The late Joe Denton of Richmond was a 19-year-old rifleman when he waded ashore on Omaha Beach 75 years ago today.
“It was total chaos,” he recalled in a June 7, 1994 interview published in the Herald-Coaster.
Denton, assigned to the 16th Regimental Combat team, stepped off the landing craft and into a hole over his head.
He lost his helmet and almost lost is rifle, he told the Herald-Coaster reporter.
Strong tides and choppy surf, along with smoke-covered beaches and gray skies, led to many landing craft landing at the wrong place.
“Nothing was where it was supposed to be,” he recalled. “They said there would be ready-made fox holes, made in the air raids. Ammo and tanks were lost in the ocean. We were naked on the beach with no tank support.”
Before reaching the shore he was struck in the hand by a bullet.
His finger dangling and bleeding, he sloshed his way to the beach where he picked up a helmet and submachine gun.
“You couldn’t see anything,” he recalled. “We were all trying to stay alive.”
He joined others at the eight-feet tall seawall that provided some protection from the German gunfire on the bluffs above.
Denton used bandages from a first-aid kit to treat his injury.
Later, a dentist stitched his wound.
“When we got to the seawall, we were content to hover there a bit,” he recalled in his 1994 interview.
Eventually, he and the rest of the soldiers began working their way up the bluff.
They went through ravines, which were easier to scale than the steep embankments, but the Germans had figured as much and had mined the ravines.
Still, Denton and the others made their way up and eventually gained the high ground.
But the fighting wasn’t over. The Germans rained mortars down on the GIs.
A friend told him, “Let’s get out of here!”
Those were the last words he spoke, Denton recalled. Shrapnel from a mortar killed the soldier right in front of Denton.
An estimated 2,500 Americans died on Omaha Beach during that four-hour period.
Denton and the rest of the Allied forces eventually secured the beach and moved inland.
He saw battle at Saint Lo, and throughout Belgium and France. He was among the troops that assaulted he Maginot and Siegfried lines and endured a “Siberian winter” in the Black Forest of Germany.
“They said it was the coldest winter in centuries,” he recalled. “We lost a of GIs to the cold, especially the wounded.”
That December he was among the Allied troops joined in the now-historic Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive of the war.
Denton earned a Purple Heart with two clusters for his actions during the battle.
At 3 a.m. one morning, Denton and his company were forced to fight off wild hogs devouring Americans killed the day before.
“We spent all night tossing hand grenades at the hogs,” he said. “The next day we made sure we recovered the bodies.”
Another scene that struck Denton as especially cruel was the convoys of trucks carrying war dead “stacked like cord wood.”
Most of the bodies were buried in mass graves, one for Americans and one for Germans, he recalled.
“That upset me more than anything,” he said to the Herald interviewer 25 years ago.
Beside the Purple Heart, Denton also earned a Bronze star with two clusters, and four campaign stars.
While in Europe, he met and befriended the son of a U.S. Congressman, who arranged for them to attend school in Paris after the war.
After the war, he married a women he had met in England during training and they settled in Rosenberg where he operated a car dealership.
On the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest invasions in the history of mankind, Denton believed it was important to share what he had witnessed with future generations.
“A lot of brave men died,” he said. “Some GIs came back and picked up where they left off. It amazes me they had any sanity at all.”