World War II: One Trussville veteran’s journey into the heart of darkness
By Joshua Huff, sports editor
The shadows of war slipped through the English Channel just past midnight on June 6, 1944, in what was to become the largest combined amphibious and airborne invasion in history.
The vessels, nearly 7,000 in all, rocked in the rough chop churned by torrid weather conditions and the wake of thousands of ships. The armada carried troops from eight nations set to embark on the Allied liberation of Western Europe from what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called, “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark.”
Among the 160,000 men crammed onto the rocking vessels was private first-class Clarence E. Tompkins.
Tompkins, born on May 27, 1922, was an infantryman with the 4th Infantry Division, 8th Infantry Regiment, Company G. The Trussville native was to be one of over 23,000 troops from the unit tasked with landing and establishing a beachhead on Utah Beach.
As the ships swayed in the chilly swells, the 60 miles of chosen beachfront stretched across the horizon. Utah Beach, the most western landing sector, was known as the Cotentin Peninsula. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, chose the peninsula in order to capture the crucial port of Cherbourg, which sat only 35 miles away from the intended landing zone.
Utah Beach stretched 11 miles, running north-northwest to south-southeast. The sector joined the west end of Omaha Beach. The two were separated by flooded tidal flats, which wreaked havoc on the airborne units sent in prior to the amphibious invasion. The beach was low-lying, without any distinctive terrain features.
A masonry sea wall backed the entire sector. Beyond that wall, sand dunes 10-25 feet high stretched inland for nearly 150 yards. Inland of the beach lie a plain that was dammed up with boulders and tree limbs, which helped transform the area into a large, shallow lake. The purpose was to isolate Utah Beach from the Cotentin interior.
At 11 p.m. on June 5, the first Allied bombs began to fall near the beachheads. At 1:55 a.m., nearly 13,000 paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions dropped behind enemy lines with the intent of neutralizing German defenses and to choke off the flow of reinforcements.
As the forces prepared to embark upon the amphibious invasion, the Allied fleet opened fire at 5:36 a.m. and unleashed hell for over half an hour from battleships, cruisers and destroyers, in an uninterrupted barrage of fire into the German defenses along the coast.
From 6:10 a.m. to 6:25 a.m., hundreds of bombers pounded the coastline in preparation for the first landing craft hitting the shore at 6:30 a.m.
Tompkins loaded into the landing craft following hours of waiting for the weather to clear and the go-ahead to be signaled. In the near darkness, the men clambered down the rope netting draped over the side of the ship. Cold and sickened by the rough seas, the men of the 4th Infantry Division were at the mercy of the channel as the landing craft made its way through the rough chop and relentless current into the fog of war.
Above, waves of bombers knifed through the darkened sky and unloaded their bombs on to German positions.
“The heavens seemed to open, spilling a million stars on the coastline before us, each one spattering luminous tentacle-like branches of flame in every direction,” said one veteran of the Utah Beach incursion.
Unbeknownst to the men, the first-wave landing crafts drifted nearly 2,000 yards south of their intended landing zone. The unexpected shift proved to be a saving grace as the men were deposited within a lightly defended sector; however, the coxswain disgorged them hundreds of feet out from the beach. With over 70 pounds of gear on their persons, the men struggled through the surf as the Germans rained down death from fortified positions ahead.
“You got out into water up to your waist,” Tompkins said. “You walked in it till you got on the beach. Half our men got knocked out at that time. Some of them got washed out in the water. Gone. I was one of the lucky ones, along with a few other guys, we got through.”
The Germans fired upon the men scrambling to gain a foothold on the beach. Men were hit as they cut through the waves, dodged mines and barbed wire. All throughout, shells and rockets shot overhead along with German anti-aircraft fire that crested in a cacophony of brutality as men slaughtered men.
That first wave was bolstered by a second wave that arrived at 6:35 a.m. with demolition teams and engineers tasked with clearing obstacles and mines. A third wave arrived at 6:45 a.m. carrying M4 Sherman tanks.
The men of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division were the first surface-borne Allied unit to step foot on the beaches of Normandy.
Utah Beach was secured by 8:30 a.m. By noon, the landing forces had contacted paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division upon the windswept shores of Normandy.
Throughout the landing, 197 Allied deaths and 589 casualties were reported on Utah Beach. In contrast, around 4,000 men were either killed or wounded on Omaha Beach. One first-wave landing unit lost 90% of its men in the neighboring sector.
“You don’t go out and start thinking,” Tompkins said. “You’re in there to try and save your ass. That’s all you’re trying to do and help the men around you. That’s what you do in the military.”
As the day wound down, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation with a prayer.
“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
“They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest, until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame … They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people.”
Though spared from the brutality of the likes of Omaha Beach, the 4th Infantry Division’s push into Europe had just begun with the most intense fighting still to come. Through thick hedgerows and swamped lands, the men of the 4th Infantry Division pushed through Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, relieved the isolated 82nd Airborne Division at Sainte-Mère-Église, captured Cherbourg on June 25, broke through the left flank of the German Seventh Army, helped halt the German push toward Avranches and had moved to Paris by August.
In the fighting, around at Sainte-Mère-Église on June 12, 1944, Tompkins and a medic maneuvered their way through heavy machine gun fire, artillery and sniper fire to provide medical assistance to those cut down by the barrage. Tompkins provided cover fire as the medic tended to the casualties. He then helped the medic evacuate the casualties.
For his bravery, Tompkins was awarded the Bronze Star.
“We lost men in every one of them,” Tompkins said of the fight to liberate Sainte-Mère-Église and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and scattered towns throughout in the push across France.
As August approached, Tompkins and the men had moved to Paris. They were halted at the Seine River, which wound its way through the city. The Germans had blown all the bridges. They had to wait for the engineers to build their pontoon bridges to begin their advance.
“The Germans, at that time, had moved out,” Tompkins said. “They left one small group there to stop you. To hesitate you. We got about half of Paris liberated, but they stopped us and let us go back across the Seine River to let the French Army come up from North Africa. They wanted the First French Army to come in to liberate their own town. We had to withdraw.”
Nearly 20,000 German troops had either surrendered or fled the City of Lights.
After Paris, the 4th Infantry Division moved into Belgium through Houffalize, Luxembourg, and attacked the Siegfried Line at Schnee Eifel on the German-Belgian border. The men made slow progress into Germany and by November 1944 the division had entered the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.
It was there, within the 54 square mile forest, that for generations had been meticulously pruned and managed by the Germans, to the point that the tall firs were perfectly aligned and as straight as soldiers at attention, that Tompkin’s war ended.
Throughout that battle, amid a persistent rain and a soul-crushing chill that cut to the bone, the Americans were unable to wrest the German’s death grip on the forest. Attacks gained little at enormous costs.
“The days were so terrible that I would pray for darkness,” one soldier recalled. “And the nights were so bad that I would pray for daylight.”
In less than three months, six Army infantry divisions went into the Hürtgen. All told, there were 33,000 casualties out of the 120,000 American soldiers that fought in the battle. Many rifle companies suffered 50% casualties. Two regiments suffered losses equaling 100% of their fighting strength.
“All their heavy equipment had 88-millimeter explosives on them,” Tompkins said of German weaponry. “Every time it hit close to you it exploded, and you would get shrapnel in you. I’ve got shrapnel in my legs, my arms, everywhere. The medics would pick it out and they’d be like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ That’s what we’d do. You kept going.”
Though outnumbered, the Germans had set up an elaborate set of defensive positions of concrete bunkers, barbed wire, minefields and tank obstacles throughout the forest. With little to no air support, and the lack of tank superiority because of the terrain, the American infantry was tasked attacking German pillboxes and defusing mines all the while Germans attacked from hidden positions without mechanized support. The Germans had dug in over 1,000 concealed guns handled by the men of General Erich Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army and General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army.
Adding to the confusion was the American’s lack of knowledge in fighting in forests. Many of the Germans had fought in Russia and Finland, but the Americans had no experience with such inhospitable terrain, and as such, were unable to break through the German lines without tremendous cost.
On top of everything, the weather provided no relief. The endless rain turned the ground to mud. The Americans were forced to live in cold, wet foxholes and went days without hot food. Many men had to be taken off the line because of combat fatigue.
“It rains every day there,” Tompkins said. “The sky opens up and you always get water. There was nothing but mud.”
On Nov. 17, 1944, near the village of Schevenhutte, Germany, the 8th Infantry Regiment advanced upon a German fortified hill. A line of barbed wire and minefields separated the Americans from the German line. Tompkins and the rest of the men were pinned down as machine gun fire, artillery and mortar fire peppered the land.
Beset with tremendous casualties, the 8th Infantry Regiment was unable to break through the German defenses. Tompkins, loaded with demolitions equipment, charged 50 yards up the hill through a torrent of fire. As he attempted to destroy the barbed wire with a Bangalore torpedo, he was hit in the chest with a machine gun round.
Wounded, Tompkins again attempted to blow the wire. Before he could adjust the detonation mechanism, Tompkins was hit three more times by machine gun fire. Despite his injuries and fading consciousness, Tompkins yet again attempted to ignite the caps only to fail.
“I had been wounded three or four times before,” Tompkins said. “But I never did go back to the hospital. We had a little field hospital. You’d go back get patched up and go back to your outfit. I did that several times.”
The wounds he suffered near Schevenhutte proved to be more serious than what an aid station could handle. The war was over for Tompkins.
For his heroism in the Hürtgen, Tompkins was awarded the Silver Star. In all, Tompkins was awarded with two Purple Hearts with clusters, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars with clusters and earned his Combat Infantryman Badge.
Tompkins was shipped off to Belgium. In a twisted sense of irony, the fighting followed him to the hospital.
“While I was in the hospital there, just for a few days, a buzz bomb came and knocked one end of the hospital off,” Tompkins said. A buzz bomb was a German V-1 Flying Bomb. It was the first of the so-called German “Vengeance weapons.”
Tompkins was then shipped off to the First General Hospital in Paris. From Paris, he went to England and then on to Texas.
Following his recovery, Tompkins returned to Trussville, built a house, got married and began a fight against a system that, at the time, failed to support veterans.
“The soldiers that came back to the United States got no recognition,” Tompkins said. “The people did not want to even be around them. They did not start doing anything for the veterans until the later wars. You had to do everything you can to survive.”
Though Tompkins, 97, has since recovered, the wounds of war have never left him. He still has two of the bullets lodged near his spine.
“They’re still in me,” Tompkins said.
As the men of World War II slowly fade from this plane, their sacrifices and heroics will linger as their stories continue to be told. It is on us to preserve their memories to serve as a reminder that evil will always be defeated by a few good men.