Kingsport's James 'Ed' Collins, D-Day veteran: 'I am not a hero'

Nick Shepherd • Jun 6, 2014 at 3:23 PM

Tears fill his eyes. He stares off in the distance, no longer in his Kingsport home but on a beach, halfway across the world.

Still bodies lie in the ocean and spread across the beach. A sky stuffed with planes and explosions fills the usually tranquil scene with noise and chaos. Death lurks everywhere as a 20-year-old expert rifleman, James "Ed" Collins, makes his way toward the chaos.

He had trained for this day since enlisting in the Army, but nothing could prepare him.

"I couldn't see any way of ending up back alive or anything," Collins said. "You go through all this stuff like when you jumped off on the beach ..."

Silence hangs thick in the air, memories peppering him like the Germans did the Americans and their Allies on that fateful day at Normandy 70 years ago.

It was D-Day, June 6, 1944.

"Practically all your buddies get killed," Collins said.

Collins fought for that small strip of land all day before gaining a good foothold sometime in the afternoon. When the evening sun finally surrendered its daily fight, the 183rd Field Artillery unit, what remained anyway, was able to regroup and get a few hours of rest.

Sleep proved elusive for Collins for the rest of his time in combat. A few minutes snatched against the side of a tree or an hour or two on scarred earth was all he would get.

Over time, the war extracted its toll.

"You live out in the land just like a dog," he said. "You don't take a bath, you don't shave. You eat K-rations or anything else. You're not a human being."

Collins moved through the country of France over the course of the next 7 months, fighting in the hedgerows and taking Paris along the way. Slowly, the army was inching its way toward the ultimate objective: Berlin.

As his unit advanced into Germany, killing a man became like eating cereal. It was just something a soldier did.

During what ended up being the coldest winter ever recorded in that country, Collins was in Belgium when a bitter cold — sometimes 10 to 20 degrees below zero — set in on the Americans. The cold grounded planes and halted tanks. Soldiers did anything they could to avoid freezing to death.

"The last days I spent, if you laid down on the ground, you didn't get up because you froze to the ground. That's how cold it was," he said. "Sometimes, we would huddle four or five together. See, all we had was one blanket and that kept you from freezing to death."

The Germans, in the throes of that coldest winter, decided to attack in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Collins and his unit used a 155mm howitzer against the German tanks. From somewhere, a tank fired a shell at his crew, exploding and throwing him to the ground.

Ten feet away, Collins saw his leg.

Two other survivors picked him up and threw him on the hood of a Jeep and drove him to the hospital. He never saw another day of combat.

He went to a hospital in England where every Monday for the next five months, doctors pulled shrapnel out of what remained of his leg. He returned to the United States and spent the next two years and 10 months in a hospital.

He doesn't know why he didn't die that day.

A person with a severed artery can die in three minutes. Collins asked his doctor why he survived and was told the combination of melting shrapnel and the extreme cold could have contributed, but there was no definitive answer.

When he was released from the hospital, he tried to stay busy so he could forget about the Army. Memories of war can swallow some men whole and Collins was determined not to be one of those men.

He also wanted to help veterans and embarked on a lifelong quest to help his fellow soldiers. He was named 2013 veteran of the year because of his efforts, although he didn't want it. He was married for 65 years before his wife passed away recently.

He built a successful life in Kingsport. But there are some things a person doesn't forget.

"I'm not a hero," Collins said, though he won multiple medals for service, including the Purple Heart. "My buddy's a hero, but he died. I just survived."

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