MURRAY — Today, the world is remembering an event that may have helped prevent one man from ruling it.
The invasion of Allied forces on the beaches near Normandy, France along the English Channel happened exactly 75 years ago today, and it is remembered as a major moment in the battle against Axis power Germany and its dictator, Adolph Hitler. He wanted the world to conform to a certain way, where anyone who did not follow that path would be imprisoned or – as happened to as many as 6 million Jews – killed.
Nations like the United States, Soviet Union and Great Britain fought this idea. Hitler had tried to invade the British Isles since 1940, but that nation, driven by the leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, managed to resist. However, if not for an event that preceded what has come to be known as D-Day – one that happened three years earlier in Hawaii – one has to wonder how the world would appear today.
Eugene Waggoner, now 96, was 19 on Dec. 7, 1941, and he flat-out believes that if not for Japanese planes bombing Pearl Harbor that morning, the U.S. would not have entered the war.
“Japan might have given us a favor,” said Waggoner, who would join the Navy while a student at Murray State University in July 1942. A native of Fulton County, he said he was driving back to Murray on the day he heard about the Pearl Harbor tragedy.
“We had no idea something like that was about to happen, but we needed to be jolted into action,” he said. “There was absolutely no doubt about it that we had to get involved, and our country was completely united.”
Less than two years later, Waggoner was aboard a Navy LST ship, and he said he knew what that meant. By then, the word was out about the LST, which stands for Landing Ship, Tank. It meant whoever was on such a vessel was heading into a hot zone of World War II.
Waggoner, who had graduated from his Navy training as an ensign, said it did not take long to determine where his ship, LST 540, would be going.
“We would be landing on France at some point. We knew we had to invade France eventually. It was the obvious place for us to go,” Waggoner said Thursday, recalling where he was on D-Day. “We were based 50 miles north of London along the Straits of Dover in England. That’s where we would do our onboard loading and training. Here was the thing, though. In every port in that stretch, the same thing was taking place. Just on ours alone, we had 30 tanks, plus artillery pieces and I don’t know the exact number of troops.
“Oh yes, we knew what our load was. As for where we were going, it wasn’t until we were loaded and sealed (basically where the ship cuts all communication and no one is allowed off) that we knew for sure.”
Waggoner said the cargo made it obvious. The destination was a strip of sand and hills near Normandy called Juno Beach, which was founded by the British and Canadians, but was now in the hands of Germany, which had invaded France in 1940 before unsuccessfully trying to do the same to the British.
After taking bomb after bomb from the Germans, though, the Brits were still free. Now, they would join the Americans and others in attempting to restore freedom to France and eventually invade Germany to end the war. LST 540’s first load was of all British and Canadian troops, and that was how it would be for the six landings he helped lead at Juno.
The next 21 were to deliver American forces to Omaha Beach, which was founded by the U.S. All of them bring the same feelings today for Waggoner.
“The hardest part of this – and this is the truth, as far as feelings go for me – is I was standing there watching those tanks go off that ramp and into the water and I was watching those poor young men, fully well knowing that we were sending them practically into death,” he said, remembering his thoughts before those landings, which continued for several weeks after June 6.
“The worst part of the whole thing, really, was wondering what it was going to be like when you get there. Once you’re in the battle, you’re too busy doing things to worry about it. All you’re wanting to do is get stuff on the ship, then get them off at that beach. But I just wondered how many would lose their lives in the days to come.
“Also, I praised God that I was in the Navy and could get back on my ship, have a dry bunk to get on, have good food on board and not go out there where those boys were going and face every possible form of adversity you could think of. Compared to what they went through, I had it made.”
Not that Waggoner and LST 540 did not have close calls. In fact, he said it was June 6 that what he called a “stupid” mistake nearly cost him his life. Curious, probably from being only 21 at that point, he decided he had to have a look at the battle raging on shore.
“So I go on deck in my cap, not a helmet, and that’s when a German small bomber strafed us and a bomb fragment struck my cap where my metal ensign’s insignia was. I didn’t know what had happened until I saw the crease in my cap later,” he said, adding that the bombing run resulted in several deaths.
D Day also was a family affair for Waggoner, though he did not know it at the time.
His uncle, Ozell Atkins, a Lynn Grove native and Murray State alum, was also aboard an LST — LST 496, to be exact — at Omaha on June 6. His ship, though, did not leave that beach, as Waggoner discovered when LST 540 began delivering forces there a few days later.
It was on the sixth trip that we landed there that I saw the bow of LST 496 sticking up out of the water. I knew that was his ship; he was an executive officer on it,” he said. “I found out later that they had hit a mine coming in, but at that time, I didn’t know if he was alive or dead or what had happened to him. I finally found out a few months later that he was in a hospital in Southhampton (Great Britain). They had lost 35, though, including his commanding officer.”
Waggoner also had an eye in the sky, so to speak: his older cousin, Alf Waggoner, from Centerville, Ohio.
“I didn’t know it for years, but he had been flying a P38 Lightning above us on the first day at Juno,” Eugene said. “Years after the war, we were at a family reunion, and we’re talking. He says, ‘Yeah, I was up there and you were down there.’
“But I need to give our air force a lot of credit. They did a terrific job providing cover. They were protecting us from the fighter planes and, for the most part, the Germans didn’t have a chance to get to us with their fighters. Now, one or two of their bombers might have gotten through and, as we now know, one did.
“I should’ve had my skull split open.”
History knows the rest. After some rough moments in the beginning of the invasion, the Allies began taking control of Normandy. Soon, the Germans were in retreat and France would be liberated by late 1944. The Allies eventually would claim victory over Germany a year later.
“I can’t believe it’s been that long. That’s just unreal. Where has the time gone?” Eugene said.