‘I went through hell:’ N.H. native says he’ll never forget what he saw on D-Day

  • Robert Giguere at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire native Bob Giguere was among the thousands of Allied troops to land in Normandy on D-Day where he earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained during the invasion. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bob Giguere (front row, far left) is pictured with his 6th Navy Beach Battalion Platoon in Swansea South Wales in 1944. Courtesy

  • This Western Union telegram was received by Bob Giguere’s mother a week after the New Hampshire native was wounded by shrapnel from an artillery shell on his 18th birthday. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 6/5/2019 5:31:21 PM

Bob Giguere woke up in an Army hospital in Cirencester, England, four days after he was knocked out by an artillery shell on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was covered in shrapnel wounds and his shoulder throbbed from a bullet that pierced him moments after hitting the beach.

Giguere signed up for the United States Navy one year earlier. He was 17 and needed his mother to fill out a permission form allowing him to enlist. He shipped out from Laconia that summer, in 1943, leaving behind his six brothers, all of whom would later follow his path and serve in the military.

Giguere was assigned to the 6th Naval Beach Battalion and was part of the third wave of Allied troops to hit the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944, where they were immediately met with fierce firepower from the German pillboxes perched high on the cliffs overlooking the beach.

“It was one hell of a mess,” Giguere said 75 years later in an interview at the Tilton Veterans Home.

He’d go on to fight in the Pacific theater of World War II, first in the Philippines and later at Okinawa, where he would earn his third Purple Heart.

Dennis Giguere, Bob’s youngest son, said his father refrained from talking about his experience in the war for decades.

“I was very interested, but we never talked about it much,” he said. “It wasn’t good memories to bring up. So I got bits and pieces.”

The memories never left Bob, who turns 93 on Monday.

“I think about it all the time,” he said. “People say, ‘Forget about it.’ You can’t forget that. I went through hell.”

June 6, 1944

It was a cold day on the English Channel. The Allies’ invasion of Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history, had been delayed a day as a violent storm passed through. The waters were still choppy on June 6, tossing the landing crafts up and down and side to side as they moved toward the shore. The LCI-85 that Giguere’s platoon boarded was a large landing craft, big enough to carry some 180 soldiers.

Giguere emerged from below deck just as the ship grounded on the beach when a sudden explosion erupted from beneath. A Teller mine had set off and tore through the boat’s bow, killing several men who were still below deck.

The port-side ramp dropped open for the soldiers to go ashore but this quickly turned into a horrific scene, Giguere said, as the opening had completely exposed the troops to the enemies firing down upon them.

“Those guys all got killed,” Giguere said. “They were sitting ducks.”

With nowhere else to go, Giguere shed his heavy equipment and jumped over the side into the water. It was shallow, about waist deep, yet still deep enough for some of the soldiers to struggle to stay above water as their packs and weapons weighed them down.

Giguere broke through the water’s surface and began to wade through the waves toward the shore. On his way, he came across one of the men from his platoon, a man named Neal, who had suffered a hip wound and was struggling underwater.

Giguere pulled Neal up onto the hard-packed sand where there was scant protection from the German firepower above them other than the German hedgehogs scattered across the beach. Giguere was shot through the shoulder, but kept on moving. Small and large
explosions set off around them and small arms ammunition sprayed across the beach.

Neal survived the day, and for the rest of his life he’d send the Giguere family a Christmas card. When he passed away, his son began sending the cards, thanking Giguere for saving his father’s life.

Giguere found cover long enough to dress his shoulder wound and keep going. He was a demolition guy and his job was to destroy the obstacles strewn across the beach. But he had none of his equipment with him, not even his rifle, from bailing over the side of the boat.

The beach was a scene of chaos as the Allies pushed up toward the seawall and engaged the Germans in closer combat. Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army and ground forces on D-Day, would later describe these “tortured hours” in his autobiography.

“Overlord had run beyond the reach of its admirals and generals,” Bradley wrote. “For the next few tortured hours we could do little but pace our decks and trust in the men whom The Plan had been given for execution.”

Giguere had been separated from his unit after the transporter exploded. He joined a passing group of Army infantry who were moving in toward a ravine where the Germans were positioned.

After crawling under barbed wire through two ditches and a minefield, Giguere came within 10 yards of a German pillbox. He tossed in five grenades and then a sixth, a smoke grenade, which provided a target for the massive weapons on the destroyers in the channel.

“One of the Army guys said we better get the hell out of here because the smoke gave the destroyer something to shoot at out from sea,” Giguere said. “They knocked it down.”

Giguere followed the Army soldiers deeper inland, to Colleville, where they came upon an old church. Giguere said a German sniper was set up in the steeple, and they fought their way into the lower level of the church where they found a French family being held. Giguere knew some French and told them to get out.

“He took his wife and three kids and they came out of the church before our Navy guys knocked it down,” he said.

Giguere returned to the beach and began looking for the unit he had started the day with. He was speaking with Amin Isbir, an officer who had taken cover near a truck, when a German shell exploded near them, killing Isbir and knocking Giguere unconscious.

He woke up four days later in the hospital in Cirencester covered in shrapnel wounds.

It was June 10, 1944. His 18th birthday. His mother received a telegram a week later notifying her that her son had been wounded.

After D-Day

Giguere spent a few weeks recovering in the hospital and then shipped back to the United States on the Queen Mary. He said he shook hands with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was aboard the same ship heading to Canada for a conference with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.

He spent 30 days on furlough in Laconia and then was dispatched to the West Coast at Camp Pendleton. Giguere was shipped across the Pacific by way of Pearl Harbor to the Asian islands, where he participated in the invasion of the Philippines. For two weeks, he was behind enemy lines to deliver supplies to Navajo code talkers in the mountains.

Giguere then fought at Okinawa in April of 1945 where he was eventually shot in the foot. His service at Okinawa earned him a third Purple Heart, though it didn’t come until many years later.

“They took it out 35 years later,” Dennis said of the bullet in his father’s foot. “He showed it to me. It was a perfect 30-30. They said he deserved another Purple Heart for that.”

Even after they took the bullet out, it was never far from Bob. He kept it in a jewelry box.

Giguere was set to participate in the invasion of Japan but the war ended before the attack. Two atomic bombs were dropped on the island, and the Japanese surrendered.

“The atomic bomb saved my life,” he said.

Giguere’s unit stayed in Japan for some time after the war as U.S. forces pulled out their equipment.

He returned home to Laconia in March of 1946 where he married his first wife, Rachel Simoneau, and raised a family. He took a job as a machinist and volunteered with the local fire department, where he was a captain for 40 years.

Giguere, who is now married to Claire Nedeau, has been back to Normandy for multiple anniversary events since the war. His first time back was on the 40th anniversary.

Dennis remembers going to the 45th anniversary in 1989. They stayed at a bed and breakfast where a group of Belgian men was also staying. They were dressed in U.S. Army uniforms, circa 1944, as a way to honor the veterans who were visiting.

“It looked like the U.S. Army came in,” Dennis said. “They had three U.S. Jeeps and they were all in uniform. When they found out they had a veteran staying there, they treated him like a king.”

 

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




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