles, a son Greg, and four grandchildren.
The couple will celebrate their 45th anniversary in September.
Lowry’s 20-year silence about the war ended when his late older brother asked him about it. Six years ago, he placed an ad in the newspaper to locate others who had been in the 29th Division. Eventually, a small group of men began meeting once a year on D-Day to socialize and talk about the war.
Vel Lowry said the big anniversary ceremonies in Normandy will be a good experience for the veterans.”It was such a traumatic event in their lives,” she said. “I think maybe it is a cleansing process.”
Bob Lowry sees another reason to observe the anniversary: “So that people won’t forget.”
Lowry is satisfied with how his life has turned out and is enjoying his retirement by gardening, staying active in the Lion’s Club and traveling.
He and his wife, who visited Normandy and Europe in 1973, have enjoyed annual vacations of exploring the U.S. and Canada in their motorhome. During one year, they visited Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.
“I made a vow when I was lying in a foxhole on the beach that if I got out of it alive, I would live my life to the fullest,” he said. “And I think I have.”
Bob Lowry shares his memories.
My daughter Marsha, son-in-law Reggie, grandchildren Natalie and Nick saw the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Marsha then asked me to record what I could remember of my experiences of World War II. This is also for my son Greg, daughter-in-law Nancy, grandchildren Hart and Michela.
I was raised in Ventura, California and attended elementary school and high school in Ventura. I then entered the U.S. Army on July 7, 1943. I was sent to Camp Fannin, Texas on a troop train. Camp Fannin is about 90 miles southeast of Dallas near a town named Tyler. On the way to Camp Fannin some of the fellows looked up Tyler, Texas and saw there was an airfield there. I had about 300 hours of aircraft training in high school such as working on radial engines, radio, learning Morse code, working with sheet metal, aeronautical engineering, etc., and I thought when I saw the airfield I was going into the Air Corps. When I saw a huge sign over the gate of the camp that read, “Basic Infantry Training Camp,” my heart dropped into my shoes. I spent 16 horrible weeks there. Some days the temperature was 115 degrees in the shade, but there was no shade. At the end of the 16 weeks I got a 15-day furlough home before going to Camp Shanks, New York. This was just before Christmas so my family celebrated early.
After arriving at Camp Shanks I spent Christmas with my Aunt Zula, Uncle Tink and cousin Annabelle who lived in Camden, New Jersey. The next day I shipped out of New York Harbor on the Ile de France, which was a French luxury liner that had been turned into a troop ship. I have no idea how many men were aboard her, but there were many. The bunks were about ten high. I think it took us about seven days to cross, changing course about every seven seconds. We were part of a very large convoy. The first morning out, I went down to the mess hall, and was given two hard-boiled eggs and about four sardines. I cracked one egg, and there was a dead chick in it. Needless to say, I didn’t eat breakfast again until we reached Scotland. The ship was operated by the British.
The ship docked at Glasgow, Scotland. The country was just beautiful. From Glasgow we went to London by train, then on to Plymouth, England where we got on 6 x 6 trucks and were transported to Ivybridge, a small village with a population at that time of about 1500. We trained there for the next five months.
During the first week of January 1944, I was assigned to the 29th Division, Company “C”, 116th Infantry Regiment. Companies “A, B, and D” were also stationed there. We trained hard under Colonel Canham, the battalion commander. He was about 6’4” and straight as a pencil. He worked us hard both day and night, and it was a very trying and difficult time, but it did pay off in the end. Our Company Commander was Captain Hawkes. We called him old BB eyes as his eyes were real close together. I remember him getting his foot crushed in the ramp when we made the landing, and I never knew what happened to him. About four weeks before D-Day we were shipped to Southampton, England. We lived in tents, composed I believe, of one platoon per tent consisting of about 50 men. There were five squads, ten men to a squad. All cameras were taken from us. They only told us that no more pictures could be taken.
On the morning of June 4th we were told we would be boarding ships. We all knew what was about to happen, that this was the real thing and not a practice drill. Around midnight General Eisenhower came on the radio and told us that it was indeed the real thing, and wished us luck and God’s speed. As we were standing on deck of the ship, planes passed over and continued on to the French shore where they dropped their bombs. We were pretty sure that there would be little resistance from the Germans after that, but were we ever wrong. Electronics aboard the planes were not as sophisticated in those days, and as a result they overshot their targets.
About 5:00 a.m., June 6th we were told to get ready to get into the Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel boats, (LCVP), that were waiting over the side of the ship. We got into the boats by rope ladders hanging from the deck of the ship. Several men went down at the same time. It was dark and was I scared. Some of the men had their legs, arms, and hands injured from hitting the side of the ship as the rope ladder swung back and forth, up and down with the ship in the very rough water. When the boat was full the Navy coxswain took off out into the channel and we circled until the rest of the boats were ready to head for the Normandy Coast, specifically the Americans who were headed for Omaha Beach. It seemed that we circled for about an hour before we headed for the beach. We were so seasick, and it seemed as though the vomit was about two inches deep in the bottom of the boat. As we approached the shore, it was getting lighter and we could see obstacles running lengthwise in the water. Company “A” landed before we arrived as there were hundreds of bodies lying in the water and at the edge of the water. As we were going in I looked over the right side of the LCVP and saw another boat take a direct hit. Bodies were flying all over the place. We were warned not to look over the sides, but my curiosity got the best of me. Many boats were hitting mines or impaled on steel obstacles. The landing craft were easy targets for the German guns, which blew them out of the water.
The coxswain of our LCVP, and many others like him in the other boats, lowered the ramp in water much too deep for us to jump in to go ashore because he was frightened and didn’t want to go closer and be so exposed to the firing. Consequently, the first eight to ten men that went into the water immediately disappeared, sinking into about 30 feet or so of water. We each were outfitted with a full field pack which, including my own weight, came to about 300 pounds. The packs consisted of two bandoleers (ammo clips), 12 hand grenades, rifle, gas mask, ½ pup tent, etc. With so much weight, there was no way in deep water that the men could save themselves. After the men disappeared someone yelled to raise the ramp, which the coxswain did. I think the ramp was raised and lowered by hydraulic cables. About eight to nine men including most of the officers had their arms, legs, hands, elbows, and feet crushed so badly by the raising of the ramp, they were no longer able to get off the boat. The second time the coxswain went in and lowered the ramp it was in about five feet of water. We had to jump up and down to try to keep our heads above the water. I finally made it to solid sand and was then able to get my footing so that I was able to make it to the beach.
On landing, the first thing I did was to cut off my heavy field pack so I could maneuver about more easily. I was so sick and exhausted I just laid there not wanting to move. All the while the Germans were firing at us from the cliffs above with machine gun fire, 180 degrees, mortar fire, 88’s—everything they had. The German machine gunners had a 180-degree traversing radius on us from the cliffs above. As I was lying on the beach at the water’s edge trying to get my breath, someone called my name and said, “I’m hit, help me.” The water was red with his blood and I started back to him and as I got about 10-15 feet from him there was a burst of machine gun fire that raked up the sand in front of me. I said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t,” and turned around and headed further up on the beach. I never knew what happened to him. We were trained to never attempt to help a buddy while under fire in a combat situation, and were told that was the medic’s job.
Omaha Beach is often referred to as “Bloody Omaha.” It is situated on a four-mile long beach between Vierville-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer. Colleville is the actual site of the American Cemetery of Normandy, the second largest U.S. cemetery in Northern Europe with 9,386 graves. The battle of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 will live in the annals of American military history as one of the bloodiest engagements of American fighting men.
We were faced with cliffs 100 feet high which were fortified by the Germans who had dug into the cliffs for machine-gun placements. It was a very difficult place to have an amphibious assault. There were only four roads leading inland from the beach and three of those were cart tracks. The fourth was the road we took leading into Vierville-sur-Mer. The German artillery blocked our routes off Omaha Beach as the beach was planted with mined obstacles, upright iron frames, railroad ties, heavy wooded stakes all angled toward the sea in a 10-foot deep line. The steel hedgehogs were angled to stave the bottom of landing craft and thick barricades of barbed wire.
Every inch of Omaha was covered by enemy fire. The Germans had the entire beach covered by 75mm and 88mm guns and were protected by concrete walls three feet thick. Our naval and aerial bombardments were not as effective as planned. Enemy fortifications had not been knocked out. The German defenses were among the worst encountered by the Americans during the entire war. The losses in the first hour at Vierville were awesome. Officers and non-commissioned officers alike were killed, leaving many soldiers leaderless. Under the heavy German fire, we were slow to rally and get off the beach.
While still in Ivybridge, Lambert, one of the boys in my squad, and I attended church services when we could obtain a pass. He was the one assigned to cut the barbed wire entanglement that was blocking our access to the beach. As he got to his knees to clip the wire he was shot in the chest and fell backward and died within seconds. Colonel Canham, who was our Battalion Commander, crawled up and took the cutters from his hand and started cutting the wire and was shot in one of his wrists.
A medic crawled up and bandaged it and the Colonel pulled a pearl-handled 45 from its holster and waved it in the air and said, “Those of you who want to live follow me, those who want to die stay where you are.” Every man that was alive followed him further up onto the beach where the Germans had dug trenches for maneuvers. As the mortar fire began to fall, I dove into a trench. I felt something soft under me and when I rolled over to my right I saw a gold leaf that looked as if it were about 6” in diameter, on a Major who was a doctor in the medical corps. All I could say was, “I’m sorry sir,” certain that I would be court-martialed. He said, “stay here as long as you want to son,” and I stayed until the mortar fire stopped for a few minutes and then made my way up under the bluffs where there was a large group of men.
Many of the men were wounded and were being treated by medics. I remember one fellow had his whole rear end blown off and others were missing parts of their bodies. It was a diabolical carnage. About 3:00 p.m. a group of us gathered and started to make our way to the south along the beach to a dirt road that led up into the little village of Vierville Sur Mer. There were so many bodies injured or dead, in our path, we had to take care not to step on them. This is the road where we were supposed to have landed. As I learned later this is where Company A landed, and this is why almost all of the company was wiped out.
We went up the little road dodging sniper fire along the way and passed a field surrounded by hedgerows with two gates. There were several dead cows lying in the field. One of our 90-day-trained Second Lieutenants, the only officer left in our group, started to walk past one of the gates. Everyone yelled “get down, Lieutenant!” and just then a German on the other side of the gate shot and killed him. One of our sergeants ran up toward the gate, hit the ground and saw the German throw down his gun and put up his hands and said “comrade.” The sergeant shot and killed him. Just as we were about to dig our foxholes in the field next to the hedgerow there was gunfire coming from one end of the field. No one knew at first where it was coming from because there was no smoke or flash. Then we detected the trees moving and the sergeant told everyone to shoot at the trees and in doing so we defoliated the trees. When the shooting stopped 15 of our men were dead, and the two Germans who were tied in the trees were also dead.
By the end of that day, there were only 42 men left in my company. That morning when we landed there had been 209 of us. We then dug our foxholes. I dug one with another fellow. Boy it was cold as we hadn’t gotten dry from the landing and I thought I was going to freeze to death.
The next morning we took off toward the south and ran into Colonel Canham and Major Bingham who had found four Frenchmen who were hiding in a cave. Colonel Canham told another fellow and I to take them back to the beach and turn them over to someone to be interrogated because he though they might have been collaborators with the Germans. When we arrived at the beach there was a huge bulldozer, which I believe was a D-12, making a ditch, or a cut in the sand and they were putting dead soldiers in it. I’m sure they had taken their dog tags off. When we got back to the place where we left the others, they were all gone. We hooked up with a half-track outfit and stayed with them for several days until we caught up with the rest of the company which had received replacements by then. It was hell. We lost 33 men one afternoon as we were trying to go over a hedgerow.
One day about 5 p.m., a mortar shell hit close to me and another fellow and a piece of shrapnel hit him in the left eye and he was taken to the rear. At about the same time a shell hit in the foxhole where our First Sergeant was and it blew the whole top of his head away. We called him Mac, and I think his name was MacClure. While going down a dirt road we saw many men laying in the road, alive & dead, that had been run over by our tanks, because they couldn’t stop their tanks & move them to the side, there was no room on either side. We had finished our “D” rations by this time, which were bars of chocolate that were supposed to have all the vitamins and minerals to sustain us for a meal. We hadn’t eaten anything but “D” rations for three days and nights and were famished.
When we approached the village of Saint Clair we were warned there were Germans there. We circled the village and went about a half mile beyond. After digging our foxholes, three of us went back into the village but didn’t encounter any Germans. We entered a large barn in which we found 55 gallon wooded barrels stacked from the ground as high as could be stacked. We had no idea what was in them. One of the fellows found one with a spigot and tasted the contents. It must have been Calvados, which we found out later was a brandy made from apples typical of Normandy. There were also some chickens in the barn and we found a nest of eggs that we promptly ate raw out of the shell. We then each caught a couple of the chickens, wrung their necks and took them back to where the rest of the men were. We tried to boil water in our helmets using small sterno cans (we weren’t supposed to light a fire) so we could pluck the feathers, but couldn’t get the water hot enough so we skinned and gutted them and ate them raw.
When my wife Velta and I were back in France in 2004, we found the old barn and met the people who lived there, the daughter and son of the people who had lived there at the time. We will look them up again when we return in 2009.
Following that, I lasted until we were about a thousand yards from St. Lo. I was then hit by pieces of shrapnel in my left hip, buttock, left leg (calf), and left side of my head (ear and eye). I was sharing a foxhole with a medic, it was raining heavily & we ran across a road & removed the front door from an unoccupied house to put over our foxhole. Just as he put his end of the door over the foxhole, I heard an 88 coming I tried to get to the other end of the foxhole, but didn’t quite make it into the foxhole when it exploded. There were trees in the area, one next to me that was about six inches in diameter. The tree appeared to have been sawed off clean by the shrapnel.
From there, I was removed to the rear to a tent hospital near the beach. A few days later I was flown back to England to the 87th General Hospital in Yeovil. I was there for about 45 days and was awarded the Purple Heart while there. When released I was supposed to go to Manchester, England in the north but without orders I headed back to Southampton and got on a ship bound for France. I was determined to rejoin my outfit. It took me about three weeks to find them. They were getting ready to cross the Rhine River across from Aachen, Germany. There were 13 of the original fellows left. The Germans were shelling the area with everything they had. I was again hit by shrapnel and suffered a concussion. I was sent back to England again and awarded a second Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster and the Presidential Unit Citation, and told that I had had enough and my combat days were over.
In February 1945, I was assigned to the 422nd Quartermaster Laundry Corps and sent to Wootton Bassett, a small village in England where I stayed until we shipped over to Reims, France. I stayed there until the war ended. It was like being home with clean clothing, clean sheets and three meals a day. It was really great. I shipped back to the States in January 1946. It took the Liberty ship 17 days to cross as the fresh water tank sprung a leak and we had to put in for repair in the Azores Islands. Because I was bunking with the electricians on deck I went ashore with them, dressed in civilian clothes. We explored the local bars and had a few drinks on shore.
I arrived back in Ventura, California on February 6th and enrolled at Ventura College where I met a lovely young girl, Velta Coleman. I asked her out three times and she was always busy so I gave up. A week or so later she asked me to go on a hay ride with a group from her church which resulted in marriage on September 10, 1949. I received my Associate of Arts degree in June 1948 from Ventura JR. College I went to California Lutheran College where I received my B.A. and Masters in Education.
Among the 34,000 American soldiers who landed on June 6, 1944, the casualty rate was 41 percent, roughly 14,000 men. War is a brutal experience and totally unacceptable in a civilized world. I hope and pray that no one ever has to endure the painful experiences of war. I still have flashbacks and become very emotional when talking about the war and the ordeal I went through. It was about 20 years before I could even talk about it. Vel and I have been back four times to the Colleville Cemetery and I still openly cry when I visit. I think of the men & boys who lost their lives and realize that I made it through by the grace of GOD.
12-8-05: Just received notice that any one who spent time in combat is entitled to wear the Bronze Star. My unit was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, however, individual members are not entitled to a decoration or any other device.
No related posts.