June 6, 1944, was the day in World War II in which Allied forces invaded northern France through a series of landings that put 160,000 troops on the beaches of Normandy, a 50-mile stretch of French coastline heavily fortified by Nazi German troops.
According to the U.S. Army, more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion. More than 9,000 Allied troops were killed our wounded, but more than 100,000 troops gained a foothold in Europe that turned the tides of war.
Walter Heatherly was born in Douglas County in 1924. He had four cousins: Wandal, Russell, Larry and Gary Heatherly, all of whom reside in Ozark or Nixa now. The four brothers recall how their cousin was remembered for being part of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach.
“I was scared to death,” Heatherly said in an undated Associated Press piece that originally ran in the Visalia Time Delta that recounted his service on D-Day.
Heatherly was 20-year-old sergeant with an expertise in carpentry, but his job that day was deconstruction.
German soldiers, in anticipation of a potential invasion, had lined the Normandy beaches with obstacles designed to hinder the Allied soldiers coming ashore. Barbed wire, barricades and mines greeted the Allies at Omaha Beach.
Heatherly and other members of the 149th Engineer Combat Battalion were attached to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade were ordered to clear a road for troops and equipment to move further inland, and they were ordered to keep the road clear throughout the day. They cleared the road and kept it open while taking fire from enemy troops who held high ground above the French shoreline.
“I took care of me. The job assigned to me that day didn’t mean much,” Heatherly said of his orders. “The only hope was you—if you could protect yourself.”
Heatherly told the Associated Press that his battalion suffered heavy casualties the first day, but proceeded inland into the town of Ste. Mere-Eglise. The coastal village was the sight of what he called a “total disaster,” where some American paratroopers missed their drop zone and landed in the middle of town, into heavy enemy fire. Some of the paratroopers were shot and killed before they reached the ground, and were left hanging in trees from the shroud lines on their parachutes.
In the Associated Press story, Heatherly recalled marching northeast through France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Heatherly received the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, four Bronze Stars, a Distinguished Unit Badge, a Good Conduct Medal, the American Theater Campaign Ribbon, three overseas service bars and the Victory Ribbon.
Walter Heatherly died a decade ago on Feb. 21, 2009, in Visalia, California, according to his obituary.