CHURCH HILL — This coming June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, but the decades haven’t faded the memory of that day for 100-year-old Ubert McConnell, nor the memory of his 81 days of constant combat that followed.
He earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart and was literally among the first 30 men to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day.
On Saturday, McConnell celebrates his 100th birthday.
On Friday, however, McConnell was more interested in sharing stories of his war experiences than talking about hitting the century mark. In fact, his age is something McConnell would rather forget.
How does it feel to become a centenarian?
“I don’t want to think about it. It worries me. I can’t travel. I can’t do nothing.”
McConnell was happiest Friday when he was distracted from thinking about his age, either talking about World War II or welcoming visitors.
For McConnell, Feb. 16, 2019 isn’t about turning 100. It’s about the party.
McConnell’s 100th birthday will be a three-day celebration arranged by his daughter, retired Surgoinsville teacher and school librarian Lee Ann McConnell.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday family and friends will be coming to see him from as far away as California to help celebrate his becoming a centenarian, although they should be advised in advance to avoid the topic of his age.
The first family members started arriving around noon Friday, and the moment people started walking through the door, McConnell was all smiles.
Quilt of Valor arrived on birthday eve
There was also a big surprise Friday as Rogersville American Legion Vice Commander Dennis Elkins and his wife, Jean, arrived to present McConnell with a Quilt of Valor.
“We honor you for your military service in the U.S. Army, World War Two, 29th Division, 116th Infantry, Company K,” Elkins told McConnell as Lee Ann and Jean draped the quilt over his shoulders. “We honor you for leaving all you hold dear and to stand in harm’s way in a time of crisis, protecting us from the effects of War.”
Elkins also presented McConnell with gifts including an Army coffee mug and a WWII Veteran ball cap that included his division pin and a combat badge.
A snapshop of WWII experiences
McConnell was well-known in his community for visiting classrooms and sharing the stories of his war experiences with generations of students at Surgoinsville Middle School, where his daughter was a teacher and school librarian.
On the eve of his 100th birthday, McConnell remains the consummate storyteller.
“I just wonder how many people still living went in on D-Day,” he said.
McConnell has a photo of his entire company that was taken before the D-Day invasion.
“It’s hard to believe there’s 200 there, and at one point we only had 60 left.”
Due to a mixed-up boat pilot who didn’t wait for the rest of the first wave, McConnell was literally on the first landing craft that hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
“We were supposed to rendezvous together and all go in. But when his (the pilot’s) boat got loaded, he took off and landed, and we were the only ones there.”
McConnell was among 30 men who quickly moved inland under rifle fire. But when the rest of the first wave arrived on the beach, “All hell broke loose.”
In mid-July during the Battle of St. Lô, MConnell’s company was cut off and completely surrounded for two days.
“They chose us to break the line at night, and there was supposed to be other people come in the gap and spread it out. Not a soul showed up. We were cut off in there two days and nights, and we lost some men. The mortar section was wiped out and I had the machine gun section.”
He was later awarded a Silver Star for thwarting a German attempt to seize weapons and ordnance from his fallen mortar company.
“They were trying to get the guns and ammunition, and I kept them off of it.”
McConnell survived many close calls. Once a bullet ricocheted off a hedgerow and hit him in the eye. Later a sniper bullet creased his neck and jaw a split second after he turned his head away out of the bullet’s path.
“The machine gun section had a big hole dug, and I was out helping gather the wounded. I went back to check on them (the machine gun crew). I had my foot up on top of a pile of dirt, and they said, ‘You better get down because there’s a sniper firing up through here.’ I turned my head and (a bullet burned his neck and jaw).”
There was no secret to surviving. It was by luck and the grace of God.
“I went in to get them first before they got me. That’s the way I worked it. I give the man above credit for pulling me through.”
On D-Day plus 81, McConnell was lying in a trench about 100 yards from an enemy pillbox when a piece of shrapnel from an artillery attack on the pillbox struck him in the buttocks.
He was in the hospital for two months, after which a doctor decided to send him to Belgium rather than back to the front line.
McConnell said that doctor saved his life because he got out of there just in time to miss the final German offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge.
McConnell’s recipe for a long life
His genes might have something to do with his longevity. His sisters lived to be 90, 97 and 99. But McConnell has another recipe.
“Hard work and plenty of exercise. That’s what got me here today. The body was made to exercise, and you don’t go downhill until you quit moving. We aren’t supposed to sit still.”