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Valley veteran recalls D-Day
The water was ice cold. The air shook with booming and banging explosions, the sawing of machine guns, the pings of rifles and a thousand other sounds. Bodies bobbed in the surf. Other bodies lay crumpled at the water’s edge.
In his head, Burt Mann could hear one thing – his heart.
“When we hit the beach on D-Day, I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest. I couldn't control it. It was ‘Pound! Pound! Pound!’” he said, sitting in a tranquil garden at the Mount Si Senior Center.
The 87-year-old North Bend-resident is the center's volunteer gardener – and one of the last survivors of the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, where he landed in the first minutes.
Omaha Beach was the codename for one of the main invasion points and surpassed any account of hell ever conceived of by man. American troops had to cross as much as 500 yards of tidal flats and open ground before assaulting bluffs bristling with German guns in bunkers. Entire units were literally wiped out in minutes.
A bunch of ants
The 21-year-old kid from Chicago had enlisted in early 1943, and ended up as a combat engineer.
“I didn't know the first thing about engineering. But you're a number – 36690057 … 36-69-double O-57, I'll never forget it. They brainwash that into you,” he said.
After basic training in Louisiana, Mann had shipped out to England, where his unit was attached to the 146th Combat Engineer Battalion for the invasion.
A few days before the landings, he boarded a ship and sailed into the English Channel. Nearly 160,000 Allied soldiers were ready to invade France and decisively turn the war’s tide against Nazi Germany.
Once at sea, they finally learned where and when they would land.
“‘You’re going into heavy combat, going into Omaha Beach in Normandy. You people will be in the second wave’,” he recalled.
As a combat engineer, Mann landed a few minutes after the first wave to help clear obstacles and mines planted on the beach by the Germans. But like other troops on Omaha, he spent the day trying to survive.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Mann’s unit climbed down cargo nets hung over the side of their ship into landing crafts to go into the beach.
“The orders were: ‘The man below you, if he don’t continue to go down, eliminate him so you can get down. We need you to get into the landing’,” Mann said.
Waves and sea spray soaked everyone in his landing craft. Some men prayed, others were silent as the bluffs over Omaha grew larger on the horizon.
“As far as your eyes could see was beautiful country. You couldn't see the Germans in their pillboxes. But they were there all along Omaha Beach,” he said.
Half a block from the water’s edge, the ramp went down. The men in front ran into the water. Mann, who was in the middle of the craft, watched in horror as they disappeared into the surf.
“I saw nothing but bodies floating around. They were not shot, they were drowned! They didn't know how to swim, and 65 pounds of field pack, gas mask, rifle – that weighs you down!” he said.
The landing craft had accidentally dropped them too far out.
Mann cut his gear loose with his combat knife and made his way to shore.
The beach “sounded like a thousand 4th of July's going off at once,” he said.
Fear took over. His heart pounded in his chest.
“You're so frightened, all you want to do is get to shore, not to shoot at them, but to hide,” he said.
On the beach, he crawled and ducked his way across the open sand to shelter above the tidal flats, wearing both knees raw.
It was “terror magnified,” he recalled. “I feared death then.”
Mann had good reason to be afraid. Combat engineers suffered over 40 percent casualties on Omaha Beach.
Ultimately, the Allied soldiers took the beach by sheer numbers.
“They couldn’t kill us all. We were like a bunch of ants coming out of an ant hill,” he said. “They didn't have enough bullets to kill us all, or they didn’t have enough time to kill us all.”
To get off the beach, Mann and other troops had to move another 200 yards to storm the bluffs.
“You’re just shooting. It’s not that you see something. It’s just fire, fire, fire. You got 30 guys across, and everybody’s spraying bullets. You want to kill whatever’s in your path,” he said.
Mann doesn’t know how or why he survived.
“I was just an average GI, and Jehovah was with me, that’s all I can say,” he said.
President Barack Obama plans to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day this week in Normandy, France.
After surviving Omaha on D-Day, Mann helped liberate France, relieved Bastogne in the Netherlands and invaded Germany.
In Bastogne, he endured a bitterly cold winter and hunger while fighting off elite German forces.
“When you’re hungry and cold, all you can think of is a pot-bellied stove to put your butt up against, and have a piece of mom's home-made bread with a little peanut butter or jelly on it,” Mann recalled.
Today he keeps his garage stocked with enough food to last him four or five months.
Other memories have stayed with him as well.
“I killed in combat. It’s still on my mind. Hand-to-hand combat. It was me or the other man, and I'll never forget it,” Mann said. “I know I’m going to go to hell for that, because I killed, and I don’t think the Lord’s going to forgive me. That’s my fear.”
But the war had it’s lighter moments, too.
Mann and two friends drove partway across France with a glass chandelier, which they’d taken from a theater, mounted on the hood of their jeep.
In one French town, he and friends shot holes in giant wine casks and standing in wine almost up to their knees, got extremely drunk.
The stress of combat was wearing Mann down, though, and he began hallucinating. He saw enemies who weren't there and ducked from phantom artillery rounds. After invading Germany – and witnessing the horror of Nazi concentration camps – he was sent to the French Riviera for rest.
“You're coming out of a foxhole where you're living worse than an animal. Lice crawling all over you. And your stool and urine – you stink and you're scared. It's hell,” Mann recalled. “Sixty-five years ago, it's still in there. I'll never take it out.”
Staying at a hotel for Allied soldiers, Mann couldn't get comfortable at night.
“You had linens. I couldn't sleep in the bed. I'm used to a foxhole,” he said.
He fell asleep on the floor.
The long voyage home
After Germany surrendered, Mann went to Marseille, France, to wait for a ship home. A month later, he got on board a troop transport and headed across the Atlantic Ocean. After eight days at sea, the troops on board – all combat veterans – learned they were headed for Manilla in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan.
“A lot of men jumped ship, and they don’t say ‘Man overboard.’ You jump and you’re gone. The ship keeps going,” Mann said.
He stood at the ship’s railing, contemplating whether or not to jump, but feared drowning more than another invasion.
They trained everyday in the Philippines for the invasion.
“I figured the end, the end for me is here. I mean, I had nine lives as a cat. I used them all up, I’m on the last one. To myself, ‘you can’t be that lucky again’,” he recalled.
“We're getting ready. We're practicing. We got all the gear on, and lining us up for what ships we're going to go on. And the next day we hear, Harry S Truman – God bless you for a trillion years,” he said, raising his arms skyward, “he dropped the A-bomb on them and we didn't have to fight.”
Mann spent several months with the occupation forces in Japan before finally steaming to San Francisco.
He was honorably discharged from Camp Grant in Illinois in 1946.