At approximately 0600 on the morning of June 6, 1944, the warships of Task Force 125 began their bombardment on German positions behind Utah Beach. Overhead, 276 Marauder B-26 medium bombers dropped tons of bombs on selected targets from les Dunes de Varreville to Beau Guillot.
Out in the stormy English Channel, assault boats loaded down with men and equipment of the American 8th Infantry continued to circle mother ships. Finally they received the ‘go’ to navigate the choppy sea toward their objective: Utah Beach, the westernmost landing beach on D-Day. History would remember the date as ‘The Longest Day’, the Invasion of Normandy.
LCTs (landing craft, tanks) and Higgins assault boats moved forward as enemy shells and machine gun bullets riddled the surf. Several assault boats were hit, others struck mines, but the majority of equipment and men landed safely. German resistance softened quickly, due mainly to an Allied assault force that had landed more than a mile from their real objective.
The oldest soldier on the beach, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. realized the mistake then famously quoted, “We’ll start the war from here!” Indeed they did. The 8th Infantry moved off the beach, pivoted, then assaulted the vital port of Cherbourg. Other units moved into the hedgerow country, thick impenetrable rows of shrubbery the Germans used skillfully as ambush positions. By September, the Allied advance had reached a 50-square-mile area of nearly impassable woods called the Hurtgen Forest. The resulting struggle would be the longest single battle the U.S. Army ever fought, costing an estimated 33,000 killed or wounded or incapacitated American soldiers.
The casualties were not the first born of former presidents, nor did they hold the rank of a Brigadier General. These boys came from Ivy League colleges or the mean streets of Chicago, the boroughs of New York, the coal mines of West Virginia, the Texas panhandle, or from thousands of farms across the United States, including an agricultural community in Georgia called Rutledge.
Julius Astin was born into the farming community of Rutledge in 1924. He grew up planting, feeding livestock, doing chores, and walking over a mile to school. “I was 17 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed,” he recalled. “I kept farming after graduating from high school until a letter arrived from Uncle Sam in 1943.” 19-year-old Julius Astin would be leaving Rutledge, Ga. for the first time.
His first experience in the military was basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. “Well, at least I was off the farm,” he said, smiling. Trained as an infantryman, Astin’s next port-of-call was New Jersey to board a troop ship for the war in Europe. “I must have lost 10 pounds on that ship,” he said. “I was seasick the entire voyage.”
His unit: the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, Company G. “I remember England and our base near the Channel,” he said. “We sure needed the extra training; our next job would be a rough one.” Rough, meaning the first assault wave to hit Utah Beach. “I only saw a single German airplane overfly the beach,” he recalled. “I don’t even know if he strafed or not. Shoot, I was too scared to care.”
They were all scared, but they had a job to do. Astin said, “I lost a few friends, but we got off the beach pretty quick. I got shot at, and I shot back at them.”
As part of the pivot movement assaulting the port of Cherbourg, Astin recalled, “We were approaching the port when a German 88mm round landed right in the middle of us. A bunch of the boys got killed. I took shrapnel in my back, neck, and legs.” Flown back to an Army hospital in England, Astin spent the next 3 months recovering from his injuries.
“A lot of the shrapnel is still in there,” he said. Occasionally a fragment of shrapnel will work its way to the surface of his skin. “Then I have to visit the doctor and have him remove it,” Astin said, as if removing age old shrapnel was a normal excuse for a doctor visit.
The farm boy from Rutledge was sent back into action in September of 1944. The battlefield: an impregnable forest called the Hurtgen. “The Germans were dug in,” he said. “We couldn’t make any progress in the forest because it was so thick with vegetation, booby-traps, mines, and the Germans armed the fuses on 88mm artillery rounds to explode the moment it struck the trees.”
When 88mm rounds struck timber, shrapnel and deadly wood splinters likened to spears rained down on the Americans. Our soldiers became tree-huggers, embracing trees to offer the deadly debris a smaller area to penetrate and kept praying their helmets would protect their skulls.
Dodging shrapnel and deadly lances of wood, Astin spent one night in a bunker with dead men. “You move, you die,” he recalled. One thing he remembers the most, “Waking up the next morning and seeing all the replacements. Most of the original guys were gone. You didn’t know anybody. They were all rookie troops shuttled in to replace the dead.”
The Battle of Hurtgen Forest lasted from Sept 19 to Dec 16, 1944. On November 19, Astin’s company commander ordered him to take over the squad. “I told him to give it to someone else,” Astin said. “I didn’t want the responsibility.” Astin took over the squad. Within just a few minutes, Astin was ordered to take over the entire platoon due to the casualties. “That was a short-lived responsibility,” he stated. A German sniper caught the new platoon leader in his sights. “I was hit hard in my left shoulder,” Astin recalled. “My war was over.”
Back to England, more recovery, back to a hospital stateside, Daytona Beach to be exact. “Shoot; that was like a vacation after fighting in the Hurtgen Forest,” Astin said with a smile.
As so typical of the Greatest Generation, Julius Astin lessened his role in WWII. “I just did what I had to do,” he stated. Doing what he had to do earned Mr. Astin two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star for his bravery in combat.
On turning 90 in June, “I guess that’s not bad for a soldier the military doctors said didn’t have long to live.”
Julius Astin lost his wife of 59 years in 2006. He still does laundry, the housework, buys his groceries, and cuts his own grass. Retired from the construction business, his projects include the Georgia Power Dam at Lake Oconee, Coach Vince Dooley’s first house, and working as the owner/operator of the Standard Oil Service Station in Rutledge. Astin lives one mile from his childhood home.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.