Each day more than 1,500 World War II veterans die, and in just 10 years very few will be left to tell their stories of seismic and liberating essence.
John Arnold, 9l, a citizen of Vilonia has one to tell — the story of June 6, 1944, when a vast armada of 155,000 Allied troops stormed the coastline of Normandy, France, opening the western front in the war against Nazi Germany.
Watching it all, with his heart in his throat, was young Coast Guardsman Arnold. He watched as Allied troops were disgorged into the rolling sea to do battle with the Nazis, who were entrenched on the beaches of Normandy.
On the fateful day 70 years ago, a ferocious battle was waged in the air, in the sea and on the ground.
It was to be described as the “slaughterhouse of D-Day, the pivotal battle of World War II.”
The other day, Arnold, who was a young crewman on a Coast Guard ship, the Bayfield, an amphibious attack ship, talked somberly about the U.S. Army’s massive assault on Hitler’s Europe. “I could see them fighting on the beaches. It was something I will never forget.”
He watched massive numbers of men toting heavy equipment jumping and falling off of assault boats into the surf, moving and groping their way to meet the entrenched Nazis.
The sight of the war effort stunned Arnold. Thousands of battleships, troop ships, freighters, invasion barges and Coast Guard ships mingled together in the largest armada ever assembled.
At dawn on June 6, 1944, Arnold was on the deck of the ship, having come topside from the bowels of the ship where he was ordinarily stationed in the boiler room. The gray light of morning silhouetted the Allied ships ready to do battle; men poised to face tremendous odds, giving their all against an entrenched powerful enemy.
Even as they were supported by massive artillery and great air power, many would perish in the fray. Hundreds of men screaming and dying; body parts everywhere.
While the spectacle unfolded before his eyes, Arnold’s thoughts filtered back to the hardscrabble land of northwest Arkansas from where he would be pulled by the entreaty of the selective service system (the draft board) for military service.
Uncle Sam had called, and like thousands of men like himself, he responded to orders. He left the farm and traveled to Memphis where he joined the Coast Guard. It was 1942. After training, he found himself entrenched in the military machinations of the Guard.
“No, I wasn’t hurt,” he said in answer to a question about the state of his health, explaining that his station in the ship’s boiler room took him away from physical conflict, even though being in the war was perilous enough.
“We were in the Channel for 19 days bringing men into battle,” he said. On board his ship were 2,200 G.I.s, Navy and Marine personnel, who were to be carried in small transport boats to do battle with the Germans.
Leaving Normandy behind as the Allied forces pushed ahead in horrendous efforts, Arnold’s ship found Nazis in the south of France and the coast of Italy before moving to the Pacific where the war with Japan filled the thoughts of American troops,
Again, American fighters roared into battle in brutal engagements. Arnold was at Honolulu, Midway, Guadalcanal and other Japanese strongholds where U.S. troops fought doggedly to move the enemy out of entrenchments they had held for years.
Arnold ended his military career in 1946 and returned home. He found civilian life on the farm not to his liking and obtained employment in Conway with the Dean Milk Company for whom he worked for several decades.