I planned another story for this week when I happened upon this one, and I wanted to share it with you. I am in the process of organizing hundreds of stories kept from my newspaper days. It is an awesome task, but I hope it will be worth it when I finally see them once again in print. I shall never forget the man I interviewed for this story. It was originally written in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, which was the beginning of the end of World War II. It is an interview with Robert L. Mathias, who insisted on my calling him “Bob.” He was one of the one million soldiers who invaded Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944.
It was the worst weather in four decades. Rain pelted the region for days on end, and the heavy seas of the English Channel were a watery death trap.
The army meteorologist in England forecast a 36-hour break in the weather. It wouldn’t be clear sailing, and at best the Channel would be treacherous.
Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, called the leaders of all the armies together and asked their opinions. They stared at the table in front of them and said nothing. Eisenhower knew the final decision rested only with him.
“Okay, we’ll go.”
Those three words spoken on June 5, 1944, launched the most massive invasion by any army in the history of the world. This week is the 50th anniversary of that invasion.
Beginning in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the Allied Army landed forces on the beaches of Normandy; they would number a million men by July 1. The attack marked the beginning of the end of World War II.
One of those men was Bob Mathias from Granville, Ohio. He was detached from his tank unit to the invading army as a chemical warfare expert. “We didn’t know what we would run into,” says Mathias, remembering The Longest Day.
“They wanted a man in each unit who understood chemical deterrents in case the Germans were using mustard gas or something like that.” Mathias worked in a chemical plant before he was drafted in 1941, and the army made use of his civilian training in assigning him a military job.
As it turned out, there was no evidence of chemical warfare in Normandy, but Mathias saw plenty of action anyway. His tank unit rolled onto Omaha Beach, where the bloodiest battle of the invasion took place.
“The first troops landed at 4:30 in the morning on June 6. My unit came ashore at around 10:30. After six hours of fighting they had only pushed inland about a quarter of a mile. There were bodies everywhere. The mortuary crew hadn’t even had time to. . . .”
His voice cracks and he looks away. The gruesome picture seen by the young technical sergeant is still sharp, now seen by the mind’s eye of the aging veteran 50 years later.
After a moment he continues. “They had to remove the bodies from the beach, so the tanks dug a long ditch five or six feet deep and pushed them, Germans and Americans together, into it. They put the soldiers’ dog tags in their mouths. It wasn’t until much later that the mortuary crew could get in there and put them into caskets. They notified the German Army where to find their dead.”
By the next day, June 7, Mathias said the Allies had managed to advance only four miles inland. The beach was fortified with miles of steel and concrete barriers and bunkers. To disrupt enemy communications, Eisenhower dropped paratroops inland behind the reinforced beachfront embankments. Along with the 5,000 Allied ships that pushed onto Normandy that morning, airplanes towed gliders that were released to float inland and deposit more troops behind the lines.
The Germans, led by Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, had foreseen such a strategy and erected tall metal posts just behind the barriers. As the wide-winged gliders were set free from the aircraft, most of them crashed into the poles.
Sergeant Bob Mathias saw it all, being constantly on call to inspect each German stronghold for lethal chemicals as it fell to the Allies. Ironically, he only found poison gas one time during his four years in the armed forces. “It was two days before the war ended,” says Mathias. “We were making our way across Germany. They knew we were coming, and they abandoned the towns as we approached.
“We came into one village that was full of green canisters marked with three rings around them. There were pipes running all over town hooked up to the canisters. The German army had left one officer behind with instructions to turn on the gas when we pulled into town. He couldn’t do it. He said he just couldn’t bring himself to kill all those people.
“We didn’t know what the gas was, so we named it Three Ring Green. Some of it was sent back to the states to be tested, but we dropped most of it a mile deep in the Blue Danube. I guess it’s still there today.”
By this time, Mathias was back with his old tank unit that was part of General George Patton’s famous Third Army. He was a gunner in one of the Sherman tanks that rumbled from the beaches at Normandy to the Rhine River, liberating Europe and conquering Germany. He was with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge.
He was wounded once when the turret was blown off his tank. “I was the only guy who made it out of that one alive, and I just broke 11 ribs. I had the straps off my helmet and wasn’t buckled in my seat. When the explosion happened, I was thrown out the top of the tank. The other boys were strapped in; it broke their necks.” He pauses again, and looks away as he takes a deep breath before he goes on: “I was lucky.”
Bob Mathias was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and outstanding service. He came home just before Christmas in 1945. Listening to his graphic descriptions and heartfelt memories of World War II, one feels a strong sense of being incapable of grasping even the faintest notion of what it was like for Bob Mathias and the million soldiers who fought on the beaches of Normandy.
“Yes, I was scared,” he answers when asked if he was afraid on that morning so many years ago. “But you can’t think about it. You know you have to keep going and do whatever you have to, or you’ll wind up like all those other boys lying around you.”
Or as General Patton put it in a letter written to his grandson on the evening of June 6, 1944, “The most vital quality a soldier can possess is self-confidence, utter, complete and bumptious.”
Robert L. Mathias had all that and more. He was truly an American hero. Mathias died in 2002 at the age of 90.