On June 6, 1944, a date known ever since as D-Day, 160,000 Allied troops crossed a narrow strip of sea and landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France.
More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, the largest amphibious operation ever staged, and by day’s end the Allies had cracked the Nazi grip on western Europe, gaining a foothold that ultimately led to the defeat of Hitler; however, it came at a high cost of lives.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, Chris Beckers, a friend and neighbor of the late George Robinson, asked for the World War II veteran’s story to be told of Robinson’s involvement in the second wave at Omaha Beach.
In 2008, after more than 50 years of selling shoes at McClelland’s Shoe Store in downtown Allegan, Robinson, at the age of 85, sat down and told his story to a Grand Valley State University interviewer for the Library of Congress Veterans Oral History Project.
Robinson had been part of the 294th Joint Assault Signal Company, a select 300-man group representing all the branches of the military, specifically trained for beach landings where they would establish frontline communications. Only 80 of them survived the invasion on Omaha Beach, where 2,400 men were killed or wounded.
Robinson enlisted in the Army with his good friend Bill White after they both graduated from Allegan High School in 1942. They were first sent to Fort Custer, then Camp Crowder in Missouri for basic training. After six months he went on to Midland Radio School in Kansas City to learn Morse code. He then continued training in Virginia and was transferred to Little Creek for amphibious training for mock landings near beaches. After being sent to Fort Piece in Florida to work on maneuvers in swamps with combat units and mock aircraft attacks, he contracted spinal meningitis. One of his first recollections of survival was crawling to the infirmary, not knowing what was wrong and too weak to walk.
“These Navy guys drove by and laughed at me—they thought I was drunk,” Robinson said while tearing up the only time through the interview. Once he made it to the infirmary, a friend stole an ambulance and took him to the Air Force hospital.
He had a couple months to recuperate, but when he returned to his company he weighed about 100 pounds. Beckers said in later years they joked that his weight is what saved his life in the war.
“Although Germans liked to pick off troops with communications, he was too skinny of a target,” Beckers said.
From Boston the unit took a troop train to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then boarded an old Canadian ship to cross the Atlantic. The trip lasted about a week and Robinson was sick the whole time.
Of the trip, Robinson said everyone watched for submarines, “because they could see a cigarette butt 2 miles out.”
They landed in Liverpool where Robinson said, “All of London was blown to pieces.” From there he boarded a train to Swansea, Wales, where barrage balloons were anchored with cable wires to keep enemy aircraft from coming in low to strafe.
For a few more months, the troops built themselves up physically by going on maneuvers and long marches up hilly areas.
“The hillsides would open up, spitfires would shoot out and then the hillside would close up again,” Robinson said. “They were pretty clever people.”
Robinson recalled many troops died while rehearsing for the invasion.
“I remember one day it got really quiet,” he said. “It was much later that I learned two landing craft out in the ocean were torpedoed by a German PT boat and when they hit the water with full packs, their life jackets inflated and tied them into their packs. More than 700 drowned.”
Robinson’s radio pack was a bulky 25 pounds and also included a generator and antennae that required a two-man team.
At the final D-camp before departure to Normandy, the entire camp was camouflaged, being only 3 to 4 miles from port.
“There were air raids every night with German bombers coming down trying to bomb ships and lighting up the sky like day with 50 caliber and 20 mm machine guns,” Robinson said. “There was shrapnel in the air and we had to dig trenches to get away from it.”
Almost a week before the invasion, a secret briefing was given to troops and they were quarantined to camp. “There were guards every 40 feet inside and every 20 feet outside the camp,” he said. “Anybody try to get out you’re dead.”
On June 4, the ship Robinson was to sail in was blown up and sunk before boarding. On June 5 he boarded the APA transport ship to sail into the English channel.