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home : news : state news free January 18, 2020

11/11/2019 10:13:00 AM
Illinois couples' relationship blossomed via wartime letters
Dr. Mark DePue


ILLINOIS — Gerald “Andy” Anderson from tiny Oakford, Ill., was no stranger to hardship. His father had lost the family farm after the stock market crash in 1929. His mother died in 1934 when he was 11, leaving his father to raise nine children on a hired hand’s salary. But nothing Andy experienced prepared him for what he saw when he landed in the second wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Andy was a member of the fabled 1st Infantry Division – the Big Red One. He joined the unit in Sicily and was quickly assigned to the Ammunition Pioneer Platoon in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment. His job consisted of laying mine fields and the even more delicate job of finding and removing enemy mines. He had received no training in those skills prior to arriving in Sicily, but that was where his unit needed him.  

Several months later, on June 6, Andy was in a Higgins boat riding the choppy waters toward Omaha Beach. He wrote down his memories of that day many years later: “The ramp finally was lowered and we began to evacuate as quickly as possible into waist-deep water. Almost immediately we began to suffer casualties from the severe small arms fire. We had at least a hundred yards to go before getting to the sandy beach area and at least two hundred yards of sand to reach the cover of the rock and shelf bank.”

That trip seemed to take an eternity, weighed down as he was with equipment that included several pack charges [explosives] and the rod assembly to his squad’s mine detector. When the soldiers carrying the mine detector’s base plate and battery pack did not reach the relative safety of the sea wall, “some of us went back down on the beach and that’s when we found the two guys in my squad that didn’t make it,” he explained during a recent interview with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s oral historian. “The box that had the battery in it had been exposed to salt water, so the battery wouldn’t work.”  

The Americans eventually fought their way off Omaha beach, but only after staggering losses. Nearly another year of combat lay ahead for Anderson and the men of the Big Red One. Next up came the struggle through the hedgerow country of Normandy, then the Falaise pocket, a quick advance across northern France, followed by brutal street fighting in Aachen, the first Germany city the Allies reached. It was during that fight when Anderson was injured by shrapnel from a German hand grenade while he was laying a mine field.

“They were close enough you could see them,” he recalled. “They must have heard us when we were out there. And all of a sudden, they’re right among us!”

He was evacuated to a hospital in England but returned to his unit in time for the division’s courageous fight during the Battle of the Bulge, when the division stubbornly held the northern shoulder of the bulge despite repeated attacks from German armored units.

All through Andy’s fight across Europe there was one constant in his life, a treasured photo he carried of Josephine Hillman, a young woman he had met only twice while on pass in Pennsylvania before shipping out. They had struck up a lively correspondence while Andy was in Europe and she attended nursing school in Chicago. One letter included Jo’s photo.

“I kept this picture all that time,” he said. “I used every method I could to keep it close to me wherever I was. I had pulled out the lining of a carbine cartridge case that I carried on my web belt; sometimes I had it in there. Sometimes I had it in my boot. Sometimes I had it my helmet liner.”

After the war, when Andy arrived in Chicago while en route to Fort Sheridan to be discharged, Jo was waiting for him at one of Chicago’s elevated train stations. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I knew that my thoughts about her all those twenty-eight months was not unwarranted.”

Andy lost the love of his life in 1996 after 47 years of marriage, but the photo he carried throughout the war is never far from his sight.

Mark DePue is the Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. You can hear Andy Anderson’s entire story, as well as hundreds of other veterans, at the program’s web site at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov





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