By Alex Szwarc
For The Advertiser
Imagine it’s early June in 1944, and you’re preparing to be a part of the United States’ first combat situation in Nazi-occupied France.
Gerald Johnston doesn’t need to imagine, he lived it.
Johnston, of Kingston, arrived on the shores of Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, one day after Allied forces landed on beaches of Normandy, the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare, and the turning point of World War II.
More than 5,000 ships, from the U.S., Britain and Canada, delivered more than 150,000 troops to the beachhead. More than 10,000 Allied soldiers were wounded, and more than 4,400 were killed in the June 6 invasion.
Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day and Johnston was kind enough to share his war story, something he said will be for the final time, with The Advertiser.
“I landed in Normandy one day after the invasion began,” Johnston said. “Guys were still floating in the water, and laying on the land. There were dead people all over.”
Johnston turns 94 today, but it was quite different on his 19th birthday, which he spent in England, awaiting orders.
Drafted into the Army at the age of 18, Johnston was assigned to the 753rd Tank Battalion, consisting of 30 soldiers. He was trained in the use of M-1 rifles, serving as a rifle sharpshooter.
Prior to reaching England on June 2, 1944, Johnston said he had no idea what it would be like once he arrived in France.
“At first, the plan was to go in June 5, my birthday, but it was so stormy, so they went the next day. We got in the (landing ship, tank, or LST) and went from England to Normandy,” Johnston recalls.
He was equipped with 80 pounds of gear in his backpack and a tommy gun. Johnston was joined by members of his battalion who were ready to fight German forces.
“(LSTs) loaded with guys and when you get to shore, the big door falls down,” he said. “They had bigger ones for our humongous tanks.”
When he arrived about noon June 7 at Omaha Beach, Johnston remembers plenty of shooting from German forces.
“I was just a kid and almost crapped my pants. I was scared to death,” he said. “There were guys laying all over already. I was lucky because the first wave almost all got killed. There was a lot of hollering, wounded, guys laying there with their guts hanging out. Most of them were dead. The corpsmen didn’t have a chance to pick them up yet.”
Despite many soldiers lying wounded on the beach, Johnston was told not to stop and offer assistance.
“If you stopped, (the Germans would) kill you,” he said. “They were shooting at everybody; you couldn’t hardly think straight. Medics tried to pull them back, but they’d kill the medics too.”
Once on the beach, Johnston’s job was to get in a truck and travel about a mile to meet up with about 17 U.S. tanks.
“We went in the tanks where the land was flat and we drove up through there and just blasted those guys that were shooting at our infantry coming in on the beach,” Johnston said.
When asked if the Normandy invasion was worse than he could have ever imagined, Johnston said he would never want to go through it again, adding that the men in his battalion were like brothers to him.
“If one got hit, we’d holler for the medic to come over and take care of him,” Johnston said. “We stuck together. There were two or three medics in our battalion and they were so busy. A lot of men were hit, and some bled to death before they could get to them.”
All these years later, Johnston said he remembers the invasion like it was yesterday.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “A lot were slaughtered. They were all over. It was hell. We were all young kids and scared to death. We didn’t expect that.”
After Normandy, Johnston took part in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the longest battle (Sept. 19 through Dec.16, 1944) on German ground during World War II, which resulted in a German victory. In addition to Normandy, his honorable discharge papers indicate Johnston took part in campaigns in northern France, the Ardennes Forest, the Rhineland and central Europe.
He was honorably discharged on Jan. 14, 1946, and is the recipient of the European–African–Middle Eastern, or EAME theater, ribbon, five bronze stars, a good conduct medal and victory medal.
Having been in combat for over a year, Johnston said the Normandy invasion was the most intense fighting he experienced.
Surviving the invasion provided Johnston and fellow soldiers with a confident feeling as they navigated through Europe, leading up to Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, forever known as V-E Day.
“Once the war ended, you’d never see the guys in your battalion again,” he said. “It was sad, even with all the hell we’d been through, seeing guys leave.”
Johnston married Louise in 1947, and she passed away in 2016. The couple had five children – Jerry Johnston, Ron Johnston, Annette Sproule, Brian Johnston and Debbie Kusluski.
Johnston worked at Eaton Manufacturing in Vassar, retiring in the late 1960s.
Sproule, of Vassar, said growing up, she didn’t like history, but as she got older, realized how important D-Day and the Normandy invasion was.
“Had those guys not gone in, we might not even be speaking the English language,” she said. “I was very proud when I heard he was at Normandy.”
Tuscola County Veterans Affairs Director Mark Zmierski met Johnston in 2016 when Johnston was presented a custom cane as part of the Patriot Cane Memorial Project. Zmierski describes him as a humble gentleman.
“Pearl Harbor took us into the war and had our country not won Normandy, it’s really hard to say if we had won,” Zmierski said. “Had we not won the Battle of the Bulge too, we might not be speaking English today.”
Zmierski believes Johnston is the only living Normandy invasion or D-Day veteran in Tuscola County. It’s unclear how many D-Day veterans are alive today, with survivors in their 90s, or 100s. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates less than 300,000 of the 16 million Americans to serve in World War II will be alive in 2020.