Merrill veteran remembers invasion of Normandy
Earl Schuman of Merrill was among the honored guests at a ceremony in Madison Friday that commemorated the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy during World War II.
Schuman, 94, is a D-Day veteran whose field artillery unit was attached to the 29th Division during the invasion of Normandy.
“It was really appreciated by everybody that was down there,” Earl said of the ceremony organized by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. “I couldn’t believe all the people in that capitol. It was just packed with people.”
A number of other D-Day veterans were on hand for the event.
Earl, who was born and raised in Merrill, was drafted into the Army when he was 21.
“I was drafted just before the war started,” he said. “I went in the first part of November 1941.”
On June, 6, 1944, 160,000 allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline to fight Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the invasion of German-occupied Western Europe and led to an Allied victory in World War II.
Earl’s unit didn’t land on the Easy Red portion of Omaha Beach until H+30, about noon on June 7.
“I’m listed as being part of the invasion force because we were attached to the 29th Division which made the invasion,” he said.
The worst of the initial assault was over, but their trek across the beach and over the hill was not without its perils.
“When we went in on the 7th, we made a dry landing,” he said. “When they dropped the ramp (of the landing craft), it hit a mine and it blew the ramp off, so they had to get the ship’s carpenters out there to build a ramp so we could get off the boat.”
Earl’s unit used M5 tractors to tow 155mm Howitzers. The tractors were to follow each other single file across the beach, which hadn’t yet been cleared of mines placed by the German defenses.
“There was bodies laying all around and in the water,” Earl remembers.
The first tractor went out and the second tractor followed in its tracks. Earl was riding on the fourth tractor in the procession when the tractor right ahead of him hit a mine.
“It blew up because the sand was soft and had washed over the mine,” Earl said. “The first two (tractors) got by and the third one hit it. There was no roof on our tractor so they flew up about 15 feet and landed in the soft sand, which was good. Of course, us guys in the fourth tractor all jumped out and helped pick them up. Only one guy got hurt bad because he had his arm over the side of the tractor and got his arm all smashed to pieces.”
The tractor was on fire and one soldier suggested to take the ammo off the truck.
“This guy who couldn’t read or write had more brains than any of us,” Earl said.
Earl’s unit went up the hill and took the waterproofing off the tractor and the gun.
“My job was to put the jack back on the gun. It was pretty heavy,” he said. “I guess I was the guy with the weakest mind and the strongest back, so I had to do that job.”
The soldiers needed to keep their eyes open for a German counter attack.
“They had spotted a bunch of tanks back a ways in the woods,” Earl said. “They figured the tanks would try and drive us off the beach. There was no place for you to go; the water was right in back of us.”
Earl was given a bazooka and Molotov cocktails and sent to a forward position to watch over a sunken road and guard against a potential counter attack. At that point, Earl nearly got taken out by friendly fire as he was out of communication and missed an order to change his uniform.
“I was out in front and I bent over for a Molotov and a bullet flew right over my head,” he said.
Earl figured it was the American infantry coming up from behind, so he raised his arm in “come forward” gesture.
“They were a couple of guys from a different battery that had shot at me,” he said. “The reason they shot at me was we all had to wear gas-impregnated clothes. While I was up front, out of communication with everybody, they got the word that they was supposed to get rid of those gas-impregnated clothes because they were gray and they looked just like the German uniforms. I think those guys thought I was a German because I had those God-dang gray clothes on and that’s why they shot at me.”
The infantry came several nights afterward, passing Earl’s unit quietly in the night.
Earl was in the service for four years, two in the States and two overseas.
“I went all the way through, from Normandy to the Bulge and ended up in Czechoslovakia,” he said. “That was the last engagement they had in Czechoslovakia.”
The military worked on the point system to determine who would go home first.
“If you had 85 points, you were ready to go home, and I had 86,” Earl said. “I was among the first group of our outfit to leave on our way home.”
After the war, Earl returned home to Merrill and got a job at the Leidiger Brewery. After the brewery shut down, he worked at Ward Paper until retirement.
Earl is the oldest member of the Merrill VFW Post 1638. He made the trip to Washington, DC on the second Never Forgotten Honor Flight out of Central Wisconsin.