SURGOINSVILLE — When America’s “Greatest Generation” is gone, untold volumes of first- person accounts of World War II experiences will be gone with them.
On Monday, however, Surgoinsville students had the rare treat of receiving a WWII history lesson from a person who was actually there — 93-year-old U. Bert McConnell, who was among the first wave to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day and then fought 82 days across France before being wounded in the Battle of Brest.
McConnell, a native of Scott County, Va., is the father of Surgoinsville Middle School librarian Lee Ann McConnell. Students from the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade filled the school library Monday morning to hear McConnell’s stories as part of a Veterans Day program.
McConnell told of how he spent two years in England training for what would become D-Day, and then accidentally became among the first 30 infantry soldiers to land on Omaha Beach.
“We loaded them boats (landing crafts) off the ships, and there was supposed to be a rendezvous out there until all of them got loaded and then move in to the beach. The coxswain on our boat, when we got loaded, he went straight in, and we were the first ones there. There was a sandbar there we got behind, and of course everybody seemed to be stunned — they had protection behind the sandbar. The lieutenant had bangalore torpedoes that you shove together and shove under a double barb wire fence at the top of the (cliff). They took the bangalore torpedoes and blew the fence out and we moved through there to inland. If I’m not mistaken all of us made it to shore, but we lost two or three men after we got to shore.”
McConnell was in Company K of the 116th Infantry, 29th Infantry Division — the same company as Sgt. Frank D. Peregory who was awarded the Medal of Honor. On June 8, 1944, Peregory killed eight Germans and captured three on his way to an underground machine gun emplacement, where he then captured another 32 German soldiers.
Peregory was killed on June 14, 1944, during fighting in the hedgerows.
“He walked out in front of a machine gun,” McConnell said. “They riddled him.”
McConnell said moving through the hedgerows “was a dangerous situation.”
The tanks had probes on the front to poke holes in the hedgerows, and engineers would put explosives in the holes to blow gaps in them big enough for tanks and soldier to get through.
During the Battle of Saint Lo on June 17, 1944, McConnell, a staff sergeant, led an attack to retrieve weapons and ammunition that had been cut off by the enemy. As a result of that action, McConnell was awarded the Silver Star.
After D-Day, McConnell fought through the hedgerows during the Battle of Saint Lo, he fought in the Battle of Vire, and then he was sent back to the Atlantic coast to the city of Brest to attack a Nazi submarine installation. It was in Brest where McConnell was wounded, suffering a shrapnel wound to the buttocks while sleeping in a “slit trench.”
Sixty-eight years later he still remembers vividly the day before and the day he was wounded, Aug. 26, 1944.
“I had a new lieutenant, and he came to me when he first got there in Brest and said, ‘I’m going to have to depend on you’. He said, ‘They sent me here and I don’t know one thing. Before this I was plucking a typewriter.’”
En route to the front, the new lieutenant got the company separated from the weapons platoon, and McConnell agreed to be a “runner” and try to find the rest of their group. McConnell found a general and asked him where to find K Company, and the general pointed to a plume of smoke in a field and said, “In that vicinity.”
Eventually McConnell found the rest of his company, and as he was returning, a group of Germans attacked him with grenades.
“They ran my tail off until I got to the next hedgerow. I went back and got the weapons platoon and brought them up there because night was coming upon us.”
Before too long the lieutenant got lost from the weapons platoon again, and then the lieutenant was wounded.
“The Germans threw ‘ack-ack’ (anti- aircraft) fire, and that lieutenant caught one under his pack and knocked a big hole in his back. Another boy got hit in the shoulder, which just melted his shoulder. I tried to take care of them the best I could all night. The next morning I went and hunted them up again and got them all up there, and of course they took the wounded out. I was pretty wore out by then and I went and dug me a slit trench and laid down in it and went to sleep. That’s when I got hurt. A shell bust above me and rained shrapnel down on top of me. Before that I never was still. I was always moving, and I always thought if they ever got me they’d have to run me down.”
One student asked McConnell how many people he killed during the war. He said he doesn’t have any way of knowing.
Another student asked what D-Day was like for him.
“Of course I was scared, but I didn’t realize what was happening,” McConnell said. “That was like when we were cut off at Saint Lo. They called the planes in to run the tanks out, which had us surrounded. The first one that peeled off, he had his guns open and it looked like he was coming right at me. One of my men asked me what was wrong with me. ‘Nothing that I know of’ and I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ He said, ‘You’re white as a sheet.’ But I didn’t realize that.”