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Richard Borden « North Carolina's WWII ExperienceNorth Carolina's WWII Experience

Richard Borden

Hometown: Morehead City, NC
Branch of Service:
Navy, 6th Naval Beach Battalion
Location of Service:
Europe

The following excerpt is from Richard Borden’s book, We Few, recounting his experience as a medic landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day: The jolt and rumble of the stern anchor paying out announced the nearness of the beach. An even larger shudder, midst more rattling, as the forward ramp dropped. A never to be forgotten initial view:

The tide was out, not in as practiced! The dust and smoke and smell almost overwhelming. Huge seaward slanted posts topped with “teller” mines were facing us, interspersed with huge steel girder-ed “jack rocks” embedded in the wet sand of a five hundred yard beach, all exposed! To the left was another LCT with its folded winged army piper cub observation plane. To the front a couple of burned-out tanks and LCVPs. To the right an angled dead LCI(L).

Mutters of “Let’s go,” “This is it,” “Careful!” “See ya,” and the final exhausting breath of anticipation as we moved forward en mass. “God help me do it right!”

I cannot say whether “Rick,” my stretcher mate, or I stepped off first or whether we were simply impelled off the ramp there was simply a mass exodus. Rather than a neatly dropped ramp at the dune line as in past maneuvers there was a placed open ramp with continued revved engines and a splash in waist deep water. The din and overhanging haze of battle didn’t really grab my attention. My hearing caught repeated “plup plup”s above us as my mind likened them to pebbles scattered by me at Boy Scout Camp Tuscarora in previous years of frivolous youth. In such a manner, was I, the youth, introduced to machine gun fire almost immediately followed by the scream of incoming mortar rounds and the indescribably “crack” of the “88s” at this point with associated splashes. As I moved between the obstacles, laboring under the inordinate burdens upon my one hundred and eighteen pound frame, the reality of stretcher cases abandoned on the wet flats of the beach became a paramount concern. Thus out (the corpsmen) first action was that of getting them either up to the protective dune line many feet ahead, under fire and chaos, or jogging them seaward chaotically, under fire, and begging a stressed Cox’n to wait before pulling off; to accept our burden and get him off the beach.

At this point of the waning day and incoming tide all track of time was lost; but I shall never forget the sense of urgency, and the easing landward of encroaching water around those stretcher cases, or the cajoling pleas to the off-loading Cox’ns to wait for “just one more stretcher!” It seems incredible that I have so little recollection of other casualties that may have required our attention as we moved up onto the rocky beach line proper. Only chaos and scurrying and dropping momentarily at incoming rounds, only to jump up and move a bit more forward behind some protective obstacles. I sensed that each of us only perceived his immediate almost monocular perimeter. The beach line at this point of the landing was total two to four inch rock shale enough to slip and slide on in our hast and impossible to dig into. The debris of war, the dead, and the bodies pinned down were incredible! I cannot even declare whether Rick or I actually held our own assigned stretcher as we approached the rock-lined shore, but I seem to remember Eddie Johnson, the mountaineer, recognizing the pattern to the “88” fire and yelling for us to move up and over in the lea of a burned-out craft.

Suddenly there was an ear-splitting, all-consuming “lightning like CRACK” as both Rick and I dove from our stretcher! This one seemed to have no incoming sound! It occurred at the instant of facedown dive into the sand-rock ledge of the dune line. (I’ve always called this “like the size rock David must have used on Goliath”). The dune at this point was simply impossible to dig into only a scoop with both hands to shield the face, the head shielded by helmet, and the body and butt in the air! I remember the tingling of my entire body, the piercing pain in my ears and indeed reaching with my hand across my right ear and numb face. Then looking at my fingers for blood nothing! I looked at Rick perhaps twelve feet away to my left and slightly forward. He too had pitched face down.

“Rick! Let’s move,” I yelled. No motion, perhaps he was deafened too.

“Rick, let’s move it!!”??

“Rick,” I picked up an egg-sized stone and threw it, hitting him between his shoulders. No response!

Only at this moment did it dawn on me, on this tender eighteen-year old, that something was amiss. I hunchingly scrambled to my littermate friend, rolled his dead-weight body over to be greeted by dust-glazed eyes and sandy face, in that awesome fixed expression, an expression I interpreted as one askance!

I think my striding him must have jarred him a bit, or was it another nearby shell? His helmet seemingly intact rolled upward and slightly aside, exposing a handful of gray, matter surprisingly clean! In my shock or innocence I almost panicked! I grabbed at my side pouch, already loosely opened, and fingered a vial of Human Serum Albumen with I.V. rubber tubing; hurriedly placing a tourniquet to administer the newly-released, potentially lifesaving fluid. It was only then that I, in horror, accepted my first ever encounter with death!

Kneeling over the lifeless figure, with an overwhelming sense of helplessness, I rewrapped the serum kit and replaced it in my first aid pouch, all the while with the flashing memories of a nice kid, an assigned litter-mate on maneuvers in Wales and Devon, his young wife, his happiness at news from Chicago of a little daughter, a friend, a brother!

Quite spontaneously and unhesitatingly tears gushed. I begged my God with all my heart to allow me to exchange places with the youth before me. I, with my strong sense of a wonderful loving family, many, many friends, young and old, a full life of adventures and happiness for any youth, but without a commitment to girl friends or school or occupation, an “expendable.” “Please God let it be me! Please!”

Impulsively, still under fire on that rocky dune line of “Easy Red” Omaha Beach (June 6, 1944), I arose to my feet in full stance, an eighteen-year old battle-clad Red Cross youth facing the smoking dark green hillside, tears streaming, and screamed at the unseen German forces:

“Goddamn you, everyone!”

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It is painful as well as difficult to retrace those moments. It was as though all my lifetime was in preparation, yet I was not prepared! Here I stood, a less than average American youth in an alien land, yet a part of a Great Crusage, facing the enemy and now God, begging: “Why don’t you hear me? What is life about, that you should do this to my friend?!!”

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Still standing under fire in all the chaos of that now “Hallowed” beach, imperceptibly at first, I became “enshrouded” by an unbelievable sense of “warmth”. Better thinking or perhaps basic Presbyterianism crept in. I sensed that just perhaps God had his purpose for me; and just perhaps it wasn’t any of my business! “I’m here and Rick’s there. Then perhaps there is some reason.”

“Corpsman!”

With that noble call as with young Isaiah (“Lord, here am I, send me.”), the spiritual moment was broken and the die was cast. It would be days yet before I would give a moment more thought. As I looked and worked about my new commitment there was nothing orderly, save the work at hand. Fire continued along the entire beachfront as far as one could see. Corpsmen and troops, converted to aid men, tended the wounded. Assault craft came and went in endless flow; occasionally marred by a “hit.” We tried to move everyone further up onto the rock dune beach of our Sector. Parts of the First Division were still pinned down along the beach. A colonel, gray-haired, was working my immediate area, encouraging his men to move in: “Get off the beach! You are going to be killed here if you stay!” “Move it on boys!” “Let’s go!!” Others of the “1st” were working their way up amongst the myriad trenches of the hillside, hidden by foliage. Others to my left were being plagued by the mine fields. I wondered if anyone of ours had gotten over the ridge.

In addition to the troops and wounded the “sappers” and bulldozers were trying to open a road just parallel to the shale beach and the minefields. The rocky area at the high tide mark was simply strewn with the debris of war. In addition to the watercraft and tanks there were field packs of all descriptions dropped under fire to lighten life-threatening loads: walkie-talkies, radio packs, cartons and cartons of cigarettes, comic books, even a few hand axes and cast iron skillets, all interspersed with bodies and moving infantry pouring across the beach, dropping at incoming shellfire added to the utter confusion. Bulldozers desperately working each extremity of the sector, under fire, to open “Draws” so that troops and equipment could unplug the beach and relieve the congestion as they moved up into and over the hilltop. While “sappers” swept the embedded mines at the dune crest paralleling the water to open a roadway, others were running miles of white cloth-tape to signify “clearing” for traffic. Everywhere the odor of burning flesh, the dead and casualties in the burning and smoldering marsh inland to the dune line, all heavily mined, were avoided for the moment. Occasional streams of infantry single filed up into the hillside, working toward the crest and the enemy. Sporadic mines, tripped by man or machine, missed by the “sappers,” continued to take their toll. There was occasional huddling as we of the Sixth Beach recognized a fellow “sailor”! Mostly we worked singly among the wounded or begged help of a passerby from our unit or any other to get our patients moved to the scant protection of the dune or out to the beach and ships offshore.

With Rick’s loss, Heddy’s uselessness due to shell shock, and the loss of O’Donnell prior to reaching the beach, Earl Kempfer PHM-3 and I started working together with Joe Brennan HA-1 and Doctor Eugene Guyotn (of Marion, S.C.). Gradually we moved into a working unit that by night would become the “Aid Station” of the Sector. We set up near the foundation ruins of a beach villa, and by nightfall were surrounded by twenty or so stretcher cases. No one had dug in at this point, and the chaos under fire continued, but so did the troops and equipment continue to pour ashore. The Beach master began to become functional with some semblance of order in beach traffic. The “88s” were less obvious but mortars and small arms fire continued without let up as night approached.

Most remarkable to me was the lack of “panic” of the casualties, just calling for “Corpsman” or “Medic” and stoically handling their pain and their fears. I remember the uncanny effectiveness of a firmly applied large battle dressing; I don’t remember applying a tourniquet other than momentarily even with an amputated extremity! Some control of bleeding, good application or dressing after “sulfa-powder,” a shot of morphine when available, fill out the tag when feasible, and off for a “volunteer” stretcher-bearer for the other end of my stretcher, then out to an incoming craft. Again and again. Again and again. Tearfully begging the cox’n to “wait for just one more!” I do remember a guy with only moderate injury, in shock and panic repeating his wife’s telephone insisting that it go on the tag.

Come pure dark, we settled against the wall remnants of the villa with now forty or so casualties, most of them shaking from shelling, shock, cold, etc. Having lost all of our medical supplies coming ashore, I set about begging blankets from incoming troops and scavenging the beach in the dark. It’s ridiculous looking back, but I really got mad as I tried to con blankets from the incoming infantry working their way up the footpath near our aid station. Later, in frustrating “teenaged” tears, I would get a few blankets for our casualties!

At sometime after midnight Dr. Guyton called us corpsmen around and passed a canteen cup of mixed medical alcohol, K-ration packets of lemonade powder, and a little water, my first drink ever! At this time we were under an air attack (I doubt that there were five German Ju-88s), but all Hell was breaking loose. Murmurs of “paratroopers.” The infantry filing by in the dark whispering “lock and load;” me with my five-inch bladed Finnish “Rapala” fillet knife in my right paratrooper boot! Every ship offshore firing in graceful curves the unbelievable “fireworks” of every fifth missile (tracers), almost all expending over the beach!

Actually I don’t remember losing any of our casualties overnight, however my notes say that two died of the forty-five. The sappers kept clearing mines, the dozers expanding the road paralleling the peach and exits, and there was an occasional missed teller mine blowing a track. Mortars continued. 88s were becoming less frequent. Smaller arms, namely machine gun fire, finally quieting. Still snipers. Always snipers!

With earliest dawn the unbelievable clutter of the beach, the enormous number of ships offshore, and incoming landing craft churning landward was heartening. But again, “business as usual” with runs with two hundred pound stretcher cases for the dropped ramps. I had, the day before, given up wondering if my arms could really dear from the shoulders of my hundred and eighteen pound frame. Now it was more a concentration on my handgrips. Concentrate on holding the stretchers let the shoulders go, stand up, job for landing craft around minetopped posts, debris, jackrocks or hexagons, dead tanks, hunks of wire, sand soaked packs, and flotsam!