The horrors that took place on the beaches of Normandy, France haunt Harry Duvall 71 years later.
As Duvall sat in a wooden rocker this week in the quiet shade on the front porch of his Taylors home, his mind took him beyond the red rose bushes that ring his porch to a faraway beach that he’s visited just once in his 93 years.
His mission that day was to make it across the sand, no farther than the distance to his neighbor’s house across the street, but those 100 paces across the sand - and the events that preceded and followed that charge - forever changed him.
“There were so many killed and there were so many wounded and all that you were just trying to save yourself,” Duvall said.
Duvall, drafted at 18 years old into the Army as a rifleman with the 29th Infantry Division, had trained 13 months in the swamp-like moors of England for this mission. It was his first combat experience in the war and was the largest seaborne invasion of World War II.
As the sky lightened on D-Day and a landing craft carried Duvall toward sandy Omaha Beach, he recalls terror and confusion.
Soldiers in his landing craft were so sick from the rough seas they couldn’t stand, but they were packed in so tightly they had no choice.
Next to them, a landing craft hit a mine and blew up. The concussion shook his boat.
Then, it was time. The ramp swung down and the men ran.
They were among the first wave to land on Omaha, but paratroopers, Rangers and engineers had preceded them. Bodies of the dead and injured “were just left laying on the beach,” he said.
As gun fire rained overhead, he and a buddy sprinted until they reached a cart path where two gunners in a machine gun nest pinned them down. His friend shot one and the other was killed from another direction and Duvall ran until he reached a hedgerow away from the beach.
He’d fight the Germans across hedgerows and stone walls in nearly hand-to-hand combat for two weeks before he was injured. He didn’t try to be a hero. He didn’t try to kill. He just tried to survive, he said.
Angel Martinez arrived on the Normandy beach two days after D-Day to the sight of bodies floating in the water and more bodies on shore.
Martinez was a machine-gunner and he carried his 50-pound, 30-caliber gun on his back as he came ashore.
He landed at night, in the rain and cold. Martinez and most of the others had the flu. He didn’t have food and he didn’t have all of the parts to his gun.
A German plane welcomed them by strafing their camp with bullets for two straight days.
Eventually, they regrouped and made their way to the city of La Havre, where they fought in the streets before they made their way across France.
Martinez saw sights he was never prepared to see. Soldiers’ bodies ripped apart by gunfire. Half-naked bodies stacked in piles in a concentration camp. A friend shot and killed in front of him.
“You do a lot of praying and you also hear a lot of crying,” Martinez said. “I was scared all the time.”
Sometimes – like when he crouched for two days in a foxhole during the Battle of the Bulge - Martinez would day-dream he was arriving home in New Mexico, opening the door and greeting his mother.
“I never thought I’d get home alive,” he said.
When he did get home after the war, the fighting followed him.
He’d awake crying and shaking. He thought he was fine – just had to push through – until a Veterans Affairs doctor told him he needed to share his stories, to tell others of the atrocities he’d seen.
Martinez joined Disabled Veterans of America and the American Legion where he became a chaplain. He retired as a police officer in New Mexico and moved to Greenville 22 years ago.
“It’s a blessing to be an American,” he said.
The stories of D-Day and the men who share them are disappearing with each anniversary, and no one knows this better than Duvall.
Just inside his front door he displays a framed black-and-white photo of 18 men dressed in uniform and squinting as they stare into the camera. Some stand; others kneel in the scraggly grass. They’d shipped across the Atlantic from New York City to Glascow, Scotland, and then to England to train.
He knows each by name and ticks off one by one where each lived.
“As far as I know, every one of them is dead except me.”
Some were killed on D-Day. Others in the weeks and months of fighting as the 29th Infantry made its way to St. Lô and then across France and into Germany. Others have passed with age.
In recent years, Duvall has gone in search of graves of friends killed in the war. He’s visited two in the last two years and knows of two others he’d like to see.
Why does he visit, all these years later?
“You have a close contact with them, he said. “If you knew somebody and they got killed, it hits you.”
Telling the specifics of what he saw in war is difficult for Duvall. He often pauses, lost in thought, choosing how to sanitize the stories of friends being maimed or killed.
He’d rather tell of the time a few days after D-Day when he laid on his belly under a hedge as a German sniper stood above him unaware Duvall was there.
“I was so close to him I was tempted to grab his gun,” he said. “I didn’t move. I was afraid to.”
But talking about the time he got hit by a hand grenade was more difficult. Friends died that day.
It happened two weeks after D-Day. He was chosen to patrol 500-600 feet ahead of his unit as they searched the fields for pockets of German soldiers. The grenades came from the left, killing a lieutenant and blowing the arm off another man, he said.
A grenade landed to his left and shrapnel sliced through the left side of his body. He stumbled as far as he could before he collapsed in a field. The next few days were a blur. He awoke on a table and then was given shots, which put him to sleep again. He ended up in a British hospital and four months later, he rejoined the fray.
The wounds followed him home.
“It messes you up otherwise too,” he said.
He lives with nerve damage in his knee, but proudly displays his purple heart next to his bronze star and other medals in a shadowbox on his living room wall.
He married Anna Jean from his hometown of Franklin, North Carolina. She was nine years younger, but knew his family and prayed for him while he was at war. They’ve been married 64 years.
The photos and artifacts the Duvalls choose to display in their home show the war’s impact and the pride The Greatest Generation has for what was accomplished.
He’s in uniform in most of the photos. Other frames display certificates: the French Legion of Honor, the Bronze Star, the French Jubilee of Liberty medal. He has a collection of hats that bear the 29th Infantry’s logo.
But when asked if he thinks about the significance of what he accomplished, he pauses a moment.
“It’s just something that happened. And that’s it.”