Editor’s Note: This guest column is written by Tom Webb, who recently traveled with his son, Ben, to Normandy where his father, Norman Webb, was part of the D-Day invasion force on June 6, 1944.
As the train sped through the rolling French countryside from Normandy back to Paris at over 180 mph, my son Ben and I reflected on our journey to honor my Dad and his Grandfather, who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day June 6, 1944. It was a solemn day of discovery for us in May 2014 with visits to Utah and Omaha Beach and the U.S. Military Cemetery.
My Dad, Staff Sargent Norman Webb, was born in West Virginia. His family moved by a horse drawn wagon to Fancy Gap, Virginia, when he was a small child. His parents were subsistence farmers who survived off the land. When he was a young teenager he worked as a stone mason’s helper chiseling rock for the Blue Ridge Parkway Bridge at US 52 and later was in the CCCC’s at Fairystone Park.
Dad was working in the Naval Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After months of training he was transferred to the 4th Infantry Division, which was preparing to invade German occupied France. At midnight on June 5 he and 57 other soldiers were loaded into a wooden landing craft built for 30 men from the USS Bayfield 11 miles off the Normandy coast.
A bad storm with rain and lightning was brewing causing the liberation of France to be delayed. They remained in the landing craft suffering through 36 hours in an open Higgins boat heavily loaded down with weapons and 90 pound packs. Throughout the early morning hours of June 6 Dad could see the planes dropping in the 101st and bombing the beachhead that they would soon be assaulting. When the door to the landing craft dropped they faced a hail of bullets and ran into the water for a struggle to the beach to assault the German fortifications. D-Day was the first day of the liberation of France.
I now understand, after visiting the Normandy area, why Dad was able to survive when so many others perished.
Normandy is located on the northern coast of France along the English Channel. After the 4th Infantry made their landing and moved inland Dad must have looked around in amazement. The terrain was almost identical to his boyhood home in Fancy Gap. The area is primarily agricultural with apple trees and fields separated by piles of rocks that have been piled up since Roman times so cattle could graze in the pastures. Trees native to Fancy Gap like Popular, Honey Locus, Pine and Maples dominate the landscape and grow thickly in the rock piles to create hedge rows that kept the cattle in their pastures and also made a deadly ambush site for German to impede the liberators’ progress. Dad was able to lead his men and use the fields and trees to his advantage since he had been surviving in a similar area his whole life.
Our train trip through rural France to Paris only took a couple of hours while it took Dad from June 6 to Aug. 25 to fight his way to Paris. One of my vivid memories was his story about removing the explosives from the Eiffel Tower while Germans snipers were firing at him. Dad was in every major battle in France and Germany and was on the front lines for 299 days, one of the longest assignments in the war. The 4th Infantry had a total of 35,545 casualties and were constantly resupplied with new soldiers. The 4th had the highest casualty rate, lost more men in battle, and had the highest percentage turnover of any American Division in the European Theater. (Source: Order of battle, United States Army in WW II – European Theater of Operations, Office of the Theater Historian, ETON, 12/1945).
Out of the 27 men who started out under my Dad’s command, he still had 18 of the original soldiers with him when the Germans surrendered. Dad was awarded the Silver Star for valor, five Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, Army Presidential Unit Citation and several other medals.
Back at home he participated in the VFW Honor Guard as an active member for more than 50 years to make sure that every veteran received a proper burial. Ben and I took his Silver Star, Bronze Star and the France Liberation medal that he wore while honoring veterans at their funerals to Utah Beach to complete the circle. He was with us in spirit.
This is a quote from Staff Sargent Norman Webb in a 2001 interview when he was 80, “America is the greatest country in the world. I have paid my dues, but I will still defend her if she needs my help. Freedom is worth the sacrifice.”