CHURCH HILL — Ubert McConnell was with a group of soldiers atop a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach when the first main wave of the D-Day invasion hit the beach.
He wasn’t out of harm’s way, but he was in a lot better position than the men landing on the beach below.
He describes their situation as near suicide. Only the lucky survived.
A lifetime later, 100-year-old McConnell can still remember witnessing “A Company” disembark from their landing crafts and get almost completely “wiped out.”
“A Company” included 35 men from Bedford, Virginia, 19 of whom were killed on Omaha Beach — the greatest loss for any community per capita during D-Day.
On the 75th Anniversary of D-Day on Thursday, McConnell will be among the honored guests at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford as Vice President Mike Pence leads a memorial ceremony to honor Bedford’s 19 lost sons.
From his home near Church Hill on Tuesday, McConnell described for the Times News what he witnessed on June 6, 1944, on what has been called “The Longest Day” — although he simply describes it as “a sad day.”
“It was a sad day”
McConnell was among the first 30 men to land on Omaha Beach thanks to what was probably a fortunate mistake by his landing craft pilot.
“When we were loading into them LCVPs (amphibious landing crafts), they were supposed to rendezvous (off shore) until they all got loaded, and then go in together. My boat, when we loaded on it, the (pilot) took off and went to the beach with just 30 of us.
“He was supposed to wait until they all loaded, and all go in together. He took off. There was obstacles. You had to aim the boat right to get between them. They had an (explosive) charge on the end aiming towards the sea. We went through the obstacles and landed on the beach, and we were the only ones there.”
Although they were subjected to some rifle fire, it wasn’t anything near what other incoming soldiers were about to face.
Once they got ashore they blew a hole through a thick fence of barbed wire, and then made their way toward an “exit” — a natural trench to the top of the bluffs.
“After we blew that fence, there was a sand bar and a pool of water, and it was up under our arms. Had to cross that to get to the bank.
“We blowed that fence to get off the beach. Then there was steep banks all along the beach, going up inland. They said they had (the exits) mined, and our lieutenant told us, go in single file up to the top. He said, if the front one gets knocked off, the next one takes over. But we didn’t hit no mines. I don’t know whether they were there or not, but we got on top.
“I don’t know why the Germans didn’t have that particular area we landed in covered. We were safe. Well, we weren’t safe because they could have closed in on us. Out of the 30 we lost about four men to rifle fire.”
“It was a suicide deal”
“It wasn’t long until the rest of the outfit came in, and they had it rough. There were exits on the beach going out through the high banks and they landed in front of them, which the Germans had that covered and wiped out A Company. Our people had a rough time, drowning, and being shot, and everything like that.
“I had the machine gun section, which amounted to we had two squads, six men to a squad, and two guns.
“We finally got straightened out and started moving, but we lost a lot of men. Our company (29th Division, 116th Infantry, Company K) started with 200 men, and when we ended up so far inland, we only had 60 men. The rest of them was either wounded or killed.”
“The ones that survived were just lucky”
“The beach was rough. It was just like walking into a fire. Of the first ones that landed, the ones that survived were just lucky. That’s all there was to it.
“After the first wave landed, the others coming in got swamped. They sunk a lot of the boats. Soldiers out there, some of them may not have been able to swim, and they drowned.
“We got all together again, what was left. Finally got through to push the Germans back. Well, you can imagine people shooting at each other, to kill. It was a rough situation.
“The Germans pushed back after they got supplies and replacements in. It was a bad situation, is all it was. And you know what? I never got excited or scared of anything. You couldn’t afford to give up.
“Them exits looked like a big trench that sloped down going off the beach. The rest in between was great big high banks. We were inland and moved in behind the village along the beach, and night caught us, and there were civilians around there. There were signs on a field that (said) they had mines, but the civilians told us there wasn’t anything there. That gave us a relief.”
Do you think about D-Day very often?
“No. I walked over dead people. I don’t know why, but I still don’t think nothing about it. A lot of it I forget. I just was there and I had to do my best to get by.
“It don’t seem like that long, but time flies. We went from the beach to Saint Lo. When we finally broke through they had to take a dozer and clean the streets to get through. It was tore all to pieces.”
The Battle of Saint Lo
“We were there several days fighting, and we couldn’t get in.
“At Saint Lo they told our 60 men to break the line at night, and there was supposed to be two more battalions move in. We went through the line and nobody showed up and we were cut off in there two days and nights. We lost what few mortar sections we had. They killed all of them.
“A German tank had a barrel run over the hedgerow, the one we were on. Our ammunition was staggered with armor piercing. It had a steel pin in the ball. I took a clip and made it all armor piercing, and was aiming to shoot down the barrel of the tank hoping to put the shell off in the barrel.
“A sergeant grabbed me and pulled me back away from it. He said he wanted to know what I was trying to do, get killed? I said I hadn’t thought that, which I hadn’t. What I was trying to do was get rid of my enemies one way or another.
“I put my head out over the hedgerow to see what was out in front, and a bullet hit the hedgerow, and bounded out and blackened my eye. That was some of the close calls. Of course, everybody was that way.”
81 consecutive days in combat
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.”
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.