Nov 10, 2014
I was born on April 5th, 1924 in Vinton Iowa, a small town in Eastern Iowa about halfway between Missouri and Minnesota.
Shortly after graduating High School, I was drafted into the Army and sent to Camp McCain in Grenada, Mississippi where, as members of the 149th Combat Engineer Battalion, we were trained to be Combat Engineers. Upon completion, we were sent to Fort Pierce, Florida where we had further amphibious training and we became known as the 149th Amphibious Combat Engineer Battalion.
There were several of us from Vinton in the battalion along with others from Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. Most of us were at the time either 18 or 19 and considered ourselves ‘bullet proof’ and were looking forward to practicing our new skills – especially after the Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor.
After Amphibious maneuvers in Virginia, the battalion was shipped to New York where we loaded aboard a troop ship to Liverpool, England. We were first billeted in Quonset huts and then assigned to homes of English citizens in the English Channel coastal towns of Torquay and Paignton. While in our short stay over in New York, some of us were stopped by an elderly lady who asked us if we knew one of her relatives and gave his name. When we told her we did not, she commented, “Well that’s odd. He is in the Army too.”
I was assigned the job as driver for the platoon commander’s Jeep and a buddy was assigned the Ford version for his company commander. We continually argued over which vehicle was fastest and decided one day to find out. We were allowed to keep the vehicles overnight in the event of one of the officers needing to make a trip somewhere. So, with full tanks of gas, we headed for a two lane road on the outskirts of Paignton. We started our race and just topped a low hill on the road when we came face to face with the Army Provost Marshall’s Jeep heading the other direction. Before we could react, the Marshal’s driver had driven his vehicle into the ditch to avoid a head on collision. I panicked and sped away from the site toward the beach area of the English Channel. I drove out onto the beach and headed for a large rock that I knew I could hide my vehicle behind forgetting that the tide was out and my tire tracks led from the road to the rock. I was caught and placed under arrest. When the Provost Marshal had his hearing he dismissed all charges and told us both to be more safety conscious.
We began landing training by boarding assault landing craft, motoring out into the English Channel and then swinging back to mock landings on the English Coast. One day, however, we did not return to England and kept pushing towards Normandy on the northern French coast. Our landing spot, Omaha Beach…..the first wave.
As we approached the beach, the noise was deafening. Big guns fired, engines roared, men shouted, and geysers of water erupted around the craft. I felt excited, probably because I had no combat experience at all. Like most kids, I had this feeling of invincibility and thought nothing could happen to me. I don’t recall feeling very scared…..that feeling quickly evaporated as the boat stopped and the ramp dropped. I lost my best friend before we even exited the boat to a German 88 shell. As we dropped into waist deep water, we were in the crosshairs of German machine guns and pill-box howitzers and there was a ‘hell’ of bullets and shrapnel flying through the air. I won’t go into the carnage that the Germans heaped upon us, but I will say that it was the scariest time of my life.
The job of the battalion at the beach was to explode or remove any obstacles on the landing area that might impede or halt the landing of the following soldiers and materials. My images of those first days are rather fuzzy. Of the 40 combat engineers who landed on Dog Red in the first wave, Only 4 were alive at the end of the day.
After a couple of days our initial mission, the beach, was ready for more men and materials to move inland. Our first bivouac on the landing was two-man fox holes that we dug in the sand to help protect us from the German firing positions. Every day, the German’s would send a reconnaissance plane over our beach around dusk. We would all fire our weapons into the sky in an attempt to bring down the plane but only succeeded in bringing a rain of our own bullets down on top of us.
I recall after the initial battle looking back at the allied armada from the cliffs above the beach and still not grasping the enormity of what we were doing. I recall thinking, “So, this is France?”. I had no idea of what we had just been a part of. I do recall looking out to sea, over the 5000 or so ships and wondering how in the world I was alive.
One of our jobs was to cut a road through the seaward edge of a bluff to the top of the bluff so that tanks, trucks, troops, and equipment could gain access and move inland. Part of securing the areas was to clear the mines from fields at the top of the bluff. Once the mines were cleared, we would stake ribbons to outline the ‘cleared’ area as a safe place to cross. At one area, some of the ribbons were dislodged by the wind and blown across the danger area of the mine field. Subsequently, an infantry troop that had slogged through the surf, made the beach landing, and reached the top of the bluff called a rest and the men spread out into the area of the minefield that had not been cleared. Some of them detonated the mines and were killed. That was one of the worst post-landing tragedies that we experienced.
We were called into action to assist the 1st Army infantry troops cross the Rhine River, deep into Hitler’s heartland. The crossing was made with assault boats with a 50-horsepower outboard engine mounted on the back. One Sergeant got scared and ran. My buddy and I jumped in the boat and continued the operation. We did it because it was the right thing to do. We brought the soldiers across 8 at a time with machine gun fire above our heads and mortar shells splashing around us. A spotter was noticed on a tall chimney on the other side so our officers called in an artillery strike and once he was taken care of we were able to push the troops across much easier.
As the German’s retreated to their homeland, they engaged in a ‘scorched earth’ policy, destroying bridges and burning fields as they left the captured land behind. One of the jobs assigned to our battalion was rebuilding a wooden bridge across one of the tributary rivers of the Rhine. We used the engineering skills needed to build a wooden bridge span while we were billeted in the homes of some natives of the small town who were glad the German’s had gone. There was a small plant in the town where workers were producing Schnapps on a daily basis. Some of the enterprising members of our battalion struck up a bargain with the brewers and traded two cartons of cigarettes for two five-gallon cans of Schnapps. Many of the battalion personnel were filling their canteens with Schnapps instead of water and that made some pretty exciting times on the bridge as a few got drunk and fell off of the bridge.
When VE day was declared, a call went out in the battalion for volunteers to sign up for transfer to a different battalion that was being sent back to the states for retraining in jungle warfare and then assigned to the Pacific Theater of War to battle the Japanese. The ‘hook’ they used was to offer us 30 days of paid leave in the states before returning for the training sessions. I signed up, boarded the troop ship, headed for America, took the 30 days, and was enroute to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas for the training when the Japanese heard I was coming….and surrendered.
I was involved in four major combat actions during my time in Europe and was recommended, along with my buddy, for the Silver Star for the Rhine crossing. That recommendation was shelved by a Lieutenant who did not want to get the deserting Sergeant in trouble because of what he had done in the Rhine crossing. That same Lieutenant barked his shin on the side of the boat and received the Purple Heart.
I am Combat Engineer Private Robert Shotwell. My friends call me Bob.