June 6 – D-Day 70th Anniversary, But what else was happening?

The 70th anniversary of D-Day is approaching and many of us will commemorate that history-making event, but the invasion of Europe was not the only thing happening in the days leading up to and right after June 6, 1944. A world-wide war did not come to a stand-still for one event regardless of its momentous implications. So I decided to research and find out what else was going on.

Where was my father-in-law and the others in the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion? They were at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, training on their M-7 track-mounted 105 mm guns and on small arms. After May 1 all furloughs had been discontinued in anticipation of orders to ship out. Fortunately for me, those orders were delayed and local passes continued. Had they not been my father-in-law and mother-in-law would never have met. They were married on June 20, 1944, after knowing each other only twelve days. Orders to leave Camp Campbell for a secret destination finally came on June 23. The battalion traveled by train to Camp Shanks, N. Y., for shipment overseas. They sailed for England on July 1, 1944.Paul and Earlene Whitaker

Despite the build up of troops in England prior to D-Day, many remained in the U.S. awaiting overseas orders. Once the invading forces established a beachhead, additional soldiers and equipment would be needed to retake Europe.

In June 1944, the 97th Infantry Division was training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. As a soldier in the 97th, my uncle Roland Roby would not sail for Europe until February, 1945. He later went to Japan as part of the occupation forces.

Meanwhile, my uncle, D. T. (Boots) Knight, was on the other side of the world fighting the Japanese. The 947th Field Artillery Battalion in support of the 41st Infantry Division landed on Biak Island, just north of western New Guinea, on May 27, 1944. Approximately 11,000 Japanese troops defended the island and its airfields. Prior to the landing, intelligence indicated only 4,400 Japanese were on the island so the campaign proved more difficult than anticipated. The island was not fully taken until August. The 947th received a commendation for their firing on Biak. Prior to the Biak campaign the 947th had been part of the Hollandia campaign on New Guinea in April and May.  They would help to retake the Philippines beginning in October.New%20Guinea%20Map2[1]

Today many think of the war against the Japanese as a naval war. Naval battles did take place throughout the Pacific. Ships of the U.S. Navy also delivered the men and equipment to the far-flung islands. Once on land the U.S. Army did as much of the fighting as the Marines. The war against the Japanese was divided into two separate commands. The Pacific Ocean Area Command under Admiral Chester Nimitz included most of the Pacific Ocean and its islands. In the Southwest Pacific Theater General Douglas McArthur commanded an area that included the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Australia, New Guinea, Borneo and the western portion of the Solomon Islands.

In looking at the map I am amazed at how close the Japanese came to invading Australia. In June, 1944, the Japanese still controlled vast reaches of the Pacific as well as territory on the Asian mainland. The U. S. had pushed them off Guadalcanal in 1942-43 and in joint operations with the British fought for control of New Guinea throughout 1944 allowing McArthur to return to the Philippines in October 1944.

While the Allies were battling to hold the beachhead in Normandy, the U. S. Navy took on the Japanese in the battle of Saipan on June 15, 1944. Then from June 19-21 the Battle of the Philippine Sea raged.

In Italy, the liberation of Rome came on June 5, 1944, after a long, drawn out fight up the boot of Italy. Despite the surrender by the Italians in 1943, the Germans would not relinquish their hold on Italy. After the initial Allied landings on the Italian peninsula at Salerno in September 9, 1943 the Allies fought their way north. With a second landing further north at Anzio in January 22, 1944, the Allies hoped to cut off the Germans. Instead they dug in to the mountainous terrain. The battle around Monte Cassino raged from January until mid-May. When it finally fell the road to Rome opened to the allied advance with its liberation on June 5, 1944. But capturing the Italian capital did not mean the Germans would surrender. The fight in Italy raged on as the Germans pulled back into the mountains. They fought ferociously and did not surrender to the Allies until April, 1945.

On June 9 Stalin launched an attack on Finland. On June 10 in Oradour-sur-Glane the Germans locked 642 French men, women and children in a church and burned it to the ground in retaliation for resistance activities in the area. On the same day in Distomo, Greece, members of the Waffen-SS killed 214 civilians for the same reason. On June 20 in India the three-month siege of Imphal is lifted forcing the Japanese to retreat into Burma. The heavy losses of this defeat marked the turning point of the Burma campaign.

As you can see, in June 1944 war raged around the world. It would take another year of hard fighting before the Germans and the Japanese were defeated and peace returned to our planet.


“Letters From A Soldier” & Other Memoirs

When asked where I get my ideas for WWII love stories, I usually say that it started with stories told by my parents and other family members. From there my research has included lots of books, magazine articles, shows on TV, and even old movies. One of the best ways I have found to get into the period is to read memoirs. These personal accounts open a window into the life of an individual – telling his or her unique story. The Second World War affected every person living at the time. Some were drastically changed. Some went to places they had never even imagined. Others stayed home and watched their familiar world change around them. Every reference in later years was either “before the war” or “after the war.”

In researching my current novel-in-progress, I immersed myself in the mindset of the WWII soldier by reading memoirs of men who had similar experiences as my fictional character. After reading many memoirs as well as historical accounts, I have found that memoirs provide more insight into the personal experiences – from their daily activities to what they knew and felt about the war. Letters and journals written at the time convey the emotional state of the soldier. And they record the minor details of life, fertile soil for the fiction writer who wants to transport the reader into the world of WWII.Letters from a Soldier cover

Since I had already decided that my hero served in the First Infantry Division and was wounded soon after D-Day, I searched through the many memoirs available online for someone who served in the First in the early part of the war. I discovered “Letters from a Solider” by William M. Kays. The well-written account provides letters and pictures pulled together by the author’s vivid memories of the events, the people and the locations.

Bill Kays entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant after graduating from Stanford where he went through the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). Both his letters and his recollections of his early experiences in the Army convey just how ill-prepared the United States was for war. Many of the young officers came straight from college where their military training varied greatly. Others had gone through the Army’s Officer Training Schools (OCS) which were necessarily brief. Kays makes no bones about how incompetent he felt as he boarded the overcrowded Queen Elizabeth for England on August 30, 1942, only two short months after his induction. Once in England Kays was assigned to the First Infantry Division, which was already in England.  Despite the fact that he had no training in combat engineering, Kays became an officer in the 1st Engineering Battalion.

In “Letters from a Soldier” Kays provides a vivid account of training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, of the voyage to England, and of his stay in England and Scotland before shipping out to North Africa. As a writer, his accounts gave me insight about how officers and enlisted men were trained and assigned to various units. In Kays case, he later figured out that in an attempt to get away from Fort Leonard Wood, where he was miserable, he had volunteered for overseas duty. So instead of getting him into another school for training, he landed on the fast track to overseas and combat.

Since I had read very little about the campaign in North Africa or the invasion of Sicily, Bill Kays’ book provided the background I wanted for my character. My story will pick up much later after the soldier is wounded, but I needed a back story. From Kays’ account I can piece together what my character experienced early in the war and how those experiences influenced him later.

The memoir provided details like how long it took for letters to get to the soldiers at various times and locations and that the soldier had to make a request in his letters so that civilians could send him packages for things as simple as cookies or wool socks. The letters also show how his concerns and interests changed over time with interest in what was going on back home dwindling. Vivid accounts of the weather, food, or lack thereof, and living conditions put the reader alongside the soldier. For instance, he gave descriptions of how mud infiltrated everything (yes, even in North Africa, it rains) or how they traded with the locals for eggs to supplement their bland diets.

Kays describes the invasion of Sicily as he watched it from shipboard since his regiment was held in reserve and went ashore later. He tells of watching the naval guns shoot down planes carrying our own airborne soldiers, presumably due to lack of communication between the Navy and the Army Air Corp. One of the many foul-ups during the war, yet one I had not heard before.

Later, Kays gives one of the best accounts of the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach I have ever read. Through his vivid memories the reader experiences the day with him.  As a combat engineering officer assigned to the 16th Regiment, he knew that the beach defenses should have been destroyed before the infantry landed. When he saw them intact, he believed the landing would fail and that they would all be killed. Yet he stepped off that landing craft onto the beach and fought to survive. Little did he know that in the next year he would fight his way across Europe – and live to tell about it.

Other memoirs on my shelf include “Roll Me Over” by Raymond Gantter, “If You Survive” by George Wilson, “A Soldier’s Journal” by David Rothbart, “Visions from a Foxhole” by William A Foley, Jr., “Our War for the World” by Brendan Phibbs, and “One Man’s War” by Tommy LaMore.  All these deal with the war against the Germans.

The war against Japan constituted a whole different experience and, while it was fought largely by the Navy and Marines, many forget that the Army played a big role. My uncle and several others from our small town in Tennessee spent the war in the South Pacific in the Army fighting the Japanese. So ideas are swirling for more stories.