Local veteran remembers D-Day

Published 4:50 pm Friday, May 27, 2011

WWII and D-Day veteran Earl Caton of Thorsby displays the medals he earned for his service.

Whether you are a veteran or not, you know there is a high price for protecting freedom. It involves the separation of loved ones, the trauma of losing friends, and, of course, the ultimate cost of losing life.

Some, like Earl Caton, have seen the cost paid firsthand.

Caton, 87, of Thorsby, will be remembering those who have paid that cost in his own way Monday as he plans to attend the annual Memorial Day service held in front of the Chilton County Courthouse. He’ll be part of the ceremony, where he’ll read off the list of Chilton County veterans who didn’t make it back home from WWI. He’ll be spending this day a little differently than the one he spent in Europe 67 years ago, getting ready to head into Normandy.

“[D-day] was bad,” he said. “It was a lot to take in for a young fellow, or anyone really.”

Caton entered the Army at 18 in March of 1943. He was sent to Fort McClellan, Camp Shenango in Pennsylvania, then Camp Shanks in New York. He was then sent to Greenock, Scotland and then to Birmingham, England. After his stint in Birmingham, he was then put into the 29th Division. From there it was back to training in Southern England.

Then, it was on to Omaha Beach.

“That was a bad day that day,” he said. “We rode around on the English Channel for two weeks before we even went in.”

Caton recalled how the day unfolded.

“We were supposed to be in the second wave in,” he said. “But the first wave was still in the water and on the beach. I saw them lying on top of one another. We were supposed to have gotten in there about 6:30, but it was about 10 o’clock before we got in there. They sank so much stuff out there, so much equipment that we couldn’t hardly get in there to unload.”

For Caton and his unit, the trouble landing was only the beginning.

“When we did [unload], my company commander hollered out for whoever that could, let’s get up and go. And so we went on from there. They held us down pretty good for all that day, and then that night they came around and bombed us. They kind of lit up the sky with tracer bullets. But we kept on [as well as] we could.”

From that time on, Caton found himself trying to lead what was left of his unit.

“Our company commander either got killed or wounded; I never did see him anymore after the first day,” he said. “I don’t really remember exactly how long I was in combat. After we got on in a ways, they had just about wiped out my whole battalion. Once we got hemmed off behind enemy lines, there was [only] about seven or eight of us. There was so much turmoil and commotion I just told them, ‘let’s try to get away from here.’ I kind of kept that little group together, and the next morning we snuck through the woods and bumped into some more [units] that got away.”

From there, the mission was to get back to friendly forces.

“We kind made a platoon out of ourselves. We had two or three weapons, and we put [those soldiers] out in front of us. Then we started heading back to where our troops were, and finally we did.”

Although he made it back to camp, he had his fair share of injuries.

“I was wounded in my leg and my arm,” he said. “I had three holes in my helmet
that you could see through, but nothing ever touched my head.”

After making it back to camp, he was placed on a medical ship and then put in a non-combat outfit. He also served as a truck driver in France, and then was discharged from the service in 1945. He received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart among other medals.

He returned to Thorsby, where he says he “came back, took what I called a little vacation, and just went and got a job.” He said his day at Normandy had an understandable impact on him and also solidified his believe in guardian angels.

“When we first got on the beach, we went through this little [trench] thing that had water in it,” he said. “Well, I got through it and started up this grade, and I started crawling towards this little bank, and then someone behind me hollered ‘Don’t go no further there, there’s booby traps in there!’ How did whoever was back there know anymore than I did? I’ll never forget that. I backed up and a shell went off [where I was] and I could hear the shrapnel go off right in front of my nose. I’ll never forget that one. That’s why I think there are guardian angels.”

He hasn’t returned to Normandy since that day, although he said he would like to. He also said Memorial Day gives him a chance to pay tribute to those who didn’t make it home.

“It was bad for all of us,” he said. “The Lord seen fit for some of us to come back, and some not to. I just like to remember those who didn’t get to come back.”