A medic's perspective
By Matt Soper
Published Wednesday, November 18, 2015 8:38 am
Delta County Historical Society photo Medics help a wounded soldier during the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
Bill Rea, a medic, landed with his platoon at Easy Red on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus-one.
Rea, a retired teacher and former Orchard City trustee, was drafted into the Army at age 19.
As the LST (landing ship tank) approached the beach, Nazi "hedgehogs" and mines in the water meant that Rea and others had to jump, shoulder-deep, into the icy Atlantic water and wade ashore. Rea said he distinctively remembered a dead soldier with a flame-thrower lying on the sand, his pack shot open and photographs of his family lying beside him.
A German tank broke the American lines and fired rounds past them, hitting a boat and debris behind them in the water. "The sound was like a handful of gravel hitting a tin roof."
The first night in France Rea spent in a fox hole with .50 cal tracer rounds buzzing just feet above him and anti-aircraft shooting at bombers overhead. Rea said the fear was not always bullets, but shrapnel falling from the sky.
As the Americans pushed further inland, the medics followed, establishing a camp in an apple orchard. On one occasion Rea watched a pilot eject from a P-49 and his chute opened only a few feet above the ground. At the same time, the bomb from the plane landed less than 30 feet from where Rea had been observing the incident. Due to the plane's low altitude, the bomb didn't explode.
As a medic, Rea said, "venereal diseases were the most commonly treated. After liberating Paris, treating syphilis and gonorrhea became the main objective of the non-front line medical.
On one occasion some of the soldiers thought cans labelled "poison" were really alcohol. So they mixed it with grapefruit juice and within an hour 10 soldiers were dead and 75 were en route to the hospital after having consumed muriatic acid, a chemical used for cleaning typewriters, Rea recalled.
A victory ship transported Rea and a couple thousand of his fellow soldiers back to the U.S. in 1945. As the ship came into Boston harbor, Rea said he'd never forget a tugboat coming by with a Christmas tree lit up, "White Christmas" playing from the intercom, and a giant sign that read: "Welcome home -- a job well done!"
Rea said his only regret was not being able to spend more time on the front lines treating the real heroes, the ones taking bullets for their nation. After the war, Rea used the GI Bill to go to college and become an educator with a specialization in teaching reading, later serving on the Orchard City Board of Trustees.
This is the third in a series of firsthand accounts from Delta County residents who served as soldiers in World War II, supported the troops on the home front and feel the costs of war today. The series coincides with a special exhibit which can be seen at the Delta Museum.