This week marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It is a week that reminds us that the generation of World War II was not just the greatest generation but a generation of heroes.
My father and Charles Lee and Glynn Shumake and thousands of other American airmen during World War II volunteered and flew combat missions over German-occupied Europe knowing their life expectancy (death or capture after being shot down) was only six missions. My father and Charles Lee spent D-Day as POWS with Dr. Julian Boggess at Stalag Luft IV. Boggess was captured in North Africa after he refused to leave the sides of wounded American soldiers when Germans were about to overrun the field hospital where he was treating the wounded.
I’ve also told stories of Brad Freeman, Lt. Col. Alva Temple, Bill McCarter, “Red” Franks, Tom Hardy, Dorothy Stout, Jack Kaye and many other heroes of the greatest generation. Today I want to tell the story of two men I knew who served in the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. They were part of the first assault waves onto bloody Omaha Beach on D-Day. It is scenes of the 116th’s horrific D-Day landing that opens the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
The 29th Infantry Division was assigned to land on Omaha Beach to the right of the 1st Division and next to the 2nd Ranger Battalion which was assigned to take the Cliffs there. The 116th Infantry Regiment was to lead the 29th ashore. It was composed mostly of Virginia National Guard troops and the unit had been the Confederate “Stonewall Brigade” of Civil War fame. The 116th’s job was to open passages through two draws leading off the beach that were defended by crack German troops only recently placed there. The regiment came ashore in four waves of landing craft. The first two waves were decimated and their advance blocked.
The third wave, taking advantage of the gains of the earlier waves and with assistance from the 5th Ranger Battalion, pushed forward. The advance was led by C Company of the 116th when they punched through the German defenses covering one of the draws that led off the beach.
The late Orman Kimbrough of Greenwood was a cousin, but being close family and older he was always Uncle Orman to me. His mother, Lucile, was my great aunt and a Hardy from the Lowndes County Prairie. Kimbrough was the classic soft-spoken Delta gentleman.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, Kimbrough was a second lieutenant in C Company, 116th Regiment, 29th Division, U.S. Army, in a landing craft off the coast of Normandy, France. His regiment was part of the first assault wave against what would become bloody Omaha Beach.
As his company’s landing craft headed toward shore in the early morning, current and the dodging of landing obstacles placed by the Germans resulted in the craft becoming several hundred yards east of its designated location. In addition, the seaman piloting the craft was about to drop the men in water over their heads trying to avoid obstacles and enemy fire. Kimbrough pointed his carbine at the seaman and forced him to maneuver the craft into closer, shallower water but water still over waist deep. From there the company waded ashore under heavy German machine gun fire.
Kimbrough and a sergeant were able to cross the beach before being completely pinned down by machine gun and sniper fire. Another lieutenant and four men who had tried to cross with them had been shot and did not make it across. A German machine gun emplacement whose approaches were covered by sniper fire prevented any further American advancement on that part of the beach. Kimbrough shot and killed the snipers as he directed his men in taking out the German gun emplacement. That action opened a hole in the German defensive wall for Americans to advance through the draw and off the beach.
After moving away from the beach, Kimbrough, with a mixture of men from different units, headed west in the vicinity of the village of Vierville. On a road there, he saw the first American tanks moving off the beach. The first tank, seeing some soldiers in front, assumed they were Germans and turned its gun toward them. Kimbrough, realizing what was happening, ran in front of the tank and began jumping up and down waving his arms. The tank saw Kimbrough’s actions, realized they were Americans and backed off. Later, one of the soldiers commented that they first thought Lt. Kimbrough “had gone crazy.” They then realized he had just “saved our butts.”
Not long afterward, a German artillery shell hit near Kimbrough. It blew him across the road and blew the stock off his carbine. He was wounded by shrapnel but as soon as his wounds were treated he returned to his men and combat.
This soft-spoken gentleman that I have such fond memories of visiting and going duck and dove hunting with was awarded the Silver Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster (a second Silver Star award), two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart with five Oak Leaf Clusters (he was wounded six times) and by the French government with the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star.
Another member of the 116th was the late Charles Eubanks of West Point. When I was practicing law in West Point, I often drank coffee with Mr. Eubanks. He had mentioned that he landed on D-Day but would talk very little about it, just referring to himself as a survivor. It was coin collecting he enjoyed talking about. I never knew that he and Uncle Orman had been in the same unit until after both had passed away.
Eubanks was interviewed for the Army News Service in 2004. In the article he was asked about the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” His comment sums up the horrors they faced. “Forget about what you saw on ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ … It was much worse from our level — the Nazis totally had us pinned down in the sand — all the while, blood, human flesh, body parts, and metal were raining down on our soldiers lucky enough to be alive. We were on our bellies from the time we left the boats until the time we finally took our objective.”
Eubanks was later wounded and taken to a hospital in England. Cynthia, the English nurse who cared for him in the hospital, cared for him for the rest of their lives, as they married after the war ended. Included in Eubanks’ many decorations are the Silver Star, a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
One thing that my father, Orman Kimbrough, Charles Eubanks and so many other veterans of World War II had in common was they downplayed what they did and said the real heroes were their friends and comrades who never came home.
And safe travels and thank you to Brad Freeman who early on June 6, 1944, in the nighttime darkness, parachuted behind German lines seeking to neutralize some of the German resistance to the Allied D-Day landing. Accompanied by Steve Wallace, they are currently on their way to Normandy as I write this. Mr. Freeman was invited to the official 75th anniversary of D-Day ceremony.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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