Gresham relives D-Day for DHS audience

Published 10:44 pm Monday, November 10, 2008

Paul Gresham was just a green 19-year-old when he stepped off a transport ship onto a Higgins landing craft facing Omaha Beach. Just A few months earlier, Gresham had been working on oil wells in rural west Alabama. Now, he was the platoon sergeant leading 24 men into what would become the greatest invasion of the world — D-Day.

The D-Day invasion is recognized as one of the most important battles of World War II. It was the day when Allied forces grabbed the beachhead to begin the invasion of Europe.

Now on the verge of his 85th birthday, which will be Friday, Gresham spent the day before Veterans Day as he has the past seven years: recalling his experiences before an assembly of students at Demopolis High School.

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Speaking to teenagers not much younger than he was in 1944, Gresham shares his story, a baptism of fire from boy to man in a matter of seconds.

“This was the first combat I had seen,” said Gresham. “I was scared to death.

Gresham was supposed to take part in the first wave to go ashore at Omaha Beach, the scene of perhaps the bloodiest fighting of all that transpired on D-Day.

“We got down off the ships into the Higgins boats about 10 miles out, and the (English) Channel was real rough — six-, seven-, eight foot waves,” Gresham recalled about his opening moments into the battle. “We were supposed to have gone in at 6:30 a.m., but the rudders on our boat went out. We just floated around in rough sea, all the while bailing water out of the boat with our helmets.”

Finally another Higgins boat towed them and they managed to get close to the shore. From there, he and his comrades jumped into the surf and waded ashore.

“It was rough when we finally got to the beach. The battle had been going on about four hours and there were parts of bodies laying everywhere. Heads and feet were scattered across the beach. It was horrific,” he said. “People were cut half in two by the machine gun fire. It was nasty.”

On the beach, chaos reigned.

“The Germans had pill boxes arranged so they could maintain a murderous cross fire along the beach,” Gresham said. “If you got up to tried to move they would machine gun you or shells would come in.

“The First Division on down the beach had seen combat before in North Africa and knew a little about what to expect, but for us bunch of greenhorns it was rough,” he said. “No amount of training could have prepared us for that experience.”

Amid intense enemy fire, Gresham and the rest of the 29th eventually secured the beach’s bluffs. The 29th played a key role in the Allied D-Day success that day, though casualties were heavy.

“I had twenty-four men in my platoon. Only about twelve of us got on top of the hill,” said Gresham.

Once on top of the bluff the Division was told to dig in for the night. “You couldn’t dig in on the beach,” Gresham said. “The sand was so fine, the more you dug the more it would just fill back up with more sand. We had to dig in on the bluff. We fought for a while along on one or two hedge rows then we dug in.”

That night Gresham said he remembers digging before he fell asleep until he could stand on his knees and look over the hole. When he awoke, the hole was so deep he had to stand on his toes to look out. “I’m not sure who dug that hole deeper,” he said. “I know it had to have been me, maybe digging in my sleep.”

Gresham’s men then fought the Germans along the hedgerows in sporadic firefights and moved to take the French town of St. Lo.

Gresham said the horror of D-Day is hard to imagine, with casualties so immense that it took three days to simply clear the beaches of all the Allied dead.

Omaha and neighboring Utah beach, both assaulted by U.S. forces, were among the bloodiest of D-Day battles. British and Canadian soldiers led attacks on nearby Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.

Gresham later took shrapnel in his back fighting outside of Belgium and was placed in a hospital for a short while. After being released he was sent to the 28th Division and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Now, as we are losing our World War II veterans by a rate of 1200 a day, so goes many of the personal accounts that bring their experiences to life for generations behind them.

“There used to be a good number of us who would meet each year in Atlanta,” Gresham said about his company’s annual reunion. “Now there is only a handful left.”

Next year, as he did yesterday, Gresham will again be at Demopolis High School telling about his experiences during the war.

“It is important that our youth know the sacrifices that was made for the freedoms they enjoy today,” he said. “It’s important we keep reminding future generations of what happened so they will learn from it.”

Gresham has been back since D-Day to visit the places he fought in WWII and to Omaha – taking his family to see where he fought 64 years ago.

In the Ardennes Forest where he fought during the Battle of the Bulge, Gresham almost could believe his eyes. He was able to find the place where he and his unit had to dig in, creating deep foxholes. The remnants of those holes were still visible as was the places where they had planted the machine guns in anticipation of holding their position.

“That really got to me,” he said.