OXFORD – Anyone who has watched a film about D-Day has gotten a hint of the carnage and challenge that as many as 156,000 Allied soldiers faced in storming the beaches of Normandy.
For every infantryman or artillery gunner who waded ashore on June 6, 1944, though, there were countless others supporting that invasion in countless ways.
Several such veterans now living at the Mississippi State Veterans Home in Oxford recently shared their recollections of D-Day and the war beyond it.
“We took off at two o’clock that morning,” said Finnon L. King, a native of Baldwyn, who was a B-24 flight engineer whose crew flew four missions that day. “We came back about 11 o’clock that night. We bombed German machine gun nests.”
George Mongeon, a native of Fall River, Mass., was also on a bombing crew, albeit with a different target.
“We were bombing a bridge in St. Lo, France. You’d drop your bombs and get the hell out,” Mongeon said. “We went there twice to make sure we got it.”
Henry C. Doler of Slate Springs was still in England when the first wave of soldiers hit the French coast. A few days later he drove a one-and-one-half-ton truck onto Utah Beach, pulling a 57-millimeter antitank gun.
“We waited until it got daylight so we could drive up on the beach,” he said. One of the first things he saw was the remains of an airman who’d crashed into trees just off the beach. He couldn’t let it overwhelm his thoughts, though.
“I was going to try to do what I was supposed to do,” Doler said. “I didn’t know what I was going to get into. We hadn’t heard much about what happened the first days.”
All three men went on to perform courageously for the rest of the war. King flew 28 combat missions and was in the air with a load of bombs for Hitler’s personal residence when the radio told of the German surrender in April 1945.
Of course, not every day was fighting for the flight crews. Several times he went to Scotland or Ireland to help procure whiskey for the off-duty airmen.
“It was every Friday evening,” King said. “It gave the flying people something to drink. I never did drink a drop – haven’t yet, and never will.”
Doler’s artillery squad fought their way through France and Germany. One near miss nearly took him out – even before a dud bomb landed within feet of him.
“If it had exploded, I wouldn’t be here talking to you,” he said somberly.
In December 1944, shrapnel tore through his left hip after he had just started a new foxhole, sending him away from the action.
“The war was over by the time I was ready to rejoin my outfit,” he lamented.
Mongeon’s plane was shot down on his 39th mission on Oct. 6, 1944, and he spent the rest of the war as a POW.
“We’d had one more mission to go, and we would have come home,” he said. “We bailed out at 27,000 feet. I don’t plan ever to do that again.”
Mongeon made a 33-year career of the Air Force, reaching the rank of staff sergeant (and eventually becoming the father of a two-star general).
As with any epic struggle, the war, as much as it shaped these men’s lives, was a means to an end. It was peace for which they fought, and its achievement was glorious.
King was flying from Dalhart, Texas, to Sioux Falls, S.D., with expected deployment to Japan, when word of the Japanese surrender came through.
“I just walked through the back of the plane and turned the radio on,” he said “Naturally, every (station) had that on it – that Yamamoto had signed an unconditional surrender.”
Had the war not ended when it did, King was expecting his next mission to be in Japan, perhaps starting a third mushroom cloud.
“We had a bigger bomb than had already been dropped, ready for the next day,” he said. “(Our group) would have been the ones to drop the next one, I reckon.”
Sixty-six years after D-Day, the former servicemen still remember the united effort it took to win the war.
“Everybody had a part, and it looked like everybody did their part,” King said.
“They all did a good job,” Doler agreed. “It would (be) hard for people today to understand.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scattered service, united effort
OXFORD – Just as the stories of George Mongeon, Henry Doler and F. L. King reflect different aspects of the Allied effort to invade Europe and counter the Axis offensive, so do the recollections of Lynn Castens, father of Daily Journal reporter Errol Castens.
The Navy minesweeper USS Bluebird, on which Lynn D. Castens spent two years of the war, collected weather data near the southeastern coast of Greenland. Such information from a fleet of tiny ships enabled Allied forecasters to predict weather for purposes of bombing runs and even the D-Day invasion itself.
With German subs rare that far from shipping routes, the Bluebird’s chief enemy was the stormy Atlantic. As its crew used baseball bats to keep ice from sinking their vessel during one sub-freezing hurricane, a sister ship disappeared beneath the waves a few hundred yards away.
Despite later facing kamikazes at Okinawa, Castens said, “The most terrifying battle I ever fought was with the North Atlantic.”
Like fighting the elements to stay afloat, though, fighting Hitler and Hirohito was not optional if the United States was to survive.
“This whole country turned to winning the war,” he said. “It wasn’t just the servicemen. It took the sacrifices of the civilians back home, too.”
– Errol Castens
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal