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D-Day horror still vivid to Utahn

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The veterans of World War II have aged. Most are in their 80s and their 90s. And that means that future commemorations of the D-Day invasion on Normandy Beach may soon rely on memory alone.

But while they remain, Utah veterans of the historic invasion — like 82-year-old William B. Shanley — will mark the day with vivid first-person recollections.

Shanley, Sandy, moved to Utah in 1937 when his mother, a native, wanted to move back from Los Angeles. His father, from New Jersey, met his mother while stationed at Fort Douglas. The younger Shanley graduated from high school in Orem and joined the Utah National Guard's 40th Infantry Division because all of his friends had done so.

"I was in the National Guard for a week, and they inducted all of us into the regular Army," he said.

They were supposed to be in for a year. Then, just two months short of that milestone, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and Shanley and his buddies were in for the duration of the war.

After Pearl Harbor, the 40th was sent to the Pacific, but Shanley was transferred out to a combat military police company and spent the next two years in the United States. But, in late 1943, his MP company was sent to Swansea, Wales, to train for the invasion of Europe.

Sixty years ago today, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the MPs were attached to the 5th Engineering Amphibious Special Brigade, which itself was attached to the 1st Infantry Division. They went onto Omaha Beach between 9:30 and 10 a.m. The first waves of soldiers had hit the beach shortly after 6:30 a.m.

"I didn't get seasick on the ship over, and there was plenty to eat, because those who were sick would just leave their food," Shanley said. He also didn't get sick while in the small LCT landing craft that bobbed up and down with the heavy seas, although he recalls the men were packed in so tight that those who were sick often would throw up on the soldier in front of them.

Getting from the ship to the landing craft was tricky, he said, with men climbing down the side of the ship on rope ladders. If they got too far down and the sea threw the landing craft up, it could crush a man. "You had to jump at the right time as the LCT came up."

When the LCT ramp was lowered, Shanley stepped off and immediately went into water over his head. "I couldn't touch bottom, but fortunately we had life preservers on. I used the butt of my carbine as a paddle.

"When I got up on the beach, there was nothing but bodies and body parts. A good friend of mine told me the night before he wasn't going to make it. We found him blown apart on the beach. The first wave didn't have a chance.

"For the first couple of hours, they just mowed them down. It was hard to believe that many men could be killed in such a short period of time," he said.

"And the wounded. There was no one to take care of them. Many of them were blown up and close to the water and they would scream every time the salt water rolled over them. It was awful."

Shanley believes the three-hour lag between the first wave and his wave saved his life during the assault, although he would spend the next three weeks working on the beach, directing traffic and escorting convoys as a motorcycle patrolman.

By sundown, Omaha Beach was considerably safer than when the day started, and the soldiers were able to move up to the ridge and establish a bivouac, he said. "We slept every night in foxholes. That first night we were told to shoot anything that moved, and if a man got up in the middle of the night to relieve himself, he'd likely be shot."

After D-Day, Shanley's outfit moved to Antwerp, Belgium, where they were subjected to daily raids by German buzzbombs, jet-propelled bombs that made a loud noise until their engines shut off and they fell to earth. "That was very scary."

At the end of 1944, Shanley was in an Army hospital in Bastogne with an injured knee from a motorcycle accident that occurred when the Germans began their siege of Bastogne and their winter offensive. "A colonel came in, looking for anyone who could carry a rifle, and I got kicked out of the hospital."

During the winter of 1944, Shanley and his comrades slept on the snow with just two blankets to keep them warm. "I don't know how I slept on that snow."

Shanley, who was in a documentary about D-Day, "Lest They Be Forgotten," received a medal and certificate from the French government this year. Although he didn't attend last week's ceremonies for the dedication of the national World War II Monument in Washington, D.C., Shanley, who retired from long-haul truck driving, hopes he and his wife, Marge, can revisit Omaha Beach soon.

Like most World War II veterans, Shanley has never talked much about the war, but he said he's glad to see people interested in it now.

"I spent nearly five years in the Army," he said, "and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

E-mail: lweist@desnews.com