Janesville man recalls momentous D-Day invasion in France
JANESVILLE—Frank Douglas was a year out of high school when he fought in the epic D-Day assault of World War II.
The 19-year-old from Janesville carried a 60 mm mortar onto the sands of Normandy 70 years ago Friday.
Like so many others in the 4th Infantry Division, he did not know what to expect. But he knew why he came to France.
“We came to liberate people from the terror of Nazism,” Douglas said.
At 89, the Janesville man is among few veterans still alive to tell how they scrambled ashore in the early morning of June 6, 1944.
History calls the mammoth sea invasion by Allied troops the war's most pivotal battle.
Douglas does not plan to mark the anniversary.
Instead, he will finish a woodworking project in the quiet of his living room.
“It's all in the past,” he said humbly of his wartime role. “Time moves on.”
He recalls details of the momentous fight.
Before leaving England aboard ship, Douglas and other troops listened to U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in a radio address. Eisenhower warned that the Germans were well trained, well equipped and battle hardened.
Douglas and his comrades became seasick during the overnight journey. They arrived at dawn on Utah Beach, the furthest west of the Normandy beaches designated for the surprise landings.
“We had few casualties when compared to Omaha Beach, which was a massacre,” Douglas said.
He witnessed blown up vehicles, dead soldiers and medics helping the wounded as he sprinted inland across the harsh terrain.
The teenager marched on to help break the enemy lines at St. Lo, liberate Paris and fight in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, where the division lost thousands of men.
“We got replacements every night,” Douglas said. “They were all scared kids.”
Later he struggled in the bitter Battle of the Bulge.
When Douglas returned to Janesville in 1945, he read the Bible from cover to cover. He promised to “do some good” in the world. And he wrote about the war.
“It was a form of catharsis,” he said. “When I first got home, I was a mess.”
Eventually, Douglas became a teacher and is remembered as one of Craig High School's most beloved instructors. He taught geography for 30 years and almost annually took two students on an all-expense paid trip. After he retired in 1988, he continued the tradition of giving young people a chance to see the world.
He also set up an annual scholarship in his name.
“The two things I am most proud of is my service in World War II and my teaching career,” he said.
Douglas has traveled in Europe but never returned to the battlefields.
“I thought it would be my luck to step on an unexploded bomb,” he said.
He calls surviving the war “the ultimate miracle.”
“I figured maybe God had other plans for me,” Douglas said. “I figured, if I had something, I would share it with others. The thing I've learned about the human race is that we are all in the same boat. We are all God's children.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.
SIREN SOUNDS IN JANESVILLE ON D-DAY
JANESVILLE--Few Janesville residents heard the siren at the Bowman Dairy Plant in the early morning of June 6, 1944.
Most slept through the signal that the D-Day invasion to break the German occupation of Europe had begun.
The Associated Press sent a bulletin to the Janesville Daily Gazette at 3:05 a.m. that the amphibious landing was underway.
Editors at the paper previously asked the fire department to blow the whistle when the fighting started. Many citizens must have been unaware of the meaning because they flooded the fire and police departments with calls about why the siren was sounding.
Trinity Episcopal Church rang its bells as soon as it learned the news and immediately opened its doors so people could come in and pray. Other churches did the same, according to a Gazette story on D-Day.
Radio station WCLO stayed on the air to announce the latest news bulletins from Europe. Two broadcasts originated with correspondents observing the invasion in reconnaissance planes.
The Gazette posted a bulletin about the invasion outside its downtown building by 3:30 a.m., but few people were on the streets to see it. By 5:30 a.m., residents on their way to work stopped to read the momentous news.
The Gazette published details of the battle in that day's edition under a bold headline: “Invasion Hits Deep.”
The AP story reported that thousands of ships and smaller landing craft brought Americans, British and Canadian forces from England to France. After landing in Normandy, the forces “wrought gigantic havoc with the whole elaborate coastal defense system the Nazis spent four years building,” the story said.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an invasion day prayer, which asked the Lord to embrace those who died breaking the German occupation of Europe.
In the weeks after D-Day, newspaper clippings in the archives of the Rock County Historical Society tell brief stories about area men who played vital roles in the effort to liberate France.
One bombardier told of several close calls.
“I have seen the skies filled with burning wreckage of bombers and fighters,” Lt. Howard Kordatsky of Fort Atkinson said. “I have flown through exploding flak that clung to our ship like Black Death.”