75 years after D-Day, Robert Barnard of Concord details one long day

  • D-Day Memorial Day Veteran Profile Robert Barnard GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Robert Barnard and his fellow soldiers with a marker showing where he is in the photograph. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Robert Barnard at his apartment at Pleasant View in Concord. Barnard, 93, will be honored by the French Consul General later this month at Pleasant View, where he will receive a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his service in Normandy. It is France’s highest honor. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/2/2019 6:35:07 PM

The worst of the storm passed through a day earlier, but the rough waters on the English Channel on June 6, 1944, were strong enough to make some of the men sick as their landing craft moved toward Omaha Beach off the northern coast of France.

Robert Barnard, now 93, had enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his 17th birthday, about 16 months before he descended down a cargo net off the USS Dorthea L. Dix onto a small landing craft that would carry him and a couple dozen other soldiers to the shores of Normandy. 

The armada of almost 7,000 vessels carried approximately 156,000 Allied troops, including 73,000 Americans, and had gathered about 10 miles offshore, far enough so the Germans’ 88 mm cannons couldn’t reach them. Once they got closer, Barnard and his brothers in arms would face those cannons, which could cover more than 8 miles when projected through the air.

The landing craft Barnard was aboard circled together with eight others when they received orders to go ashore. It took about an hour to cover those miles through the choppy waters, Barnard says 75 years later, and the sounds of rifles and machine guns firing from the beach as they approached told the men that something had already gone awry in the early stages of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like that,” Barnard said, reflecting on the day as he sat for an interview at Pleasant View Retirement in Concord. “They were supposed to be cleared because the bombers would go over prior to our invasion. Well, it turned out the bombers dropped their bombs inland a little too much. So we were left with the Germans and everything facing us.”

The sounds of the firing weapons turned from a crackling in the distance into a chaotic collection of explosions, large and small, as they got closer. The boat hit the beach and the door dropped open, revealing an infernal scene playing out before the soldiers who had arrived to join the battle. Through the smoke and dust, the German pillboxes sat high on chalk cliffs looking over the beach.

The sea was red with blood, Barnard said. Bodies of fallen troops floated in the water, rising up and dipping down with the wake, and washing up onto the hard sand of the beach. Barnard’s eyes snapped forward and he saw the dune a couple hundred yards across the beach where the soldiers were gathering for cover as endless gunfire erupted from the German pillboxes looking down on them.

“We knew we had to get to the dune line in order not to be shot,” Barnard said.

They waded through the water as quickly as they could. Czech hedgehogs, metal angled beams fused together to create an obstacle to snare the landing crafts, provided scant cover for the soldiers as bullets rained down and shells from the 88s bounced off the beach and exploded in the air.

The 88s were usually aimed toward the sky so they could lob shells at a target miles away, Barnard said. But as more Allied troops reached the shore, Barnard said the Germans had turned their weapons toward the beach and were using them as massive rifles, firing directly onto the Allies.

“Those bombs were doing their job,” Barnard said. “We were crawling over body parts and running and hiding behind these (hedgehogs). It wasn’t much protection.”

More than halfway to the dune, Barnard stumbled upon a runnel filled with water about 7-feet deep and 9- feet wide. His carbine rifle was wrapped in plastic, as well as a battery box he carried for a radioman he was fighting alongside.

Bearing a 40-pound pack, Barnard inflated his life vest and jumped into the water as shells screamed over his head. The life vest was secured under his arms, allowing him to wade and paddle through the water to the other side. Some men, Barnard said, had worn the vests on their waists, causing them to flip in the water and drown.

As he moved through the runnel, Barnard felt his rifle snag onto something in the water. He pulled the carbine up, expecting it to be tangled in rope, but instead found a piece of intestine hanging from it. Barnard, at just 18 years old, didn’t have time to process this horror, and he had none to process when he first stepped onto the beach.

He shed the intestine from his gun and kept swimming, the radioman not far behind him. When they reached the runnel’s far edge, Barnard lifted himself out of the water and was immediately blown back by an explosion.

Barnard doesn’t know for how long he laid knocked out in the sand, but when he came to, he couldn’t find his friend, the radioman. He never saw the man again.

Again, Barnard had no time to think, even as he regained consciousness. He was still at least 50 feet from the dune – 50 feet to safety – but he was hobbled by the blast. Shrapnel had wiped out Barnard’s sinus on the right side of his face. He could still see out of his left eye, but he peered through a red haze as blood dripped in.

He dropped the battery pack and began to unwrap his carbine. As he did, a medic reached down and gripped Barnard’s rifle and pulled him up to the dune.

“I was safe at that point,” Barnard said. “He pulled me into a trench where there were other wounded people.”

The battle continued to erupt around Barnard until the Allies pushed farther inland as the Germans started to run low on ammunition. He pulled on his helmet, but the liner had been knocked out in the explosion. A medic jammed a liner into the helmet and handed it to Barnard. A month later, Barnard would realize the liner had come from a soldier in the 29th Infantry Division. Today, the helmet and liner are on display at the Wright Museum in Wolfeboro.

Barnard remained in the ditch for hours and through the night. Shrapnel had lodged into his spine and pelvis, and the pain combined with that from his facial wounds consumed him. Every two hours, a medic came by with a shot of morphine to ease the pain. It was enough to help Barnard fall asleep for a short time.

“All night, I was in and out of consciousness,” Barnard said. “I was wet all over from coming up the beach. ... So I was cold, and I was in shock. I’d ask for a blanket but they didn’t have any blankets on the beach, so the medic would come over and give me a shot of morphine and I’d be out for two hours. I’d wake up cold after two hours and ask for morphine. Another shot, and out for two hours.”

Barnard waded in and out of sleep throughout the night, waking at one point to see a trio of German planes strafe the beach that was now behind him.

On the morning of June 7, Barnard awoke to see the tide had come all the way in as waves crashed onto the shore a few yards from his feet. He remembers the sun shining on the beach that morning.

“It was a beautiful day,” he said. “The wind had died down. It wasn’t as rough as it was on D-Day.”

Later that afternoon – about 3 p.m., Barnard said – he was carried on a litter off the dune and placed on another landing craft, larger than the one he arrived on. This one was designed to carry tanks, but instead, the space was filled with stretchers carrying more wounded troops.

As the boat pushed off and into the English Channel, an American soldier walked between the stretchers and offered cigarettes to the men. Barnard took one. As he smoked, he heard another soldier call out for a doctor. Barnard noticed he had a German accent and realized some of the wounded men on this boat were German soldiers. He said they sounded young, even to an 18-year-old.

“I asked one how old he was and he said he was 15,” Barnard said. “All these kids were happy. They were wounded, but they were happy. They didn’t have to fight anymore.”

Barnard was taken to the Isle of Portland off the southern coast of England and then to an Army hospital in Dorchester, England, where doctors removed shrapnel from the right side of his face. He then went to a Navy hospital in Milford Haven, Wales, to have shrapnel taken out of the left side. Months later, in a tent in New Guinea, Barnard would have shrapnel removed from his spine and pelvis, as well.

He recovered in Wales for a little more than a month and then shipped out of Liverpool back to the United States by way of New York City. Barnard said when the Statue of Liberty came into view, he saw men around him break down in tears.

“That was really something,” he said. “Everybody had lost good friends.”

Barnard returned to New Jersey for a 20-week furlough and then reported to an amphibious base in Oceanside, Calif., to begin training for the Invasion of Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.

His service continued in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, first in the Philippines and later in Japan, before he returned to the U.S. and retired from the Navy.

When he got home, Barnard entered business school in New Jersey and met a woman named Patricia. They got married and moved to New Hampshire in 1951, eventually settling in Goffstown, where they raised four children.

They moved to New Hampshire because Patricia spent her childhood summers on Lake Winnipesaukee, “and she wasn’t going to give up Lake Winnipesaukee for me,” Barnard said with a smile.

The two ran a summer cottage rental business on the shores of Winnipesaukee in West Alton until Patricia passed away in 2010. Barnard wishes she could be by his side when the French Consul General visits Pleasant View in June to officially appoint Barnard a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his service in Normandy. It is France’s highest honor.

Barnard had applied for the honor after seeing it mentioned in a newsletter he receives that goes out to members of the Sixth Beach Battalion. He sent in his discharge information and didn’t hear back for months until earlier this year when he got a call from the Consulate General of France in Boston.

“The French wanted to do anything they could to thank the Americans,” Barnard said. “And here, 75 years later, they’re thanking me personally. Isn’t that nice?”

 

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)




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