John Wood Burson landed on Omaha Beach before dawn on June 7, 1944 under barrage balloons to protect from strafing German aircraft as a nearby landing vessel exploded.
His unit had missed its train from Bridgewater, in southwestern England, to the staging area for the invasion on June 5.
"Otherwise, we probably would have landed on Omaha Beach on June 6," the day of the initial invasion, Burson wrote in a memoir of his experience.
"I think I'm a better person for having served in the Army, having served my country," he said Thursday afternoon at his home outside of Oxford.
Burson, 87, grew up in Monroe and was drafted into the Army in January 1943.
"I was going to volunteer, but my mother asked me to wait," he said. "She said, ‘When they want you, they'll call.' And sure enough, a few months later they did."
After basic training in Michigan, Burson guarded Italian prisoners of war at a camp in Indiana for nine months. By January 1944, he was sent back to Michigan for advanced training, then to England to prepare for the invasion of France.
After landing in Normandy, Burson said he guided German prisoners from the battlefield to the beaches for shipment to England or the States. While not designated a combat officer, he saw his share of the grisly chaos of war, from an American platoon slaughtered in a ditch to a flamethrower soldier whose pack exploded on his back.
But he also saw the kindness of English hosts, who gave him tea even though they were told not to and brought soldiers into their homes while they trained. Even in the fog of war, he saw the humanity of the Italian and German prisoners he guarded and escorted.
"During this period I was handling prisoners of war and the Germans, they were just like you and me," he said. "They were called into service to defend their country just like us."
His group attached to different units as the Army made its way west, shepherding prisoners from the front line to other designated collection points. After the liberation of Paris, soldiers thought the war was winding down as winter descended. Soon after, however, the Germans launched a major offensive along the Rhine River that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
After the month-long battle, during which Burson was stationed in Belgium searching for Germans in American uniforms, he traveled with his unit across Germany and wound up in Czechoslovakia by war's end the following summer. Eventually, his unit was called to Berlin to escort German prisoners through the Soviet-occupied eastern zone that surrounded the German capital.
"It was odd that we had to escort Germans out of Berlin because of the Russians," he said. Many of those prisoners had fought on the eastern front in the Soviet Union and were brought back to Berlin to make their way home after Germany surrendered.
"It gave me a greater appreciation for humanity and wanting to help those who need help," Burson said.
After the war, Burson returned home in the winter of 1945, not sure of what was next. "For three years, I was told what to do, where to go, what to wear," he said. Soon, though, he landed a job as a line man for Southern Bell Telephone, where he met his wife Ruth.
They moved to Newton County to raise their family, three children and, eventually, four grandchildren. He worked for Bell for 37 years and retired in 1982. Burson was a founding member of the Oxford Lion's Club and has been involved in the Cub and Boy Scouts for years, earning a Silver Beaver medal for service to the scouts.
"I had a good life," Burson said. "No, that sounds like the past. I have a good life."