Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lone Survivor

On June 6, 1944, Bob Sales--and many other soldiers from central Virginia--were on landing craft heading for the beaches of Normandy and an appointment with destiny.  They already knew their units would help form the first invasion wave at a place called Omaha Beach.  Scales and his fellow Virginians quickly discovered they had drawn one of the toughest assignments on D-Day, and few of them would make it back alive.

Mr. Scales, who passed way Monday at the age of 89, described his experiences in a 2011 interview with the Lynchburg (VA) News and Advance:

Unlike anything he could have imagined, German machine guns began to unload “like bees” as they landed, he said. His captain was struck instantly.
Sales said he remembers thinking, “My God, we done lost the captain! What are we going to do now?”
A radio operator for the company, he said he shed the heavy communication device in the water to keep from drowning. He turned and saw that “everybody coming off that boat was being cut down” by bullets. He knew he had to make it to the beach.
Dead bodies were all around and he crawled from one to the next.
“Nothing like this ever crossed my mind,” he said of the horrific scenes unfolding in front of his eyes.


Sales was the only one of the 30 men in his landing craft to survive the day. He said “the blood ran together” with Company A and others that suffered heavy casualties.

At the time of the landing on Omaha Beach, Sales was only 18 years old.  He lied about his age to join the Virginia National Guard before Pearl Harbor.  As the nation geared up for World War II, the guard's 116th Infantry was absorbed into the 29th Division and eventually shipped out for England.  Three companies of the 116th--A, B, and C were drawn from small towns in the Blue Ridge foothills around Lynchburg.  

Company A was largely comprised of soldiers from Bedford.  They were among the first Allied troops to hit the beaches on D-Day and they paid a heavy price.  Mr. Sales estimated that Company A was about "10 minutes ahead" of his unit, and by the time he arrived, many of the Bedford boys were already dead.  A total of 19 were killed approaching the shore, or in their first moments on Omaha Beach.  By the time Allied forces secured a foothold on the Normandy coast, 22 soldiers from Bedford had died.  

For a town with a pre-war population of 3,000, it was a staggering sacrifice--the highest, percentage-wise, of any community in America.  The price paid in blood and lives by the men of Bedford is now commerated in the National D-Day Memorial, which is located near the intersection of Highways 460 and 122, south of town.               

As for Mr. Sales, he survived that terrible day on Omaha Beach, and served in combat for another six months.  His luck finally ran out as Allied forces approached the western bank of the Rhine; Sales was wounded leading a small team of infantry, supported by a tank, against German defenders near the town of Setterich.  For his actions that day, Mr. Sales received the Silver Star.  

By that time, the war was already over for the Bedford veterans of Company A.  As recounted in Alex Kershaw's superb book, The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice, the last man from the town assigned to Company A was evacuated after being wounded in combat near the German-Dutch border on 29 September.  He had missed the D-Day invasion due to ankle injury, suffered in training while in England.  It was a mishap that likely saved his life.

Funeral services for Mr. Sales will be held Thursday at Fort Hill Memorial Park in Lynchburg.  While he lost an eye in combat and spent almost 18 months recovering from his wounds, Sales considered himself lucky.  More than 100 men from Company B died in combat between D-Day and Germany's surrender in May 1945. 
ADDENDUM:  If you're traveling through central or southwestern Virginia, a stop at the D-Day Memorial is worth a stop, and the price of admission.  It's a fitting tribute to the 150,000 Allied troops who stormed ashore n June 6, 1944, and began the final liberation of Europe.  The memorial features the most complete listing of all who died that day, including the boys from Bedford. 

Mr. Kershaw's book is also worth a read.  Not only does he capture the combat experiences of the men in the 116th, Mr. Kershaw also describes war's impact on the home front.  Particularly haunting is the passage when the telegrams began arriving in Bedford, announcing that a local soldier had been killed in combat or was missing in action.  The first telegrams weren't received until mid-July (more than a month after the invasion), and they came in a terrible wave.  There were no military notification teams during World War II to comfort a grieving family; just a telegram from the war department, delivered by a pastor, friend or the Western Union delivery boy.     



BADuBois said...

My mom lost her brother in 1944 in France. At that time, Western Union telegrams were delivered by taxi cab drivers. Soon families began to dread the sight of taxi cabs coming down their streets.

As for my mom, the first telegram said he was MIA, and then a few days later, KIA.

Unimaginable for today.

Nate Hale said...

My uncle died on Peleliu in 1944, more than a decade before I was born. My mother and her family learned of his death in the manner you describe--a Western Union telegram, delivered by a local taxi driver.

When that flood of notification telegrams began to pour into Bedford, the first batch was delivered by some of the town leaders, who gathered for coffee each morning in the drug store which also housed the Western Union office. Most of the men had never carried out such a terrible errand. Knowing what they faced, a local cabbie took one of the first telegrams that would go to a family in a rural area--and volunteered to deliver all the subsequent telegrams that arrived later in the day.

During my military career, I was on casualty notification detail at two bases (in peacetime). WE still had to notify families in a specified geographic area in the event a service member from that region had been killed. Thankfully, the phone never rang when I was on duty.