On 70th anniversary of D-Day, local veterans look back

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 6, 2014

Seventy years ago today, the forces of freedom launched what would become the turning point in World War II.
D-Day is the military’s term for the launch date of any combat operation, but after the invasion of Normandy, France, it would become synonymous with June 6, 1944.
It was the largest seaborne invasion in history, with an armada of 5,000 ships crossing the English Channel and more than 150,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops assaulting the enemy on the coast of Nazi-occupied France.
Victory on the shores of Normandy gave the Allies a foothold in mainland Europe, leading to its liberation and the defeat of Adolf Hitler.
But that victory came at a high price. The German military had heavily fortified the coast of France with gun emplacements, artillery, land mines, barbed wire, even sharpened stakes.
The Allies suffered 12,000 casualties the first day, with more than 4,400 confirmed dead.
Local men were there on D-Day, and others followed in the days after that initial wave and fought their way toward Berlin and other important objectives. Here are the recollections of a few of those men:
As 18-year-old Bill Lowrance sat in a landing craft off the shore of France the morning of June 6, 1944, he wondered aloud if it was starting to rain.
It wasn’t.
“They said, ‘Lowrance, you better wise up. That’s .50-caliber machine gun bullets,’ ” chopping the water around their boat. “They were flying all around.”
A Mooresville native, Lowrance had joined the U.S. Navy after graduating high school in 1943. He’d been trained as a field medic. And he was about to become very busy.
Lowrance landed on Omaha Beach around 7 a.m.
“There were already men in there,” recalled the 88-year-old veteran who lives at Trinity Oaks. “Of course, they didn’t know what was ahead for them.”
Before making landfall, he saw Germans hammering the small landing craft that deposited soldiers from an opening in the front.
“Those artillery units were hitting the boats and were killing about half of them,” he said.
He witnessed soldiers jump over the sides of those boats and drown under the weight of their packs.
The ones who made it to the beach faced more shelling and withering machine-gun fire.
“Many of them got wounded, some as many as three times before we even got there,” Lowrance said. “I don’t think anybody knew what they were doing. We just spread out and did what we had to.”
Lowrance summed up what he had to as a medic with this job description:
“You go with the boys that’s out there. … You try to find the pieces that are missing and put them back together.”
As the fighting raged, Lowrance and his unit were given another gruesome task. After a day or so, they counted the dead on their stretch of the beach. There were roughly 4,700.
“We picked them up and stacked them sort of like cord wood” just to keep them from being run over, he recalled.
Finally, they loaded the bodies onto trucks, spread them out along the beach and used a tractor with a 12-foot blade to cover them up.
“It was about 10 days before we ever got settled down to sleeping some,” he said. “We had a lot of dirty work to do.”
Lowrance and other Navy men lost their clothes and gear when enemy artillery destroyed the truck carrying their sea bags.
“I didn’t get to clean up for 30 days,” he said.
As the invasion forces moved inland, Lowrance remained on the coast, where the beaches were strafed nightly by fighter planes and he heard “buzz bombs” flying overhead. He’s not sure how long he stayed, but said it “seemed like a long time.”
Returning to England, Lowrance worked at Churchill Hospital in Oxford for a while, “till one day they asked who all wanted to come home.”
He did, but he didn’t get to stay. After taking a transport ship to Boston, Lowrance was sent to Camp Pendleton in California, then shipped out to Guadalcanal. From there, he took part in his second big invasion of the war, the battle for Okinawa.
Lowrance said he was exposed to radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan that caused health problems decades later.
Lowrance left the Navy in 1946 and went into sales for Massey Ferguson. He married Betty Jo in 1948, and they had three sons — two of them Presbyterian ministers. He’s received letters of thanks from U.S. and French presidents and awards from France.
Today, his memory will reach farther back. With the nation and other veterans, he will reflect on that long day on the coast of France in 1944 when he was still a teenager.
“That’s something you never forget.”
Like a lot of veterans who landed on Normandy’s shores during the D-Day invasion, Tyre Nicholson didn’t like to talk much about his experience, his son Dwight Nicholson said.
It’s easy to see why. Tyre Nicholson’s unit landed about two hours into the fighting. The description of that moment he would give after the war sounds like a scene from the Book of Revelation.
“All he would say,” Dwight Nicholson said this week, “was the ocean was red with blood, and bodies were floating and laying everywhere.”
And if not for men like Tyre Nicholson, the invasion might have stalled in those crimson waves. The China Grove native — 23 years old at the time — was a member of the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion.
After bad weather forced them to wait 24 hours in a landing craft, the 238th followed the 4th Infantry Division onto Utah Beach. No small arms fire threatened his father, Dwight Nicholson said, but there was plenty of artillery.
“Everybody was shooting back and forth at each other with the big guns,” he said.
The unit’s mission was to open roads from the beach to high ground about a mile away. When they got the dunes, the soldiers had to mark some roads that were underwater with stakes and tape, so vehicles wouldn’t run off them.
Moving inland, the engineers cleared and laid land mines. They, his son said, were “always in front of the fighting.”
And they built bridges.
“His unit built the first bridge of the invasion,” Dwight Nicholson said. “There was a lot of it that didn’t progress until the bridges was done.”
The 238th went on to build more, including a 1,308-foot pontoon bridge they constructed in 10 hours to meet a challenge by Gen. Lawton Collins, who promised a beer party if they met that deadline.
Tyre Nicholson’s unit took part in the Battle of the Bulge and built a bridge over the Rhine River.
And even engineers had to fight. Tyre Nicholson was never shot, but did experience an enemy bullet buzzing past his head, and the 5-foot-5 soldier was responsible for carrying a .50-caliber machine gun and ammunition as well as his .45-caliber sidearm.
After the war, Tyre Nicholson had six children and worked as the head of maintenance at textile plants. He enjoyed fishing at Topsail Island and had taught at the Price of Freedom Museum.
Tyre Nicholson learned earlier this year he’d been awarded the Legion of Honor, rank of Knight, by the French government. He could’ve received it in Raleigh, from an Atlanta-based French ambassador, but only eight people could go with him. He opted instead to wait for a ceremony in Bedford, Va., at the National D-Day Memorial, where a French delegation would be on hand to make the award.
But Tyre Nicholson died May 4 at his China Grove home. Bernard Marie, a Roanoke, Va., businessman who was a 5-year-old boy in France discovered hiding with his mother in a basement when the Allies landed in Normandy, pinned the medal on Nicholson at his funeral.
Marie hosts an annual dinner for D-Day veterans, and Tyre Nicholson was looking forward to attending that and the 70th anniversary memorial, his son said. Now, Dwight Nicholson will take his father’s place.
It’s going to be a bittersweet moment.
“I’m proud of getting to,” he said. “I just hope I can handle it.”
David Dagenhart became a U.S. Army infantryman in 1943, originally serving in the 100th Infantry Division. When the need for infantry soldiers became great prior to the Allied invasion of Europe, Dagenhart was transferred to the 9th Infantry Division as a replacement soldier. The 9th had already fought in North Africa and the ranks had to be filled again.
Dagenhart saw his first action as his unit hit Utah Beach on June 10, four days after the original assault. The beach had already been taken, but not secured. Bullets still zipped through the air and bodies were everywhere.
Dagenhart remembered his first thoughts when he approached the beach.
“It would scare you to death,” he said. “You didn’t know what would happen once you hit that beach.”
The 9th Division moved into heavy combat at St. Lo just a few weeks after D-Day.
“There were hedgerows everywhere, and we learned that we were pretty safe when we were in good foxholes near those hedges,” Dagenhart said.
Chosen by the regimental commander as his driver, Dagenhart served out the rest of the war in that capacity.
One particular night, the regiment needed to make a strategic move. Dagenhart, as the colonel’s driver, would follow a lead tank. The tank ran off the road and couldn’t get back on. The colonel told Dagenhart, ”Dag, it’s up to you now. You have to lead us.”
With only a minimum of light, the convoy followed Dagenhart’s lead and made their objective.
“Lots of times I had to just drop him off somewhere and then had to remember how to get back,” Dagenhart said. “It wasn’t easy, but I was pretty good at remembering the turns and able to read the maps pretty well. Colonel Manus was a good man, and I really enjoyed serving with him.”
“We fought at Remagen, Germany, which was a major battle and a big turning point for the war. They threw everything they had at us,” he said.
Remagen was a bridge over the Rhine River that the Germans saw as a last line of defense. By capturing the bridge intact, the Allies were able to begin their first major crossing into Germany.
Another memory was of hundreds of Germans surrendering.
“They didn’t sound like GIs marching,” he said. “They felt safer surrendering to us instead of the Russians. The Russians had already proven how mean they were. Their soldiers and civilians both wanted to come to us. ”
Dagenhart was awarded five battle stars, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star during his service. He remained in the Army for six months on occupational duty after the end of the war, most of that time spent in a former German army camp near Munich.
Now 92, Dagenhart lives with his wife Dorothy in Mount Ulla.
Paul Stirewalt was drafted on Jan. 1, 1943. He served in the 2nd Cavalry, 3rd Army as a driver of a half-track truck. Stirewalt’s half-track also pulled a trailer, both used to haul ammunition for General Patton’s tanks.
Stirewalt’s first action was as his unit approached Omaha Beach, five days after D-Day.
“We had been staging at Plymouth, England,” he said. “There was fear, we just wondered what would happen to us. There were dead bodies of both men and horses everywhere. We were told to drive over them.”
Stirewalt drove his half-track off the LST boat with the fan belt unhooked to keep from drowning the motor in the ocean. The drivers stopped on land and put the belt back on to keep from overheating the engines.
Just a few weeks later, after being surrounded for three days at St. Lo, Stirewalt’s unit made a run for it.
“We could see their tanks, but we had the advantage,” he said. “Our M-3 tanks had turrets, meaning that they could swivel the 3-inch gun. The German tanks were bigger, but they had to actually turn the tank to shoot at us. We could see them and they could see us, but we got away.”
Another memory stood out for Stirewalt. Right after the Battle of the Bulge, his unit went to Luxembourg. Snow was several feet deep and temperatures were so cold that the men struggled to stay warm.
“Often we could cut the charge on a shell and save the powder in bags,” he said. “We brought those bags back to the tent, and one day it was my turn to bring them in. I threw them down next to the stove and the next thing I knew, the tent was on fire and some of the men barely made it out. The platoon sergeant asked what had happened, and we told him the tent burnt down. He just said to go get another one. I never got in trouble for that, but I did get some of my hair singed.”
As the war came to a close, the 2nd Cavalry was in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
“We didn’t get a lot of resistance,” Stirewalt said. “Lots of the Germans were surrendering, I remember seeing these two older biplanes flying over, and asked what they were. I was told that those planes were Russian heavy bombers. They were certainly nothing like ours.”
Stirewalt returned home on Oct. 31, 1945. Now 92, he now lives in China Grove.