The oldest of our nation’s veterans are now those who served in World War II, either in the European Theater, Pacific Theater, or stateside, preparing to join their fellow soldiers abroad.
Over the coming weeks, SUN staff will be sitting down with some of our community’s WWII veterans to hear their stories, memories, lessons and more.
The scene was Omaha Beach, France, June 6, 1944, 7:30 a.m.
As the landing craft holding, among others, a 23-year-old Morrie Self approached the beach, a 20 mm German round from an armored tank penetrated the craft, knocking out the steering and exiting through the back of the craft, fortunately missing the 20 or so infantry troops inside. The shell missed Self by about 18 inches.
Self watched another craft nearby take a hit from German fire.
Around the same time, the men inside could hear machine gun fire bouncing off the front and sides of the landing craft — a prelude to the small arms and machine gun fire they faced as they lowered the doors to the craft to begin what is commonly known as the D-Day Invasion.
Self, a combat engineer with the 348th Combat Engineering Battalion and 5th Engineer Special Brigade, was sent in hours before the majority of the infantrymen in the first wave of the invasion, with the job of flagging the beach to instruct his fellow soldiers where to go with the landing craft as they arrived at the beach.
When the Germans repeatedly knocked the flags down with mortar rounds, the mission changed, and the men charged with flagging the beach joined the infantrymen and began chasing the Germans off the beach and demolishing enemy fortifications.
After the beach was secure, Self and the other troops moved to the hilltop at the base of the beach, taking out the bodies of German soldiers killed in the battle.
Self, now 89, still recalls the work of that day, also helping the infantrymen pick up antipersonnel mines and cutting gaps in the barbed wire on the beach.
Self remembers one moment in particular, lying on his back on the base of the beach, cutting barbed wire, when he realized he had cut a plain wire he anticipated might be connected to a mine. Self stayed still for a few minutes so as to not set off a possible mine and, when nothing happened, followed the wire to its source. The source was a flame thrower intended to set the grass on fire, but the equipment failed to do so.
Much of Self’s engineering work took place the next day.
While D-Day is undoubtedly memorable, it was the next day that provided some of the most widely published photos from Omaha Beach and a daring rescue that featured, in part, Self, who was later awarded a Bronze Star for his participation.
The rescue was of 24 troops stranded near the beach, occupants of a landing craft smashed, sunk and the victim of German gunfire. Some of the troops were wounded, while others were in shock or exhausted.
Self noticed the stranded men and swam to the craft, located about 200 yards offshore, fashioned a makeshift raft from life jackets and towed the men ashore.
After the first rescue, Self swam to another craft containing injured men, fastening a lifeline between the craft and the beach as another member of the rescue team found an abandoned Navy raft.
Self then took part in the rescue of a third stranded craft.
Self recalls navigating the strong current while swimming to the crafts, being forced to swim in a direction to the side of the crafts in order to let the current pull him sideways so he could reach them.
Other stories Self recalls of his time at Omaha Beach include hit U.S. bombers and German planes strafing the beach.
Self recalls looking up and seeing a U.S. fighter plane flying about 20 feet off the ground. Above it was a U.S. bomber returing from a mission, on fire and heading for a crash.
“It was coming down, we could see it was coming down,” Self remembers. “We all ran for cover.”
Self ran for cover beneath a bulldozer, the machine’s operator doing the same.
Another time, Self recalls seeing a German plane strafing — heading down the beach, flying low and firing as it traveled, flying fast enough to place bullets 25 or 30 feet apart, with sand flying up as each round hit the beach.
In the scurry, Self saw a foxhole in a bank.
“I was heading for that, but the bullet beat me to it,” Self recalls.
During another incident, a tank heading on to the beach was taking fire and, when the tank turned to return fire, Self found himself lying on the beach, directly under the tank’s gun.
Self remained at Omaha Beach and the surrounding area for several months, involved with taking over adjacent beaches, building a port for equipment to be brought in, collecting mines from the beaches and more.
For his involvement in France and at Omaha Beach, Self received not only the Bronze Star, but also the French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation and, in 2010, on the 65th anniversary of V-E Day, the highest award the French government can bestow — The Legion d’Honneur in the rank of Chevalier (Knight) — an honor for which he was noted in the U.S. Congressional Record and for which he received congragulatory letters from multiple politicans, cities, colleges and more.
D-Day and the time spent on Omaha Beach only scratch the surface of Self’s time in the army, including his two-year involvement in the European Theater during World War II.
Self’s military involvement began in his high school years with the Minnesota National Guard, which was federalized in 1940 under President Roosevelt.
In November 1940, Self, 18, left the University of Minnesota, where he was just beginning his studies in electrical engineering, and was sent to California — his first trip out of Minnesota — for what was supposed to be a year of training.
“... then the Japanese had a different idea of what we should be doing,” Self said, explaining that the Japanese began sending warning signals via balloons into California from their submarines.
Self said the messages warned of the impending war and his trip home was postponed, leaving him in Los Angeles when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Early in his military career, U.S. troops were training to deploy to North Africa and Self, in a construction battallion, helped prepare campsites and was sent to build a 200-bed hospital in Yuma, Ariz.
On the way to Yuma, however, Self’s command car was involved in an eight-car pileup that occurred because someone ahead of him in the convoy lost his hat, Self recalls.
In the incident, Self was thrown out of the passenger’s seat of command car, but his leg caught on the strap that served in place of a door, slicing it open.
“I hardly hit the ground and the people in the ambulance were coming back after me,” Self recalls.
Self received 12 stitches for his wound, but was kept for treatment for about six weeks.
After a few days, the 19-year-old Self felt well enough to sneak out daily, rent a bicycle and ride around the countryside, he remembers.
When Self finally returned to his unit, the unit was still helping the infantrymen prepare for their deployment to Africa. When those troops left, Self’s unit went to Camp Crowder in Missouri.
From there, Self recalls that the colonel in charge of his battalion somehow got hold of Self’s record and, upon seeing his high school achievements, called the captain of the company, promoted to Self to corporal (to make him elegible) and sent him to Officer Candidate School in Virginia.
Self emerged from OCS nine months later, in 1942, as 2nd Lt. Self.
His leadership roles had only just begun.
From there, Self became a combat engineer and returned to Camp Crowder, this time attending a cook’s and baker’s school, taking charge of his unit’s kitchen and becoming mess officer, supply officer and company platoon leader by age 20 — six months shy of turning 21, the accepted age for commissioning an officer.
By the time he left the U.S., he was 1st Lt. Self and has also been to a combat engineering school.
Upon leaving the U.S. in 1943, Self said his unit zigzagged across the North Sea to avoid German submarines on the way to Nova Scotia, Scotland and, finally, Wales to train for the Normandy invasion.
“Things were happening so fast,” Self recalls.
By the end of the one-year training in Swansey, Wales, Self, 22, was better trained in antipersonnel mines and was a platoon commander of about 50 men, whom he says were, “like Boyscouts,” being only 18 and 19 years old.
Then came D-Day and the time at Omaha and neighboring beaches.
From there, Self and crew began moving into northern France, up Europe’s west coast and into Belgium, where they took part in the Battle of the Bulge by knocking down trees to block the path of the Germans.
The men also tore down bridges left behind by the Germans.
“We had to destroy bridges that the Germans would put up because we expected them to attack us,” Self explains.
The troops continued on the move, following the retreating Germans, occasionally battling with the enemy and working with the British.
Much of Self’s work moving toward Germany dealt with bridges — either billy bridges made with British materials that were moved along with the U.S. troops or with bridges the Germans had set with mines and left behind in their retreat.
Self said much of his engineering work took place at night because of enemy snipers.
Once in Germany, Self remembers a Christmas Eve night unlike what many Americans have experienced.
Self recalled crossing the Elbe River in rafts and small boats in an effort to build a dock-like structure across the river, all the while taking enemy fire.
Self says that, when the troops reached the other side, the Germans were again retreating on bicycles, in small vehicles and with women.
Self recalls seeing the women chasing chickens, catching them and wringing their necks in order to cook them later.
Also in Germany, Self took part in liberating concentration camps.
Self said, as the camps were liberated, GIs showed the crying townspeople the camps, also making them pick up the bodies and carry them to the town square, where they were buried.
“I think they were crying from shame,” Self says.
After two years in the European Theater, Self finally got the chance to go home in 1945 aboard the Queen Mary, which was so full Self remembers two men being assigned to each bunk as the boat again zigzagged across the North Sea on the seven-day journey.
But not all surviving troops went home on the Queen Mary.
Self said some troops stayed in Germany to help round up German soldiers and build jails to keep them in — a choice one of his best friends, Sid, made.
Self waffled, ultimately choosing to return to the U.S. Self said troops with higher points had the choice to stay or go.
While that was the end of the wartime adventures with Sid, Self said still keeps in touch with Sid, decades later, even reminding himself during an interview with SUN staff to respond to a recent letter.
In Self’s case, it was apparent that his family was also affected by the war.
Self’s father took a job during the war writing newspaper reports about the war, at the same time receving letters from his son, narrating events such as D-Day.
“It was hard for him because he’d be writing about the war and he’d know that I was in it, but he didn’t know where I was or what I was doing,” Self says.
One of the more difficult things for Self, however, was the ongoing training.
“Even though we were in a war zone, we still had to get up, do calestenics, marches,” Self remembers. “That was just boring.”
But the close calls, battles, mines and more all taught Self valuable lessons that served him upon his return home.
“Well, I had a lot more confidence, I was much more mature,” Self says. “You can imagine, when I first got commissioned, I was only 20 years old.”
And that maturity helped Self continue to succeed in school.
“It helped me. When I came back to school, to the University of Minnesota, I was much more mature and did much more,” Self says, adding he was more serious about school and engineering.
Self obtained a degree over five years, paid for completely by the GI bill, joining a fraternity and maintaining his status at the top of his class.
He also rejoined the National Guard, but was talked out of service prior to the Korean War by his wife, Ruth, whom he met after the war.
Later in life, Self served as both an engineer and a professor, returning to the scene of the war later in life to receive awards and take a bicycle trip with Ruth in 1952 that followed his path during the war.
Much of Self’s wartime memorabilia sits at the WWII museum in New Orleans, he said, though his still maintains photos and letters from the two years abroad, as well as his medals and battle stars.
Self also holds distinctions of other sorts — though he carried a rifle throughout the war, he never fired a shot (except for playing with German guns found along the way) and never lost a man from his 50-man platoon.
If you are a WWII veteran with stories to share, please contact Randi Pierce at 264-2100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.