Bradenton veterans in their twilight years remember D-Day

vmannix@bradenton.comJune 6, 2013 

BRADENTON

One was a self-proclaimed "city slicker" from Arcadia.

The other, an Iowa farm boy.

Though they have never met during their time in Manatee County, their fate was joined with thousands of other young American sailors and soldiers on this date 69 years ago at a dangerous destination on the coast of France that still resonates for our country.

Normandy's Omaha Beach.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Gilbert Alexander Smith Sr. was a 20-year-old crewman on a Navy LST that offloaded troops, trucks and half-tracks for the amphibious assault by 32,350 U.S. soldiers on that bloody beachhead.

"A day I'll remember as long as I live," said the Arcadia native now retired in Due West, S.C.

Rusty Yager was an 18-year-old infantryman who went ashore later and fell into battle with German troops determined to regain the beachhead.

"I was innocent of what war was really like, but I soon knew well what it was," said the native of Spirit Lake, Iowa. "I learned fast."

Seven decades later the images come back for both men in the twilight of their lives.

Smith, now 90, served more than 20 years as circuit judge, chief judge and then senior judge for the 12th Judicial Circuit in Bradenton. His son, Gilbert Jr., has been a circuit court judge since 2009.

Smith estimates his LST was 2 miles offshore when the allied armada's warships commenced their pre-dawn barrage on German positions.

"We could see them firing, see the flash, hear them. It was a hell of a fight and we had a ringside seat," he said. "I can still see the couple of hundred troops we

had on board, men we'd gotten friendly with, bazookas and ammo on their backs as they went down to their boats. I was glad I wasn't one of them."

Yager, an 88-year-old widower retired here since 1979, was more fortunate.

Raised on a tranquil 160-acre farm with crops and livestock, he did not go in on the first wave, which suffered an estimated 2,000 casualties.

Though Omaha Beach had been captured by the time he struggled ashore, loaded down with heavy packs and gun in rough water up to his neck, death was everywhere.

"The beach was still littered with bodies and it wasn't a pleasant sight," Yager said. "But I was so seasick, I was so glad to get off the ship, it didn't matter where I was going."

The fighting found him soon enough.

Joined up with the First Infantry Division -- the famous Big Red One -- Yager and his unit encountered a fierce German counterattack in the French hedgerows.

"I was going to climb over a hedgerow and a buddy pulled me back down," he said. "Their machine guns would've cut me to ribbons."

After D-Day operations ceased, Smith's LST returned to England bringing back more men and machinery, a trip they'd make several times. Yager marched on across France, then into Belgium and Germany, earning a Bronze Star along the way.

Smith and his wife, Alpha, have been back to visit Normandy.

"The beach has been cleaned up and looks nothing like the first time I saw it," he said. "It still means a lot to me."

Yager has never been back, though his children have visited that hallowed ground.

"Being there for the invasion was enough," he said.

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

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