“German prisoners behaved themselves very well – they didn’t want to get shot”
World War II veterans recount their stories about the war, its effects and its human perspective.
André Heintz, Resistance member in Caen, France, remembers that after the first bombings on D-Day several of his friends, especially some belonging to the resistance, had been killed.
“A traitor tried to get involved with those groups, so I was completely cut off from any job I could do. And also it was such a disaster to see not only already thousands of people killed on the first day, but also the fact that there were not enough stretcher bearers. Many members of the civil defense had also been killed. So, I immediately volunteered in the early afternoon of D-Day with the Red Cross. And they sent me with an ambulance to go and pick up some wounded people, and we were almost immediately bombed. We saw the walls almost parting, a lot of smoke, a terrible noise. We felt as if we were caught on a railway line and the train arriving against you without being able to escape,” he said.
“And suddenly – silence, but smoke still all around, and the house behind was completely destroyed so we just had to jump there to pick up the wounded, clear the ruins to get all those who were calling. And there my sister said – she was a nurse there – she said, ‘You must do something!’ You see huge bombs that fell in the middle of that improvised hospital. There is nothing that shows that it belongs to the Red Cross. I couldn’t find any paint, I was not surprised. Went back to my sister, she said “Well, let’s take the sheets off the operating theatre which are already red with blood. There’s a pail from previous operations here full of blood. Let’s dip four of those into that pail to stain it better.” And we took those four big sheets to the vegetable garden. And as we were stretching the fourth sheet, red, a plane came through the clouds which ran very low on that D-Day morning, watched us making that improvised Red Cross and immediately moved its wings to say that they had recognized it was a hospital. The next day we went back to see if the thing was still in its place. It was, but it was no longer red – it was brown.”
US Navy Armed Guard veteran Cornelius Vermillion served on four ships during his one and a half years on active duty.
“The last trip when I was on the Grayson it got sunk. Scary to say the least. However, we were lucky. We were able to get everything we had as personal items off before it sunk. We don’t know what blew the bottom of the ship to let the water in – whether it was a German mine or a German torpedo or one of our own – we were in coming down in New England. It was just a mine field. And you never know when you hit something,” the veteran said.
“We had a big contingent of POWs, prisoners of war. And they were guarded by the army, our army. And the German prisoners behaved themselves very well – they didn’t want to get shot. They were always after us for cigarettes. And we wouldn’t give them any. We wouldn’t give them a pack of cigarettes for nothing,” laughed Vermillion.
“When we were in France there was a lot of activity at nighttime from aircraft. And consequently there was a lot of shooting and so forth going on when they would come over or were going through. We just decided who was going to do the shooting.”
“I am a very lucky man, I have a piece of shrapnel in my right hand, and I got a piece underneath my armpit. And to be honest two scratches I got when we had planes coming at us. I think we were in the English Channel and they were firing on the ship. Bullets were flying everywhere and the shrapnel was just flying around. I don’t know how I got it, but I ended up with it,” he said.
“By the time the adventure was over with, the ship looked like it had pox marks everywhere from bullets in it. If you happened to be walking around the deck of that ship and the only thing between you and that railing going down there was a ball of fire coming out of a torpedo, you were dead. So you didn’t wander around too much out there. And you never wore your white hat on hat on deck, we never wore white hats, we had stocking caps. And you know something, I have still got mine. I got it and I wore it this morning.”