What’s it like to be unrelentingly scared every day and every night for several months?
Floyd Wigfield is one of the proverbial band of brothers who knows.
What’s it like to keep reaching deep inside to summon the courage it takes to push that fear aside so you can do what you have to do?
At 100, Wigfield, who makes his home near Cumberland, knows about that, too.
Like every other man who waded ashore on Normandy’s beaches during the D-Day invasion — or tried to, but didn’t make it — he had good reason to be afraid.
“I didn’t know what I was going to face,” he said. “I was scared the whole time I was there (in Europe).”
Wigfield was to return to Normandy for the 75th anniversary observance of the June 6, 1944, landing at the invitation of the president of the United States.
He expected this visit to France will be more pleasant than his first, when he was part of first G Company of the 4th Division, 22nd Infantry Regiment, one of the first units that landed at Utah Beach.
Wigfield was a scout who went several hundred yards ahead of the main body to see what was lying in wait. A number of American soldiers came home to their loved ones because of what he did later in that role.
The German resistance was more ferocious at Omaha Beach, where 2,000 Americans were killed or wounded, than at Utah Beach, where there were 197 casualties. It’s estimated that the total number of American, British (Gold and Sword beaches) and Canadian (Juno Beach) casualties was 10,000, including paratroopers who landed farther inland.
“The second day was when we got into the Germans,” Wigfield said.
“When they threw that ramp down (on the landing craft), I jumped into the water up to my neck,” he said. “I threw my head back to keep water from going into my mouth.”
His lifebelt held him high enough out of the water to keep from drowning, but not high enough to make him a good target. When he got to the beach he discarded it and started running — and so did the other soldiers.
Just before dark on D-Day, a division of paratroopers in gliders that were towed by cargo planes came under fire from the Germans.
Wigfield and his buddies could see the glowing tracer rounds — bullets that have the effect of showing not just where they’re going, but also the whereabouts of the guns that fired them.
“We wanted to go over there and stop them (the Germans),” he said, “but the company commander wouldn’t let us. We were supposed to stay where we were supposed to be, so we wouldn’t be shelled by our own ships.”
Instead, the commander called in fire support from the battleships Wigfield said were lying so far off the coast that he couldn’t see them.
“The third shell they fired came right in over our heads and took out the Germans,” he said. “The Germans were shooting back at them, and we were right in the middle.”
The company commander, a captain named Russell whose first name Wigfield didn’t remember, was killed on the second day in one of the infamous Normandy hedgerows when a German soldier shot him in the stomach.
Instead of fences, farms in Normandy were separated by hedgerows — long, irregularly shaped mounds of dirt that were covered by thick vegetation that was virtually impenetrable. The Germans fortified them with machine guns and anti-tank weapons.
Army Sgt. Curtis Grubb Culin III, who was from New Jersey, fabricated a plow that could be attached to the front of a tank and used to push through the hedgerows. Other tank crews made similar devices and used them to advance.
“We had to put up a tent to keep the flies off the dead soldiers,” Wigfield said. Trying to bury them would have been impractical.
‘Woke up in England’
Wigfield had been in country for two weeks when a German artillery round went off a few feet away. He lived because he heard it coming and hit the ground. His buddy didn’t hear it and probably was killed, but to this day, he doesn’t know.
“When I came to, I was walking down the road,” he said. “It didn’t take me long to get out of there and get to the medics. They had to cut off all my clothes and put me in a hospital gown. We were only a mile from the front line.
“I passed out and woke up in England.”
A large shell fragment was removed from Wigfield’s back. His head was “a mess,” and for the next few months a succession of smaller fragments festered their way to the surface of his skin, where they could be dug out.
He spent the summer in a hospital, recovering and being rehabilitated, then was shipped out for Europe once more.
The day after Thanksgiving 1944, Wigfield was wounded again.
“A shell came over, right down in a building I was in,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. It knocked me out.”
Upon his post-recuperation return to France, Wigfield found that something important had changed.
“When we hit France the first time, we had medics with us,” he said.
Medics were classified as non-combatants under the Geneva Convention, a code of international laws that dictates humane treatment for prisoners of war, medical personnel and civilians not associated with the military.
Germany was a signatory to the convention, but “The Germans killed our medics,” Wigfield said. “Our medics had to stay back several hundred yards behind the line to keep from getting killed.”
That was a common experience. The philosophy among some German soldiers was that if enemy medics were killed, they would be unavailable to treat wounded enemy soldiers and return them to combat. Some American medics carried sidearms in self-defense, even though they could be shot if captured while armed.
The night before he was wounded the second time, Wigfield said, “I got into a mess.”
Their sergeant sent him and four other men to the top of a hill, where three of them were killed. A fourth was wounded in the leg.
“He was bleeding something fierce, and boy, was he hollering,” Wigfield said.
“Boy, did I have some shooting to do, and I had to figure out where the Germans were before I could get to him,” he said.
Wigfield said he put a tourniquet on the man’s leg and, “It was really something, giving him first aid with my gun in my hand and my finger on the trigger.
“The next day, I got hit. It was rough on that hill up there,” he said.
Wigfield said that by then, only about 10 of the 300 men he landed with on D-Day were left. The rest were replacements.
“One day I stopped two of our companies from getting into a battle,” he said. “They were replacements about to fire on another company when I spotted an American helmet in the other company and stopped them from firing.”
Sleeping in the briars
It never let up.
“Every day, everybody was scared to death. I’ve seen them throw their gun down and cry like a dog. Their mind just snapped,” Wigfield said.
“Sometimes when the battle was over, there were no leaves left in the trees. I remember one shell fell short and hit a cow in the back end. It was one of the Navy shells, and it was a big old cow. The concussion from that almost fixed me,” he said.
“We caught a fellow running himself to death and crying,” he said. “Another fellow took his gun and his canteen and we calmed him down. After we got him settled down, we gave him back his stuff and let him go.”
There was no respite, even at night.
“We would wait until dark and move a little bit, and then cut a hole in the (hedgerow) briars and go in there to sleep,” Wigfield said.
A man might get torn up by the briars, but if he slept out in the open, Wigfield said the Germans were likely to sneak in and cut his throat, leaving him for his buddies to find in the morning.
“They (Germans) wouldn’t go into the briars,” he said, adding that he had seen men whose throats had been cut — usually those who were the biggest and strongest. The psychological effect on their surviving buddies was devastating.
Some Germans in a pillbox (a small fortification) were giving them fits with machine guns, when an American fighter-bomber airplane came over and dropped a bomb that scored a direct hit.
Wigfield said the pilot was pretty good to be able to do that, but the bomb had no effect whatsoever because the pillbox was made of thick reinforced concrete.
Two tanks came up and fired flamethrowers into the firing slits of the pillbox, “and that fixed ‘em,” Wigfield said.
“I could have done the same thing with a hand grenade,” he said, “but the Army wants to do things its way.”
Wigfield said the dying began even before D-Day when hundreds of men died in a training incident that he said was covered up for at least 20 years. German torpedo boats attacked eight landing craft that had been left defenseless due to a series of communication errors between the British and the Americans.
Records indicate that at least 551 soldiers and 198 sailors died in Exercise Tiger, many because they had not been shown how to wear a lifebelt properly. The weight of their backpacks flipped them upside-down, and they drowned.
It was the same type of lifebelt Wigfield said kept him alive, but he knew how to wear it.
One of Wigfield’s friends died in that incident, but he said nobody was court-martialed or otherwise disciplined because the officers responsible were going to be needed for the invasion itself.
In addition, the secrecy surrounding the upcoming invasion would have been breached if the incident had been reported.
“The Germans should have quit when they knew they were going to lose, but they didn’t” he said.
Wigfield said they were showered with propaganda leaflets that told them there were many Americans of German descent in the United States, “but the papers didn’t say they were in jail.”
Much has been made of the interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It’s not common knowledge that German-Americans, Italian-Americans and German and Italian nationals also were interned, but in smaller numbers.
Wigfield said he didn’t have time to enlist right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because he was drafted almost immediately.
His father had a farm, and he probably could have gotten a deferment to stay and work there, but decided to serve his country instead.
“It was a job that had to be done,” he said. “I’m glad that I went and did what I had to do.”
Wigfield said that after he came home, he didn’t talk to anyone about the war. This story contains accounts he said he has kept to himself until now.
Wigfield is twice widowed and a 1937 graduate of Fort Hill High School. He lives near Cumberland, keeps a neat house, cooks for himself, washes his laundry and hangs it on the line, mows his lawn with a riding mower, maintains and plants a garden with a roto-tiller, recently laid some cinder blocks and wields a chain saw when necessary. Until recently, he played the organ, the mandolin and the banjo.
His invitation to go to Normandy for the 75th anniversary observance of D-Day came from President Donald Trump during a visit to the White House.
More recently, Wigfield and four other World War II veterans went to the French Embassy in Washington to receive France’s Legion of Honor, that country’s highest military and civilian decoration. It was awarded for their “selfless participation” in the liberation of France.
Wigfield said that while he is in France, he hopes to find Capt. Russell’s grave so he can pay his respects.
According to the D-Day Order of Battle, Capt. Robert D. Russell was G Company commander until he was Killed In Action on 7 June, 1944. He was from Virginia, was 26 years old at the time of his death and had been married for 2 years and 5 months to Mildred Scott Russell.
It has been learned that Russell is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where some of Wigfield’s friends plan to take him after he returns from Normandy.