Late on the night of June 5, 1944, from his vantage near the south coast of England, Bill Orme and his fellow soldiers with the 29th Infantry Division could see the planes fly over. Thousands of red and green lights blinked high up with the roar of C-47 Dakota engines. D-Day, the largest combined operation in military history, was on its way.
Orme, a 19-year-old graduate of Van Buren High School at the time, is now 95 and living at Butterfield Place in Fort Smith. He vividly recalls that night before the invasion and the ensuing combat in the hedgerows of Normandy with his fellow soldiers of the fabled "Blue and the Grey." Medals of valor and a Purple Heart from that campaign still adorn his American Legion Ellig-Stoufer Post 31 cap.
"We knew the invasion had started once that many went over that time at night … it was about 12 o’clock at night," Orme recalled June 2, 2020, at Butterfield Place. "The sergeant and I went there in his tent and then ran out to see these thousands of planes going over to France, their little lights on the wings flashing."
Paratroopers with the 101st Airborne had loaded up that night to jump on Normandy along with the 82nd Airborne Division to secure the Western Allied invasion flank as part of Operation Overlord. According to the "Atlas of World War II" by Richard Natkiel and Robin L. Sommer, 3 million men, 4,600 transports and warships, and almost 10,000 aircraft were involved in the invasion.
On June 6, 1944, members of the U.S. Army’s 29th Division 116th and 16th Regiments were among the first to storm Omaha Beach. PFC Orme was with the 29th Division’s 175th Regiment — 2nd Battalion, H Company — and served as a heavy gunner. On June 6, Orme and H Company had been in England two months and continued training on their M1919 Browning 30-caliber machine guns. When their brothers in arms were storming the beaches at Normandy, Orme and H Company were donating blood for D-Day troops on the front lines.
Just after the D-Day landings, Orme says they got the word from 29th Division Maj. General Charles Gerhardt that the 175th Regiment was going in.
"We went in to land there and the sergeant stopped all of us and said, ‘Gentlemen you’re on hallowed ground here. Two thousand five hundred of your buddies died here in this water and this beach,’" Orme said.
According to the D-DayOverlord.com, the 175th Regiment of the 29th Division landed on Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, at 12:30 p.m. Several of F Company’s and one of L Company’s landing craft were destroyed by underwater mines and machine gun fire as they approached the beach, the entry states. The 1st and 2nd battalions landed abreast one mile east of Vierville sur Mer. Machine gun and small arms fire were encountered on the beach. Four hours later, the remainder of the regiment landed one mile east of Saint Laurent sur Mer.
The hedgerow clearing device for tanks, invented on the scene by a New Jersey mechanic, was yet to be put into battle when Orme and his company began punching through their way to Saint-Lô.
"That first night out there, it was kind of quiet," Orme said of H Company in Normandy. "All of a sudden the Germans attacked and here come their artillery and mortars and fire, and I got down in my hole pretty fast. But a rifleman who had been there in that war said ‘Come on up here and let’s fire at them.’ So I got up there with my rifle and fired, and straight ahead, every once in a while you’d see Germans jumping over that … and when the whole bunch of Germans started jumping, they opened those machine guns and you could hear them screaming and hollering. Boy, they were knocking the fire out of them."
Orme noted their air-cooled, 30-caliber machine guns could shoot 500 rounds per minute. And although that was less than the German’s MG42 that shot up to 1,200 rounds a minute, the America guns used could be shot for longer periods. The MG42 required pop-out barrel replacements between heavy bursts. Orme said H Company would direct four of their M1919 guns on a single area to have the most impact.
"We fought hedgerow after hedgerow. I never did see us back up on one of them," Orme said. "My rifleman was the brave one. But we kept taking hedgerows."
James Stratton, Orme’s rifleman, was from the Bronx, New York. He remembers how he would say "Yous guys" instead of "you guys," and when they first met he heard "Are all yous guys from Arkansas?"
Orme said the fighting for Saint-Lô would be done at all costs, as fast as possible. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then-Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and other top planners of the invasion are said to have expected the area south of the beaches at Normandy to be taken in a week.
"It took 40 days," Orme said. "July 18, they walked into Saint-Lô finally, one battle after another."
Orme and H Company hadn’t showered in months. From the time they arrived in England two months prior, to July 14 when they got to the Vire River in France, Orme said they had only washed up using water in their helmets. About the time he finally got a shower and rested for two hours, he had to get back into the hedgerows to fight the Germans with Stratton.
"I was feeding the belt into him on the machine gun," Orme said. "He got across the hedgerow, and took off two hedgerows, and when he got up there I saw him motion, so I took the barrel and started over and just about the time I got waist high … BAM … I thought a barn door had hit me. Slapped me. And I don’t even remember hitting the ground but that bullet hit me right there."
He pointed to his left shoulder just over the armpit.
"Right there, through part of that bone and out the back," Orme said. "Let me tell you, when a 30-caliber bullet hits you it will knock you back. All I can remember is hollering ‘Medic, medic.’ And the medics got right there. He took my coat and jacket loose, took cotton swabs and put around that bleeding. Got it all stopped, taped it all up and fixed it, put me in a sling, put my jacket on and said, ‘You got to find your way back. We can’t get a stretcher up here. They’re firing in every position.’ I said, ‘Well I’ve got two legs left, I’m going to get back.’"
The medic advised Orme to go back through the hedgerow toward the closest field hospital, 4 miles back. He said he took off and got there "pretty fast." Once he got there, however, he saw that German artillery had already arrived. The field hospital had been hit, killing a couple doctors and several soldiers who were already wounded.
"It was a mess. They said, ‘Keep going,’" Orme remembered.
He walked back another mile or so before he waved down an ambulance. Evading German guns, Orme’s ambulance driver stayed off the roads and drove across bumpy fields to get back to Omaha Beach. He was sent to a large medical tent, and from there onto a cargo plane for a short plane ride back to a former barracks-turned-hospital in Yeovil, England. Placed in a cast for a couple months, Orme then worked on his physical rehabilitation to get his strength back. Although there was talk around the hospital of GIs being sent home, Orme didn’t believe it.
He was right.
Beyond the Ruhr
On Dec. 16, 1944, Orme was listening to the radio with others and heard that Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt and his tanks had pushed through the Ardennes.
"It was zero degrees and they went through the 101st Airborne and the 106th Infantry Division," Orme remembers. "They went through the 106th like it wasn’t even there. Those Tiger tanks going through them, killed a bunch and took them prisoner. And you know, they took 69 of them back there, pulled the truck up with a machine gun and killed all those guys. Two of them acted like they were dead and they got away back to American lines and told them how they killed all those guys."
The alleged war crime cost the Germans soldiers, Orme said. As the story spread, it further infuriated Americans and pushed them to carry on through the heavy fighting. By late February 1945, after a two-day respite in London, Orme was back in the field with his gun at the Belgium-Germany border just across the Ruhr River. The 29th had fought from Saint-Lô to the Ruhr River over the course of months Orme was recovering in the hospital. The 29th had arrived at the Ruhr by the end of November 1944 and held the area that fall until it was time to began an offensive across the Ruhr on Feb. 23, 1945. Orme remembers finding a friend in the first battle across the river.
"I had our machine gun on the right side of the town and they had another on the left side a-firing, and there was four up on this sports plaza firing down into town so the guys could get out of the boats and get into town," Orme recalls of the fight for Jülich.
As he fired into the town to keep the Germans at bay, Orme looked over and noticed someone who had been hit. There was something familiar about him.
"I crawled over there and it was the guy from Kentucky that stood beside me all night waiting to attack. He was in one of those boats," Orme said. "I couldn’t cry … We had talked all night together. He told me he was from Kentucky. I wished I had got his name and remembered it."
Orme later learned that Stratton, the gunner he started out with in H Company, had fought on bravely and was hit by shrapnel in four different battles. Since his injuries were not life-threatening, Stratton was patched up and sent on each time he was hit. Although Stratton made it back up to the front lines with the 29th Division, he and Orme were not paired up again.
"They brought Herbert Kaplan, a Jewish boy, up there with me at this town and he was on the gun with me all the way into the fighting," Orme said. "We took that town and then town after town after that."
The word passed around H Company was that the German town of Jülich they took on that first battle across the Ruhr had in an interesting connection to the 29th’s commanding general. It was said the town of Jülich had Gen. Gerhardt’s grandfather as its mayor at one time.
They forged on through Broich, Immerath and Titz, to Mönchengladbach by March 1, 1945. Orme said the capture of Mönchengladbach was significant because it was the largest city west of the Rhine River at the time. They had crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge at Remagen, he noted. The famed Bridge at Remagen was taken by American troops March 7 as the Germans tried to demolish it in retreat. Not enough explosives were used though, and the bridge was used by Allied troops to quickly advance. The bridge finally collapsed March 17, 1945. It saved a month or more for the war effort, Orme said.
The Red Army, V-2 Surrender and Stalag camps
The division was out of combat in March but in early April the division was reassigned to XVI Corps, where the 116th Infantry helped mop up in the Ruhr area. On April 19, 1945, the division, assigned to XIII Corps, pushed to the Elbe River and held defensive positions until May 4. Meanwhile, Orme and the other surviving members of the 175th Infantry cleared the Klotze Forest.
According to Codenames.com on operations of World War II, "the most persistent of the German groups hid in a forest near Klötze" and "it required one of the 29th Division’s regiments, supported by 155-mm (6.1-in) and 8-in (203-mm) artillery, to destroy it." The entry at Codenames.com on Operation Kaput states a chemical mortar battalion had previously "tried in vain to burn out the Germans with white phosphorus shells."
"We went in and cleaned that out," Orme said of the Klotze Forest.
Orme’s company in the 175th Regiment also took part in the capture of Paderborn, and helped rescue two Stalag prison camps. One of the camps, Orme thinks, was "Camp 17" and had mostly Army Air Corp crew members. The United State Holocaust Memorial Museum also credits the 29th Infantry Division for liberating Dinslaken, a civilian labor camp.
"They killed those people," Orme recalled solemnly of one Stalag camp. "Starved them to death. Beat them to death. Poisoned them, and threw them in ovens and burned them … We went in there and those ovens were still burning with people."
As they approached the Elbe River, they encountered fire from the Russians.
"We fought up to the north part of the Elbe River. We were up there two days and the Russians come in there, screaming and a-hollering and shooting. They shot at us and we called back and said, ‘We’re getting shot at, what do we do?’ Eisenhower said, ‘Shoot back.’ We stopped them."
Orme also was with the 29th Division when the German V-2 rocket division surrendered at the Elbe River.
"Before the Russians met us, they come up there and the officers wanted to give up and they give up to our division," Orme said. "Eisenhower sent a pontoon bridge up to put across the Elbe River, and they sent trucks up and they took out the ones they wanted to send back to America … Could’ve been Von Braun. I don’t know if he was in there or not. He probably was. I got a bayonet from one of them."
When the Germans finally surrendered and V-E Day came on May 8, 1945, Orme said he took the belt out of the machine gun and locked it down.
"There was some grass there, and I just laid back and went to sleep," Orme said. "Some of them said everyone was shouting and going on, but very little of that on the front line."
After the fighting stopped, the 29th division was on military duty in the Bremen enclave with XVI Corps. Orme proved to be a great driver and was hand-picked to serve during that initial occupation force as a jeep driver for the company captain. Orme was able to see much of Europe with this job that proved easier than lugging a heavy machine gun around. A week in Switzerland was one of the highlights. Once he returned to the United States, Orme worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 32 years, in addition to five years with BancorpsSouth.
"I was only one soldier out of 11 million men and women that won two wars at the same time," Orme concluded.