D-Day remembered: ‘I only know that I was scared to death’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2019

ROCKWELL — Eugene Hobbs is 97 now and a treasured resident of the Community Living Center at the Salisbury VA hospital.

His legs aren’t working like they used to, so he depends on a wheelchair. His right arm doesn’t have as much strength as it once did, and Hobbs attributes that to a wound he received fighting the Germans in France as his unit moved toward Cherbourg.

That was later in June of 1944, a couple of weeks after the smoky, smelly, bullet-strafing D-Day when Hobbs landed with nearly 30,000 other soldiers on Omaha Beach.

Hobbs apologizes when asked what he remembers about that horrendous day.

“It’s been a long time, you know, and I’ve lost some of my memory,” he said Wednesday. “I only know that I was scared to death.”

Hobbs remembers the beach invasion was supposed to happen a day earlier, on the 5th, but “the planes couldn’t see, it was raining and so foggy.”

The ship Hobbs arrived in was anchored in the channel overnight before he and his fellow infantrymen were transferred to the landing craft.

They had simple instructions about what to do once they hit the beach.

“If your buddy was shot down beside you, you were supposed to keep going,” Hobbs said. “That’s hard to do. And yes, it did happen.”

The staff at the Community Living Center brought Hobbs and other residents to Lady Bird Farm on Wednesday. Powles Staton Funeral Home, Lady Bird Farm and Silver Spoon Catering offered a free lunch for military veterans, and this one happened the day before the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Hobbs politely delayed digging into his lunch to talk about D-Day and the war in general that he can’t forget, even if he complains about his memory.

The things that come to mind for Hobbs are the low-flying German planes firing from overhead — and the men left behind. He thinks his unit made it a mile or two off the beach that day and were soon instructed to head northwest to capture Cherbourg.

It was outside that port city, where the Germans were making another strong defense, that Hobbs was shot in the arm — bad enough that he needed immediate medical help.

The few tents set up that day in the field couldn’t accommodate all the wounded, Hobbs said, so he was loaded onto a hospital ship and taken back to England for treatment.

“Eugene, you’re ready to go back,” Hobbs recalls one of the doctors saying after his recovery was complete.

So back to his unit in France he went. The months that followed are a blur.

“I know there were a couple of days when I didn’t know where we were,” Hobbs said.

He pushed on with other American and Allied forces all the way to Berlin and the ultimate German surrender.

“We were going in on the front, and the Russians were coming in on the back,” he said.

The fighting going into Berlin led to his having shell shock, thanks to “sounds that would bust your eardrums out.”

Sitting at the next table over, 95-year-old Cecil Ray Fisher wore the blue sports jacket that signifies he belongs to the N.C. Military Veterans Hall of Fame.

Fisher, a first lieutenant and part of the 3rd Division, led a platoon in the World War II campaigns of Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Southern France, the Rhineland and Central Europe.

On D-Day, Fisher said, he was still fighting in Italy. “I saw a lot of combat,” he said, remembering how he hid in Italian brick ovens to avoid German patrols.

Fisher thinks he made three different beach landings during the war. “That was a rough one at Anzio,” he said. “It was tough. One night we had to dig a hole all night long to stay awake.”

Another day, he and his men marched 25 miles, carrying heavy guns and all their gear. He also recalled being part of a “sled team,” pulled through the countryside by tanks.

But when German artillery started firing on them, the tanks started to back up in a hurry.

“That was the last of the sled team,” Fisher said. “We had to get out of there.”

After the war, Fisher returned to N.C. State University to complete his degree in textile engineering.

He wound up becoming superintendent for Cannon Mills Plant No. 6 in Concord. During the Korean War, when he was in the Army Reserve, Fisher was called back to active duty and sent to a U.S. base in Germany.

Fisher retired from the mill company 35 years ago. He and his wife live today in Rockwell with daughter Beverly Smith close by.

“He has a (war) diary that’s unreal,” Smith said Wednesday.

Fisher kept it under his helmet.

Both Fisher and Hobbs are Purple Heart recipients twice over. Fisher still has shrapnel in his right leg, but Smith said her father doesn’t complain.

A native of Iredell County, Hobbs also landed with a textile company after the war. He first lived and worked for Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, then moved to Mooresville when he got a job with a yarn company.

He wound up spending the rest of his work career there and finished as a supervisor on the first shift.

Hobbs wore a ball cap Wednesday that a couple brought to him from a recent visit to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.

But Raymond Hobbs said his father has never talked much about the war and Omaha Beach.

A lot has been said in recent days about how this 75th anniversary of D-Day will be the last big one, because the World War II guys such as Hobbs and Fisher will be passing on.

D-Day is one of those dates we should never forget.

If there’s one thing these guys taught us in securing the freedoms we still enjoy today, it was to keep going, to keep fighting.

That can be hard, especially when people around you are falling.

And the sounds bust out your eardrums.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.