He was just past his 20th birthday and 4,000 miles from his Ohio home in South Webster. He and other members of the 716th Engineering Depot Co. had just came ashore at Utah Beach. This was two or three days after the first wave of infantry had landed along the coast of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Out ahead the flash of light from the artillery guns and bombs lit up the night sky. Seconds later the sounds of the explosions hit their ears. American soldiers and their allies were facing uncertain numbers as they sought to drive Hitler’s forces out of occupied France and back to Germany.
He saw U.S. C-46 and C-47 planes pulling gliders loaded with paratroopers. The gliders were cut loose in mid-air to land behind enemy lines.
“Many of those guys were killed in the crash landing. I don’t see how any of them survived,” Lewis said.
“We didn’t know the force of our enemy, who was out there trying to kill us,” he added. “We didn’t know if the Germans might not counterattack and drive us back into the sea. The ships we came across the channel on had gone back.”
Until the Army called him, he had never spent a night outside the home of his parents, Arthur S. Lewis and Gladys Ruth Lewis.
He and his buddy, a fellow soldier from Oak Hill, dug a foxhole. They placed one waterproof poncho on the ground, spread a blanket over it, then crawled in and pulled the other poncho over them to keep out the dew. It was not a good sleep, but one that had them ready for the business of war when daybreak broke.
Getting from the ship that brought him across the channel to the beach had been one of the scariest moments he had faced.
“We climbed down the side of the LST on netting, loaded down with all our gear. The landing craft pulled in against the side of the ship and tried to hold until we were all on. The sea was rough, and one wrong step and you went to the bottom,” he said.
Some of the landing ships carrying tanks that were to be disgorged onto the beach dropped their ramps too early. In one mishap, only two of the 14 tanks that were to battle the Germans and lead the infantry made it to the beach. The others sunk to the bottom.
Lewis was drafted by the Army just after graduating from South Webster High School in May 1942. He managed to complete one semester at Rio Grande College before being called up in December.
He had trained to become a combat engineer. But he suffered a broken ankle in training camp in Pennsylvania in 1943, was far behind his company in getting to England (about a month before D-Day), and wound up with the replacement troops. That’s how he came to be in the 716th Engineering Depot.
Their job as materials handlers was to unload equipment and goods from ships on the beach, store it, and have it moved forward, most of it carried by the Red Ball Express.
Army depots had the task of supporting and supplying the U.S Army during its rapid advance across France, into Belgium, across the Siegfried Line, and finally into Germany itself – right on up to the Rhine River.
“The last supplies we delivered were the pontoons for the floating bridges the combat engineers were to build across the Rhine,” Lewis said.
He was not on the front line, but never far behind it.
“The broken ankle may well have saved my life,” he said. “There were lots of casualties among combat engineers.”
One vivid memory Lewis recalled was of leaving the beach toward the front the next day.
“An older gentleman and two or three little girls came down a dirt road,” he said. “It was dusty and hot. He handed several of us a cup of cider, and one of the little girls handed me a very nice ripe tomato,” Lewis said.
“Now, in 1990, my wife, Janet, and I went to Europe on vacation. In Paris, our tour guide was a woman. I asked her how long she’d lived in Paris, just making small talk. She said she had lived there practically all her life, except that when she was a little girl she lived with her grandparents, in Normandy, when the Americans landed.”
She went on to say something that caused the memories of that Normandy landing to flash back in Lewis’ mind. She told him, “When we first saw the Americans, I pulled vegetables from my grandmother’s garden and shared them with them.”
The girl would have been about 5 years old in June of 1944 when she greeted the American soldiers. Lewis was 20. When she served as their tour guide in Paris on that day in 1990, she was 51 and Lewis 66.
“How’s that for coincidence?” Lewis said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this lady was the little girl who welcomed me to Normandy those 46 years before.”
The Allies, slowed in their advance by the thick hedgerows lining the French farmlands, finally made a breakthrough on June 27 with the capture of Cherbourg. That gave them an excellent harbor for unloading war supplies. And an oil pipeline ran under the English Channel to Cherbourg.
“After Cherbourg, we went down on the beach and unloaded material from the ducts. My thoughts turned strongly to home when I saw crates of nails marked ‘Wheeling Steel Corp., New Boston, Ohio,’” Lewis said.
He said the lids from their C-rations cans, very sharp metal, were discarded in the sand.
“This was a mistake on our part,” he said. “Many of the big trucks had flat tires to change out after driving across the sand and having these lids puncture their tires.”
When St. Lo fell to Allied forces three weeks after the capture of Cherbourg, the way was opened for Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s U.S. First Army to break out of the Normandy peninsula and sweep across France.
“We were close enough to St. Lo that we could see the smoke and dust rising up from saturation bombing by our planes,” Lewis said. “In fact, some of the debris drifted back over the top of us.”
As Gen. George Patton and the other commanders roared forward, they needed enormous quantities of rations, ammunition and fuel.
On Aug. 21, the Army Transportation Corps created the Red Ball Express. It operated Aug. 25-Nov. 13 nonstop between St. Lo and Paris, with up to 900 trucks – 21/2-ton 6X6 GMCs – moving 12,000 tons of supplies a day to forward depots.
The route was marked by signs bearing a red circle.
More than 80 percent of the drivers were African American soldiers.
“They would take a break in the shade under their trucks while we loaded them with our cranes,” Lewis said. “All day long we would unload train cars of goods onto their trucks. Then up they would go, behind the wheel again.”
The 716th’s crane operators were good and in demand all over the war zone. One of them, however, was a little too adventuresome. Lewis said that one, Dick Winfrey, one day climbed down from his crane, got into one of the trucks, and drove it off toward Paris.
“He was a staff sergeant when he left; a private when he got back. But he said it ws worth it. He got in on the celebration following the liberation of Paris,” Lewis said.
The celebration was over by the time Lewis and his engineering company passed through. They headed on into northern France and into Belgium.
“Belgium citizens were happy to see us. The women would wash our clothes and sew buttons back on. We gave them some money and what food we could,” he said.
“They gave us a drink that was made with potatoes. It was horrible. We were drinking a toast. I took a sip and then spilled mine, pretending it was accidental. But the grandmother did not want hers, so they gave me her drink and watched to make sure I enjoyed it all.”
In giving information for his dog tags, Lewis was asked what was his religion.
“I didn’t know anything about the Protestant-Catholic thing. We had no Catholic churches in South Webster. I should have said Protestant, but I told them I was Methodist.”
They apparently misunderstood his response. When he was getting discharged, the clerk said, “So you’re a Muslim, huh?”
“I told him, no, I was a Methodist. He said, ‘Well, it says on your dog tags you’re a Muslim. If you had been killed you would have had a Muslim funeral.’”
Lewis and his engineers made it through the Battle of the Bulge and on to the Rhine River, but did not cross. After Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, he stayed on doing post-war duties until nearly the end of the year, arriving back in New York Harbor on Christmas Eve.
He was discharged Dec. 28 at Indian Town Gap, Pa.
“They gave me $27.70 travel pay,” Lewis said. “That bought me a bus ticket to Jackson. From there, I called Dad and he came and got me.”
His brother, James Wendell “Wendy” Lewis, also survived World War II with the Navy. He lives now in the Dayton area.
Art Lewis earned his bachelor’s degree from Cedarville College and his master’s from Marshall University. He taught for more than 30 years, including principalships at Lindsey Elementary, North Moreland and Highland.
He retired, but later worked from 1987 to 1992 for Ohio University as supervisor of student teaching in Scioto and Lawrence counties.
He raised cattle on his 40-acre farm north of Minford but has now rolled up the barbed wire fences and stored them in the big red barn out back.
He enjoys good health at 85 and remains in an active role with the Minford Post 622 of the American Legion and the VFW Post 3638 of Sciotoville.
He and Janet Eckhart have been married 48 years. They first came to know each other when she was a cheerleader at Minford High School, but were not married until she was 28 and he was 31.
They have a daughter, Renee North, and two grandchildren, Cherie North, 26, and Lee Edward North, 22.
Lewis’ World War II medals and decorations include the Victory Medal, American Theater, Europe-Africa, four Bronze Stars, Good Conduct, European Occupational Medal, an Appreciation Medal from the French government, and an Expert Rifleman citation.
He has certificates showing battle participation at Normandy, the Rhineland and Central Europe.
One of the medals he prizes highly is a medallion honoring his dedication to God and country and his volunteerism that was sent to him, along with a letter, from President George W. Bush.
When Bush visited Portsmouth in 2004, Lewis was asked to get together a color guard for the occasion at Shawnee State University. He did so, and as Bush was leaving he reached out in an attempt to shake hands with Lewis, saying, “I thank you for your service.”
But before Lewis could grasp the president’s hand someone else grabbed it and Lewis never got the handshake intended for him.
Carl Pertuset of Scioto County, who had become a close friend and confidant of Bush, visiting him both in the White House and at his Texas ranch, learned of the incident and passed it on to Bush.
The President’s medallion was quick to arrive in the mail.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.