Last month, World War II veteran and Macon County resident, Herb Simmons, 92, returned to the D-day battlefields of Normandy where he had been a part of the invasion that had driven back and ultimately stopped the German war machine. Within a year, Hitler had committed suicide and the German armies surrendered, ending the war in Europe.
The 70th Anniversary of the invasion was commemorated at Omaha Beach¸ on June 6, 2014. Both the U.S President Barack Obama and President of the French Republic, Francois Hollande, spoke at the ceremony honoring the Allied soldiers who fought and died there to preserve the liberties Americans enjoy each day.
In his speech, President Obama said, “We don’t just honor sacrifice. We come to remember why America and our allies gave so much to the survival of liberty at this moment of maximum peril.”
Many Americans have fathers, grandfathers, or other close relatives who were a part of this history-changing battleground. Our individual ancestries were touched personally by the blood shed on these beaches in June 1944. Nearly 9,400 American soldiers are still entombed on Omaha Beach. Tens of thousands more men were wounded and horribly maimed fighting to maintain the democratic Republic that is our heritage.
The men that did survive this global holocaust are quickly passing away into history, leaving us with only memories, stories and legends. Herb Simmons of Macon County is one of those few that remain to connect the present generation with the reality of that horrible conflict and its impact on each person now alive on this planet. He is the only known survivor of his original unit, the 50th Fighter Group, 81st Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Corps.
In service to his country
Simmons was born in Iowa March 24, 1922, growing up during the years of The Great Depression. During the early years of the conflict, he moved from Iowa and found work with Northrup Corporation in California. He said when the German naval vessels began to sink American ships, he left his job and enlisted in the military to help fight the Nazi aggression.
At age 20, he was in the armed services and headed to Sheppard Field, Texas, for basic training with the Army Air Corps. After completing training there, he was sent to Black River Falls, Wisc., for Specialized Communications Training. Besides Herb, there were 10 Navy recruits, 10 Marines and nine other Army Air Corps trainees in a high-security training facility for several months. None of them were allowed to have any communication with family or friends until their training was completed. He was assigned to the 50th Fighter Group, 81st Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Corps, along with his other two team members, G. W. Standridge, and Wade Shuler.
Herb and his fellow soldiers began their overseas tour of duty in April 1944 near Lymington, England. He and his crew maintained and operated a communications truck and equipment to support the pilots who were making bombing runs across the English Channel.
Each morning the pilots were given a new contact code to use in the event they would become disoriented, or if they were shot down. The communications unit would then calculate the plane’s position and chart a return course to the airstrip in England. In the event of a downed plane, they would give the plane’s position to nearby ground forces so they could provide cover and assistance for the endangered pilot.
On D-4 , (June 10, 1944) the communications specialists were scheduled to be put ashore on Utah Beach but were mistakenly taken to Omaha Beach in the midst of very heavy fighting. While they were attempting to get to their unit, their truck was stalled and an 80mm shell hit an embankment directly in front of them.
The shell did not explode. The shell was later dug up by armament specialists who could find no reason for its failure to detonate. Herb’s truck and all the men in it should have been destroyed that day. Several weeks later, Herb got word from his parents that solved the mystery of the unexploded shell. Back in Iowa, his parents had been praying for their safety at the very hour the shell had been fired. As the Allied forces began to push the Germans back through France, Herb’s commanding officer got wind of a cache of really fine German command cars that had been abandoned by the retreating army. So, he decided that he needed one of them for himself.
He called on the three buddies for a little foraging expedition. Soon they were on their way toward the front lines with a stack of fabricated orders that would hopefully get them through the necessary checkpoints. In short order, a very proud commanding officer was being chauffeured around in a robin’s egg blue Mercedes command car with a canvas top. Another incident Herb related happened when their unit had appropriated a German half-track motorcycle. While he and G.W. Standridge were attempting to repair the vehicle, some gasoline spewed out of the engine onto Herb’s coat. At that moment, the engine fired, sending out a spark that turned Herb into a fireball. In spite of the safety training that taught him to drop and roll, Herb started to run. G.W. tackled him, rolling into a bunker and smothering the flames enveloping Herb. G.W. did sustain some burns on his hands and body, but the unselfish act of heroism saved his buddy’s life. Herb and his unit remained in Europe until the end of the war in the spring of 1945. He had actually received orders to transfer to China just before the war ended. He never made the trip to China and was discharged from the military during the winter of 1945.
After the war
After World War II ended, Herb, like thousands of other young men, returned to the United States, resuming life as a civilian. He did all the normal things of life: he worked, married, had children and grandchildren. In spite of that, he belonged to that world wide brotherhood of young men who carried with them the memories, the images of death and destruction that accompanied the war. It was an experience he could not share openly (even with his closest family members) for nearly 40 years.
Herb still experiences nightmares about the war. The nightmares have occurred over the years, but they have gotten worse in recent years. He wakes himself, yelling in his sleep. He also wakes his wife, Norma. When he awakens, the episode ends and he is able to go back to sleep.
Over the years, Herb has attended numerous ceremonies and anniversaries marking the history-changing military invasion the world now knows simply as D-day. June 6, 2014, was special for Herb, not only because it commemorated the 70th anniversary of the assault on Omaha Beach but because he was able to go to England and France to take an active part in ceremonies recalling the unselfish sacrifices of thousands of young men who participated in this massive military campaign.
During the first week of June, Herb and some members of his family were flown to England aboard the private jet of Charles Burnett III. They were hosted in England by Burnett, who is the current owner of the estate that served as the airfield near Lymington, England, where Herb was first stationed in Europe. Burnett is a World War II military aficionado, who has a massive collection of World War II military memorabilia, including airplanes, tanks, trucks, and armament. He employs mechanics to make sure the equipment stays in working order. He is dedicated to maintaining the memory of the significance of this military action. During this stop-over, Herb was able to walk the grounds of the original airfield and reminisce about events of the distant past. The airfield has been restored to fully usable condition and the original hangar has been repaired and upgraded.
Herb was also able to spend time with John Tenham, before going on to France. In 1944, John was a freckle-faced boy of 12. Herb remembers John riding around the base on his bicycle showing the pass that allowed him access to the grounds. The first time John tried to get past the guards, he was denied entrance to the facility. Then he told them they had to let him in because he owned the property. He did! He is Lord John Tenham, and he owns the estate adjoining the New Forest airstrip.
70th Anniversary at Omaha Beach
On June 5, Herb and his family took to the air again, taking off from the same airfield that had been his first assignment during his European tour of duty. Their destination was Cherbourg, France, where his unit had established their first airstrip in Normandy. They were met by the current owners of the farm that had housed the American soldiers 70 years before.
The following day, they attended the formal 70th anniversary celebration at Omaha Beach. Herb and other World War II veterans were seated on the stage as guests of honor as the presidents of the United States and France spoke of the historic ramifications of the Normandy invasion by the allied armies.
Later that day, Herb returned to the airstrip to speak and to participate in a flower laying ceremony at a permanent memorial erected to honor the 81st Fighter Squadron. He was assisted by the mayors from five surrounding communities. He presented them with a United States flag sent by Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina’s 11th District Congressman. The flag is to be flown each year on June 6 as a memorial to the D-day invasion.
June 7 was an all day celebration event hosted by Charles Burnett III at his Newtown Park home. Herb was invited to unveil a new information panel constructed by the New Forest Remembers World War II project. Herb presented a United States flag to Burnett.
The public event continued throughout the day with displays of World War II warplanes and military vehicles from Burnett’s collection. The displays included two Spitfires and one Hurricane airplane. The military equipment was showcased in a full-scale battle re-enactment on the grounds.
As the day was drawing to an end, the crowd was treated to a full program of precision aerial acrobatics presented by the Red Arrows (the British equivalent to the United States Navy Blue Angels). The nine pilots staged a spectacular airshow of breathtaking drills enhanced by plumes of red, white, and blue smoke.
The evening culminated with an extravagant fireworks display, ending a week of memories and celebration for the few remaining survivors of World War II, the few that Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” At the conclusion, Herb was invited to return for the 75th Anniversary and he told them he didn’t know if he will feel up to it since he will be 97 years old.
The final chapter of this narrative involves, not only Herb, but his wife, Norma. He and Norma had mutual friends named Wayne and Jean. Wayne and Jean were dating and they encouraged Herb and Norma to correspond while Herb was in Europe. Although they were raised a few miles apart, they had never met.
According to Herb’s version, Norma said that if he would write first, then she would write him back. He did. Then she did. The courtship continued through the mail until Herb was discharged late in 1945. Herb and Norma were married June 29, 1946, and celebrated 68 years of marriage this year.
They were in Iowa on their anniversary in June and were able to meet with Wayne and Jean Bonnett, who brought them together 70 years ago. Wayne and Jean had married in April 1946 and recently celebrated their 68 years together.
Two couples, still married after 68 years, joined by circumstances in a period of such conflict reunited and still celebrating the journey.