Still on that shore
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 1, 2009 1:46 PM
Woodrow Casey recalls some of the moments during the Normandy invasion. The Grifton resident will be one of three men honored today by the French consul general in recognition of their service -- and the role they and other American soldiers played in the liberation of France during World War II.
GRIFTON -- Most who look up Woodrow Casey's driveway and across the street see a rather simple field -- a highway farther off in the distance.
But with his 87-year-old eyes squinting just right Monday afternoon, the Army veteran saw stories from the invasion of Normandy unfolding before him instead.
"I can still see it -- even now. Like it was yesterday," Casey said, staring and pointing into the distance. "It's as clear to me as that old field."
Other memories are just as potent -- the day he boarded a bus in downtown Goldsboro bound for Fort Bragg; the night before D-Day when rough seas delayed his ship's departure; the first time he "played doc," shooting morphine into 13 members of his unit who were fading after an explosion.
And this afternoon, Casey will make another when he receives the coveted Legion of Honor from the consul general of France -- the country's highest honor and a token of gratitude, French officials said, for those who liberated their nation during World War II.
Casey gets comfortable just before the memories start playing.
He knows it could be difficult to stop them once they surface.
He starts with a story about his first "real job" -- working on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base as a clerk for $22.50 a week during a time when war was far from his thoughts.
He remembers moving to Virginia and joining a plumbing union because the money was better -- how he kept his draft status in Wayne County more for peace of mind than the with the thought he might actually be called to duty.
"I wasn't really thinking about (being drafted) much," he said. "But if it was going to happen, I wanted to go into the service with someone I knew."
And in a way, when his country finally came calling, he did.
He would end up riding with 60 other young men from Wayne County on buses bound for Fort Bragg.
But what he didn't know was that those with whom he had shared that ride wouldn't be alongside him to ease his mind at war.
"I thought who I went in with was who I was going to be with," Casey said. "That was not the case. You were just put into a pool and picked by number. Turns out, I was the only one from Wayne County going to ... New York."
Assigned to the 51st Engineer Regiment's E Company, Casey spent the next several months training to be a combat engineer.
And on Oct. 13, 1943, he and more than 600 of his comrades set sail for Europe aboard the SS Isaac Sharpless.
Casey closes his eyes when he gets to the night before the invasion.
But then he lights up when he recalls all that unfolded in the hours that followed.
"The seas were heavy the night before, so heavy that when we got out into the channel, they brought us back in," he said. "Of course, we made the invasion the next morning."
His unit, renamed the 238th, was to storm Utah Beach and build bridges that would allow tanks and other military vehicles to reach the shore.
Casey remembers the first bridge he and his comrades completed.
"But the Germans were waiting for us," he said. "They knocked out the first tank."
And he could tell you about going back into the ocean to drive the 4th Infantry Division's lead Jeep into the fight.
"Even as heavy as we were, it started floating, the Jeep," he said with a grin. "Let's just say we didn't go high and dry."
With a wave of Allied troops behind him, Casey made sure that Jeep reached the shore.
But he had no idea that within moments, he would have his first encounter with German forces.
"We came around a sand dune and saw just a bunch of dummies walking around paying no attention. I thought, 'These guys are going to get themselves killed,'" he said. "I said, 'I thought we trained our guys better than that.' Lo and behold, they were Germans.
"So when a Sherman tank came along, I pointed to them and he took care of them."
Within hours -- with the help of Casey and other engineers -- the 4th pushed up the beach.
"We did not lose a single man on the beach that day, but we did soon after," Casey said. "I don't know how we made it up that beach, but we did."
Sitting atop Sherman tanks, Casey and other members of the 238th made their way through Saint-Lo with their spirits high.
Days earlier, however, the mood was much different when an accidental mine detonation left 13 members of the engineer unit gravely wounded.
Casey can still see his comrades' faces as many of them faded away.
"That was the first time I played doc. The first guy I got to ... I remember he was from Illinois. I took his first aid kit because we all had morphine, and I started giving shots," he said. "I knew they were dying, but I was hoping some of them would survive."
And he can still feel the hand of a chaplain from the 101st Airborne Division rest on his shoulder and hear a voice say, "Need help?"
"He was a hell of a beautiful sight to me," Casey said.
Casey thinks for a minute before fielding a question about just what it was like to be a part of the invasion of Normandy -- and later, an Allied victory in World War II.
"It's unreal. I mean I saw it, and I can still see it," he said. "I can still see it today. When I was climbing up to get to that first bridge, I told myself, 'You're about to be a part of history. This is a battle that's going to be in the books.'"
But he is quick to dismiss the prospect of pondering his role as one of the last of a fading generation of American heroes.
"I'm not a hero in any way -- never claimed to be," he said. "We left the heroes over there."
And when he accepts that honor today from a nation he helped free, he will do so with those same sentiments at the forefront of his mind.
"This country was one bound together with patriotism. Everybody was doing something, whether it was a victory garden, working in a bomb factory ... or serving," he said. "There were a lot of sacrifices made in this country. So I'll accept (the award) for all of them. Absolutely."
And he will never forget just how many of those sacrifices -- the ones he witnessed on Utah Beach and across France -- unfolded.
The truth is, he relives them every day.
"It really is just like it was yesterday," Casey said. "It's something I'll never forget."