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Thursday, Jun 05 2014 06:00 PM

Locally, D-Day remains turning point in war, lives

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    The Californian, 1944

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BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer slevin@bakersfield.com

Allied paratrooper and glider units were landing inland of France's Normandy coast minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944, from Caen through the Ste. Mere-Eglise beach.

By 6:30 that Tuesday morning, the first U.S., British and Canadian soldiers were wading through increasingly bloody water toward five different beaches that would become the first Allied toeholds in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Operation Neptune -- the assault phase of Operation Overlord -- was the product of more than a year of planning. It was called D-Day.

The fate of Europe hung on the outcome of the events unfolding 70 years ago today.

At the same time, it was nine hours earlier -- and still late Monday night in Bakersfield, clear and in the low 60s. The town's air raid wardens were on duty.

Tuesday dawned sunny; the high would reach 96 degrees, warmer than normal in Bakersfield, then a town of about 30,000. Public schools were out for summer. City pools were open. American flags adorned homes.

Both China Lake Naval Ordnance Test Station and the Army Air Base, Muroc Lake -- later Edwards Air Force Base -- started during the war. They were active that day as was Gardner Field, a basic flying school southwest of Bakersfield and just south of what used to be Buena Vista Lake.

 

Clayton Storeby was 22. The Avenal resident was a paratrooper with the 326th Airborne Engineers. At 1:30 a.m. he parachuted 25 miles behind German lines.

"It just looked like you were entering hell," he said.

Fernando Anaya was 29. The Bakersfield resident was with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, flying on a C-47 transport plane over the English Channel, waiting to jump, too.

"Somewhere, I looked out the window. I could see a mass of ships going across the channel. When I looked down, it looked like you could almost walk across the channel, stepping from ship to ship."

It was the largest invasion force in history. More than 4,000 ships, 11,000 planes and 156,000 troops participated.

About 3:30 a.m., assault troops loaded into flat-bottomed boats from main ships to ride the rough seas toward Normandy.

 

That Tuesday morning was a typical June morning in Bakersfield. Babies were born, such as Richard John Rodriguez. By the time he died in 2012 he had been a GET bus driver for 21 years, married to his wife, Molly, for 23, and fathered seven children, 25 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

And people died. Pvt. Clinton Robert Farrar was 34 when he died at the U.S. Army Hospital at Minter Field Army Airfield in Shafter. He was in a June 4 car accident on his way back to Camp Roberts and died two days later.

There was expectation in the air. The war news had been good. The Russians had kicked the Nazis out of Crimea and the Ukraine. The British had forced the Japanese out of India. And on June 5, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced in a radio address the Allies had taken Rome.

Seventeen-year-old Mary K. Shell was at her father's body shop -- A. T. Jaynes & Son, 2301 Chester Ave. -- masking a Buick, prepping it for painting. That morning, the radio was on. The Allies had invaded Europe!

"There was a great hullabaloo about this," she said recently. "Of course, everyone in the country had gone to war."

 

At dawn Tuesday, more than 700 Allied warships began firing salvos at the Germans hunkered in the bunkers and fortifications of their Atlantic Wall along the western coast of Europe.

Beneath the thunder, E.T. Roberts fought nausea while his landing craft rose and fell in the choppy channel waters, heading toward Omaha Beach. There were 271 soldiers with him, C Company in the 29th Infantry Division. Some smoked. Many retched. Others prayed.

The noise was appalling: explosions, rounds ricocheting off the landing craft, the slapping of wave after wave, and, as the craft approached the beach, the cries of the wounded.

Roberts carried a 70-pound flamethrower. When he jumped from the landing craft about 8:20 a.m., he nearly drowned from the weight. He ditched it. Dead soldiers floated in the water. He made his way to the beach, and took a dying soldier's rifle for himself.

"I remember coming out of the water and parting bodies to get out," he said.

Two hundred fifteen men from the landing craft died on the beach that day.

 

The Bakersfield Californian was an afternoon paper in 1944. Its June 6 front page was a mass of black ink, but carried good news.

"INVASION SMASH!" in thick black capital letters ran above the newspaper's masthead.

As news of the invasion trickled out on the radio, local churches stayed open all day.

Across the country, professional baseball games were canceled. Two minutes of silent prayer were observed at the New York Stock Exchange. Philadelphia's mayor used a wooden mallet to ring the Liberty Bell for the first time in more than a century.

And at West Point, Cadet John Eisenhower graduated, his mother, Mamie, in attendance. His father, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces at D-Day, sent a telegram apologizing for not attending "due to previous plans."

FDR addressed the nation for a second night in a row, calling on Americans to join in prayer "to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies" and to join "with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace, a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men."

 

Seventy years later, the enemy is now time. Most of the men who fought on the beaches and the millions of men and women in Allied countries who supported the Normandy invasion are gone.

The graveyards along the French coast remain. Soldiers from that day still wonder how they survived, and why.

And people remember the sacrifice. Bakersfield remembers. It was June 6, 1944. It was D-Day.

 

-- This story was compiled from interviews, the archives of The Californian, the Beale Memorial Library's local history center and Internet research.

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