Bradenton veteran shares solemn memories of June 6, 1944

vmannix@bradenton.comJune 6, 2012 

MANATEE -- The large map is yellowed with age, frayed at its edges and held together by tape that turned brown decades ago.

TOP SECRET is stamped in purple at the top.

A long red line in grease pencil dissects a beachhead and snakes inland, touching French towns whose names still resonate with men who were there that momentous day.

Men such as Bill Wood.

Surville.

Ravenoville.

Ste. Mere-Eglise.

"A bit of history there," said the 92-year-old widower, tracking the red line he drew 68 years ago.

A page from history, indeed.

It is an invasion map of Utah Beach, one of five Normandy beachheads 156,000 Allied troops stormed on D-Day, June 6, 1944, a crucial date in World War II that still echoes across

America and abroad.

Bill Wood, then a young Army captain and combat engineer, was among them.

"I didn't know what to expect, but you always knew there's a probability somebody's going to get you before you get to them," the Corder, Mo., native said. "You just do your job and hope everybody else does theirs.

"My job was minimal as far as winning the war -- I was never in an infantry-type situation -- but it was important as far as getting other people to win the war."

Hence, the map.

It was used to deal with logistical obstacles -- building bridges, clearing land mines, draining culverts -- and getting troops moving inland.

Ironically, it was the only map Wood kept.

"It was in the bottom of my duffel bag the rest of the war," he said. "I'd put it away all these years and hadn't really paid a lot of attention to it. Not until my wife told me to write stuff down."

Wood gazed at the map, old ghosts stirring.

"You remember the things that hurt the most," he said. "I was so lucky."

Wood was like many of the 23,250 American boys leaping into the breach that fateful morning off Utah Beach to invade Hitler's Fortress Europe.

Watching the U.S. Navy's big guns pound German positions from aboard his transport, he must have thought wistfully of the tranquility he knew as a Missouri farmboy only a few years before.

"It was a good life, but I didn't know any better," Wood said.

"We moved around during the Depression -- Sedalia, Kansas City, back to Grand Pass to a 300-plus acre farm. Went to school, milked cows, fed hogs, did chores, helped in the hayfields, shocked wheat.

"But I knew I wasn't going to do that forever."

War interrupted his plans.

Wood joined the National Guard and his unit was eventually activated.

"I felt like the nation needed soldiers and I offered my service," he said. "I didn't wait to be drafted. I answered the call."

A nearby shadowbox containing a Bronze Star and Purple Heart attest to that.

"Getting killed never entered my mind," Wood said. "I knew if we didn't do something, then I'd never get back. When we started fighting the Germans, we were working our way home.

"It was the beginning of the end for Hitler."

Utah Beach was not the bloody operation like Omaha Beach, which was defended by German troops firing down from high bluffs.

Yet it wasn't long before the terrible toll of war began manifesting itself.

There were an estimated 10,000 casualties, including 2,500 killed, on D-Day.

"They were bringing the bodies back, loaded and stacked one on top of the other in 2- 1/2-ton trucks," Wood said. "They'd run them back onto the LSTs (transports) and take them to England.

"It didn't affect me then. I guess I was glad I wasn't one of them."

The image of all those tarp-covered corpses still pains him.

"Do you know how many children's lives were changed?" said Wood, a great-grandfather. "How many wives' lives were changed? How many mothers and fathers were without children? Or without that son to help them in their old age?"

Questions his son, retired in Sarasota, can relate to.

"I'm grateful he did what he did and that he made it out of there," said Bill Wood, 65. "It was a horrible job that had to be done and they did it."

The aged map is a powerful reminder.

Especially for its owner.

"So many gave so very much on that day," Bill Wood said. "Even those who didn't lose their lives lost something on D-Day."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Follow him on Twitter @vinmannix.

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