Redwood City resident Joshua Abend was 20 years old on D-Day, waiting at a military camp in England to be sent into war.
“In a way, I was kind of strangely looking forward to getting called. I wanted the invasion to get going,” Abend said. “I wasn’t anxious to go out there and kill people, I just wanted to be out there. I wanted to be where the action was.”
D-Day is a military term for the first day of the allied invasion of Nazi-held France on June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in history. Thursday, June 6 marks its 75th anniversary.
About 156,000 allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in the northwestern portion of France that day after having sailed about 100 miles from England where Abend was stationed at the time.
“You could hear the battleships firing and I saw many airplanes on the way to Normandy,” said Abend, 95, who served as a combat engineer in the 1253rd Combat Engineering Battalion, A-Company.
The invasion consisted of almost 7,000 allied vessels and close to 3,000 aircraft while more than 13,000 paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines the night before. An estimated 4,900 allied troops were killed, missing or wounded that day.
Abend’s company was held back in England for 10 days after the D-Day invasion began. On June 16, he and about 80 soldiers boarded a transport vessel loaded with supplies, jeeps, trucks and other equipment.
Abend recalls a short journey across the English Channel to Normandy — it felt like 15 to 20 minutes, he said — and his ship sailed in a group of about a dozen others that docked at Omaha Beach, a 5-mile stretch of coastline that saw especially fierce fighting on D-Day. The allies suffered an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 casualties at Omaha Beach that day.
As Abend’s ship approached the beach, he saw a handful of smaller troop transports that had been hit with artillery or compromised in some way. The beach was littered with debris and shell casings from the battle 10 days prior, but the dead bodies had already been collected and taken away. There were no Germans defending Omaha Beach when Abend arrived as they had been pushed inland by then and were fighting with the first waves of allied soldiers.
“We were coming at a very safe time,” Abend said. “It never occurred to us there would be other things waiting for us.”
On the battlefield
Abend experienced combat for the first time about 30 miles from Omaha Beach at Villers-Bocage. That engagement is known as “the battle of the hedgerows” because it took place on farmland separated by thick hedgerows.
“There were these hedgerows and we knew on either side were Germans in various buildings and I recall firing on them,” Abend said. “I think we took a fair amount of them out when they came to the windows.”
Abend said he was seldom fearful for his life.
“I considered the possibility of being killed, but never had a sense of overwhelming fear. I was too young or too dumb to think about it,” he said. “Little by little I saw it was possible to get yourself killed.”
When he saw about a dozen dead American soldiers being carted away from the battlefield, the reality of war began to sink in.
“I remember the first time I saw them unloading bodies and these guys looked like me, they were wearing the same outfit and they were stiff as a board,” he said. “It was the first time I saw Americans being scooped up and what you looked like when you were frozen to the ground and dead. Somehow that was different than seeing it in action. That I found troubling.”
As a combat engineer, Abend was tasked with erecting portable, pre-fabricated bridges called pontoon or Bailey bridges. The wood and steel bridge parts were transported in trucks and then assembled by hand over bodies of water, the finished product strong enough to support tanks.
Under enemy fire
Abend’s duties also included removing land mines, purifying water and distributing it to soldiers on the front lines. The work was often done under enemy fire.
“Absolutely the most important thing we did is we purified water,” he said.
“We put it in big 10-gallon cans and racked them in the back of the jeep and we’d go into combat zones looking for a company or group of soldiers. There was a sense of danger roaming around in a combat zone, but we felt good about it because we knew these guys and they had to have water. I felt very connected to that. To this day I don’t waste water.”
His company had trucks that carried water-purifying equipment. Once Abend arrived in Germany, water was sometimes purified in small pools they had constructed that were about 5 feet deep and 12 feet in diameter.
Knowing the pools of water were used to hydrate the allied soldiers, German pilots were able to spot them from the sky and would often target them with strafing runs, Abend said.
The Germans would also blow up bridges as they retreated to slow down the allied advance.
“In one case the Germans were so anxious to get out that they blew up a bridge and left behind a whole line of wounded soldiers that was about 2 miles long,” Abend said. “I saw a young German soldier and he was slumped over, obviously wounded. They just left them there and they died.”
Abend recalled erecting one pontoon bridge across the Rhine river in Germany. The work was done at night and German soldiers were heavily armed and waiting on the other side of the river. The Germans would occasionally shoot a flare into the sky that would make a loud whooshing sound which meant Abend had about three seconds to take cover before everything would be illuminated. Gunfire and artillery would soon follow.
“What you don’t want to be doing is sitting there or moving because now you’re a target, he said.
End of the war
Toward the end of the war, Abend was walking by himself down a street in a German town when he saw 22 armed German soldiers accompanied by a tank. They were coming toward him.
“This guy is hailing me and he knew some English. He was trying to get my attention. I thought this will be interesting — they got a whole bunch of guys with guns and I have this little peashooter,” he said. “The German wanted to know where he could surrender. Why? Because the Russians were coming and he was trying to surrender to the Americans as quickly as possible.”
The Russians were known for killing surrendering Germans and not taking prisoners.
Before sailing to Europe, Abend trained at locations all over the United States, including the Bay Area for a brief period of time. On one training mission, he was driving around Palo Alto in a jeep, tasked with locating specific targets. At one point, he found himself looking down at a beautiful campus that he thought might’ve been a religious retreat of some kind. He later learned it was Stanford University.
“I said I think I want to go back there,” he said.
After the war, he did go back to Stanford and studied there on the GI Bill, which covered tuition costs for veterans. Abend enjoyed a career as a product and industrial designer and has lived in the Bay Area since.
Abend’s Redwood City home is filled with artifacts he brought back from the war — helmets, a bayonet, medals and his uniform — as well as photo albums and a U.S. Army poster.
“We fought and died for democracy,” he said. “Fortunately I didn’t die, but my buddies did.”
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