Normandy vet recalls D-Day Plus 1
By Clint Confehr
Senior Staff Writer
At least one Lewisburg man had no plan to attend the Veterans Day ceremony on the east lawn of the Marshall County Courthouse today.
"I try not to think about it much," John W. Hargrove, 90, of Hillsdale Street, said of his experience during World War II when he was a prisoner of war after landing at Normandy, France.
"It was bad," Hargrove said.
He's not been to services for veterans, and it's not for lack of honor, or pride in his country. He wore a WW-II Veteran's ball cap for his photograph here when it was made on Tuesday afternoon.
He'd just finished mowing another lawn on his lawn tractor. He's known for that service. His closest relatives - and probably many of his friends - say he likes to mow lawns.
It's almost as if it's something else to do to keep some memories at bay.
Going to the Veterans Day event at 11 this morning would "just bring back too many memories," he said.
He was pressed to share something so there would be a document of his experience, and the gentleman agreed.
"At Normandy," he began, "it was rough at about 11 a.m." on D-Day Plus 1.
That military shorthand refers to when soldiers landed at Normandy. The D-Day invasion started on June 6. Thousands more troops followed, "each man well aware of the sacrifices his comrades had made," a Library of Congress report states.
"We just walked over the dead, there were so many of them" Hargrove said. "I was in the combat engineers...
"They were firing at us," he said, proceeding to explain how he landed.
"We drove off" the landing craft in a truck, Hargrove said. "We had it waterproofed to drive when the water was over the engine. There was a long pipe from the carburetor that went over the cab.
"I was lucky," he said of not being wounded.
Hargrove spent seven months in front-line combat. During those months he lost only one man in his unit. That soldier was hit by machinegun fire from an airplane: "hit by strafing by one of our own" pilots.
"It was bad. I try not to think about it much."
Hargrove was a sergeant in a nine-man unit.
During those months on the front lines - lines that shifted as forces grew and withdrew - the squad "stayed in the basement of a nice, old, abandoned house because the war was going on."
Then, on Dec. 21, 1944, "the weather had done got cold and we didn't have anything to eat and we decided to come out."
German soldiers "just surrounded us, me and my squad," he said.
They weren't held in a POW camp.
"We slept along side the roads or in a barn. They kept us on the march for days. We went for as long as six days without food and then it was just some grey soup."
It's clear Hargrove escaped, or was liberated, or released. While he was asked about the experience, he wasn't pushed.
Part of his military service might be called good times.
"You got to be like family. People were closer, me and my squad. An older man had been in the service a long time. He kindly took care of me. Tom Pulley. I've never heard from him since I got home. I don't know what happened to him or whether he got killed. He ... would pitch my tent or bring food."
As Hargrove found it "pretty hard to describe" what he did in World War II, he was asked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for the President's announcement that troops are coming home from Iraq, Hargrove said, "We need to get out of there. We've been there too long... I don't think we should have gone in the first place."
"They weren't bothering us at the time. Our president, at the time, thought we should. In the future, they might have (bothered us) ... We lost a lot of boys there.
"I wish they could get it all over, over there.
"Some of it probably was a reaction to 9/11" terrorist attacks, Hargrove said.
What would he have done?
"I don't know. I just didn't see it that way."
Hargrove agreed there's a distinction to be made between Japan's attack on the military base and ships in Pearl Harbor and terrorist attacks 10 years and two months ago today.
He declined to talk about Muslims.
"We go to church regularly," Hargrove said. "Not everybody believes alike.
"Every Sunday morning, I get up and go to church. I feel like that's my duty."
He has three children. Tony Hargrove of Cornersville is retired from Heil Quaker. His youngest daughter, Jeannette Matthews, works at the Lewisburg Gas Department and his oldest daughter, Catherine Harmond, lives 50 miles south of Birmingham.
He was married to Mary Campbell when he entered the Army. Their son was born while he was in the service.
"I came home on a furlough one time and made him," Hargrove said.
He was in France when Tony, now 67, was born.
Tony "was nine months old when I came home and he took to me like he knew me all along... He's just like me..."
Hargrove worked at the pencil factory that was on Spring Place Road, just a few blocks from where he lives now. "I just worked all the time without much time to spend at home" and that adversely affected the marriage. "She was a good woman." They separated.
After finalization of the divorce he "came home to empty walls," and realized there was a better way. During that time, he said, he got to know Mary Ruth Lee, and they've been married for 28 years. Mary Campbell died last year.
Now, Hargrove mows lawns. "I really enjoy that." He's "bought up a lot of property" over the years. "I like to get on a mower. I cut four yards last week."
His daughter in Alabama says he has four Bronze Star medals. He calls them battle stars. One is for the invasion at Normandy. He doesn't remember what the others were for.
Asked if he might just drive to the courthouse on Veterans Day on his lawn mower, Hargrove said he couldn't. It's not licensed for public roads.
It seemed unlikely that he'd be at the Veterans Day ceremony today.