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In the line of fire

November 9, 2011

John Caldwell stepped off a ship and onto Omaha Beach in France in June 1944.

He wore a field pack on his back, wielded a rifle and carried a radio.
The water was waist-deep.

“And Germans were on top of the hills with machine guns, mowing us down fast as we got off,” Caldwell said. “You had to be alert. It’s unbelievable, you know, that I’m still here.”

Caldwell recently talked with The Observer News Enterprise about that day and his military service.

He served in the U.S. Army Rangers during World War II, attached to the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s 45th and 103rd Divisions. Four years after the war ended in Europe, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his part in America’s Rhineland Campaign.

“Part of it came from 16 of us capturing 180 Germans at one time when we found out where their camp was,” he said.

Caldwell is now 87 and living in Newton, where he grew up.

He was 18 in 1942, had just graduated from high school and started college at Lenoir-Rhyne.

His plans changed when he got a letter from the draft board in Catawba County that informed him he had been selected to serve his nation. The Army Rangers battalion took him to Fort Jackson, S.C., then to Camp Blanding, Fla., for training. He said his company commander, Capt. George Murphy, called him into his office and gave him a choice of going to fight in Europe or Asia in the war.

“(Murphy) was a West Point grad, sharp as a tack,” Caldwell said. “I asked him where he was going. He said he signed up for Europe, and I said ‘Sign me up, too.’”

Caldwell said he shipped out in September 1943 on the Queen Mary, along with 13,000 other troops. He remembers sleeping in a hammock in the ship’s empty swimming pool.

The ship took him to Grenock, Scotland, where he lived in a tent city. Gliding and parachute training ensued.

“(Army commanders) told us there was going to be an invasion of France,” Caldwell said.

“Didn’t know when. Didn’t know where. We were not to tell anybody what we were doing. We weren’t to write home and tell anybody about it. Just training.”

In June 1944, Caldwell’s company moved to Southampton, England, to prepare for a trip across the English Channel to Omaha Beach, France.

“I was the radio man that day we got off the ships on the beach,” he said. “I had the radio on my back. I talked on it to tell the coordinates of a German gun, and a ship fired to knock out that gun. Of course, there were others.”

Caldwell survived that day and spent many more in France and the surrounding area. He said French residents displayed American flags outside their homes if they were willing to house soldiers.

He spent time in a four-man team that operated with a Jeep, a trailer, a mile of communication wire and a 50-caliber machine gun. He lost the tips of two fingers on his left hand after a mortar shell smashed them during a demonstration for a trainee.

When Caldwell found out the war in Europe was over in 1945, he was in Ulm, Germany. He shipped back to the United States along with 1,500 other soldiers.

“For the first time in 13 months, we were paid the day before we shipped back,” he said. “You talk about some Poker games. Money was rolling.”

Caldwell said he was paid $21 a month for domestic Army service and $42 a month for service overseas.

More training followed his return to the States. Murphy informed his company that the Army was considering assignments to Asia for some of the troops who had fought in Europe. The war wasn’t yet over in Japan at that time, and Murphy advised his men to claim they were sick and enter the hospital.

That’s what Caldwell did, complaining that his feet had frozen many times. The only way to thaw your feet in the cold mountains of France, he said, was to fill a helmet with water, heat the helmet on a Jeep engine and stick the feet in the hot water.

Two weeks into Caldwell’s hospital stay, a buddy told him he had enough points to travel back to North Carolina for a discharge from the Army.

“I got well in a hurry,” he said. He soon stepped onto a train and traveled back to North Carolina.

Caldwell received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on Feb. 1, 1946, and he immediately went back to Lenoir-Rhyne, where he met his wife, Sara. He graduated in June 1948.

Caldwell went on to work at the Employment Security Commission as a veterans service representative. In 1952, he started working at Carolina Mills in Maiden and served the company for 37 years.

Sara and John have traveled to Europe in recent years to all the locations he visited during the war, including a cemetery where 12,000 men lost their lives during the Omaha Beach invasion.

“That’s a lot of men,” he said. “I tried to forget what all I was doing and had to do. I saw a lot. I wouldn’t want it again.”

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