Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Raymond Henley remembers World War II

On June 6, 1944, Allied troops stormed the beaches of France whose names, once foreign to many, have become a familiar part of world history; Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. An undertaking that joined more than 160,000 American, Canadian and British forces, D-Day was a turning point for the war that raged in Europe. With a fleet of over 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft, more than 9,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded. More than 100,000 troops, joined in a common goal, began to make their way across Europe to defeat Adolf Hitler. Among those soldiers was one Raymond Henley, 19 years old, from Decatur, Tennessee.

Henley, who has called Johnson County home for many years, received his draft notice on August 13, 1943. After being inducted into the Army, he attended basic training and was stationed at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma in the 42nd Infantry Division, also known as the Rainbow Division. According to Henley, he was initially stationed there for a period of six months but his time was cut short once they returned from Camp Pendleton on maneuvers. He joined the 79th Infantry, a rifle company, as they prepared to go overseas.
According to Henley, as they were loaded onto a train and heading to Kansas, security was so tight the soldiers could not even talk among themselves. They boarded a troop train bound for Boston. Before he knew it, Henley was looking at a British transport ship in a sea of water. “I had water phobia from the time I was a kid,” he said. Henley was grateful that he was only seasick once. “All I could see was the ocean,” he recalled. “There’s no point in having water phobia anymore. There’s no turning back.” According to Henley, the waters were very rough. “Some waves were said to be 50 feet high,” he recalled. “I spent a lot of time on the deck.” It was there he saw dolphins for the first time.

The ship made its way to Glasgow, Scotland before the troops unloaded and hopped right onto a small gauge train that took them to England. They arrived at a camp well prepared in advance of their arrival with tents already set up, outside plumbing and cots for sleeping. He was there for two months. In years past, Henley used to give his grandfather shaves and haircuts. Word soon got around about his handiwork and he found himself trimming the soldiers’ hair and beards. Before long, he was grooming the first sergeant and all the officers in headquarters, including the general. “I was scared to death, all that brass and me just a little Private,” Henley said. They provided Henley with a new set of tools. “They gave me a set price of .50 a head,” he reminisced with a smile in his voice. “That was good money, plus tips.” There were benefits with being the barber for the officers. Henley was exempt from any more training and to his delight, he didn’t have to stand retreat at the end of the day. He had some freedom to roam the local towns traveling via the trolleys.
Henley joined back up with the 79th Regiment. “I was in a demolition squad,” he said. His company had three platoons that were involved with communications, ammunitions and engineering. While in England, Henley and his troops were equipped with pup tents that slept two to a tent as they prepared to once again board another ship. “The water got awfully rough in that English Channel.” As they approached the end of the channel, Henley recalled you couldn’t see the shore. The ship had a cable that carried a large balloon up high and he noticed other ships looked similar. According to Henley, the balloons were designed to keep German planes from coming in and bombing the ships.

Henley’s regiment was headed to capture the seaport town of Cherbourg in France. The D-Day invasion had begun. As they arrived, Henley recalled seeing ships that were on fire and were sinking. “There were dog fights in the air,” he said, as he watched the English and Americans fighting German airplanes. “I remember seeing them shot down,” he said, “They hit the water. It was terrible.”
Once his ship was anchored still far out from the shore, they climbed aboard small, flat boats. Rope ladders were then thrown out and the men scrambled to safety. “I don’t know how many of us got out,” Henley said. “Up to 24.” According to Henley, the fight continued to rage on. “I saw ships that were sunk,” he said. “Shells was busting up in the air, some hitting objects in the water. That was the worst part of it, the artillery busting over head.” The men in his infantry were equipped with full gear with enough supplies and k-rations to last between five and seven days in case they were shot down.

Henley climbed inside a large boat headed to shore. Inside the boat were smaller boats that would depart the main ship. According to Henley, there was a large iron shield to let the boats into the water. He has never forgotten what awaited him. “I seen bodies in the water, floating dead,” he said. “We were told to go as fast and as quick as you can. What I saw paralyzed me. I froze like I was having a stroke. There were bodies as far as your peripheral vision could let me see. Some were hollering, screaming for their mama. I couldn’t move.” He made his way to shore, climbing and jumping over bodies. “Once I got onto the sand, some were still hollering,” he added. “It had just happened.”
The troops split into small groups. According to Henley, the reasoning behind it was so the enemy couldn’t take a large number of people down at the same time. “I remember a parachute hanging in small trees, but there was no body,” Henley recalled. “I don’t know if he got away or if the Germans took him.”
According to Henley, the Americans used gliders from airplanes that had artillery weapons. There were no engines and he explained the gliders would drop weapons for those on the ground. “It was bloody on one glider I saw,” he said. As they got to shore, he noticed there were small posts and fence rails in the field scattered to keep small planes and gliders from landing. “The Germans did their homework there,” he stated.

By nightfall, the soldiers of the 79th began to group together and were able to get their command post set up. “Our group ran into Germans late that evening,” Henley remembered. “I was positioned at a certain place with another soldier. I didn’t know him. In the bushes there were small trees. Sometime during the first night, somebody had run wires where they were setting the command post so they could talk via the phone. The other soldier began to hear something in the leaves over the bank. I kept thinking that’s the Germans and they are slipping up on us.” As it turned out someone had tripped on a wire. “I thought it was a hand grenade,” Henley recalled. “We were scared.”
“It got bloody from there on,” Henley continued, his voice heavy with emotion. During the time the infantry was making their way to capture Cherbourg, they advanced and retreated three different times. “The Germans knew the Americans were coming,” he said. “They knew we were determined and coming.” At this time, the Germans were heading out of France and back to their defense lines. The Americans were attacked by German artillery as they came down the road. According to Henley, it was difficult to determine how long it took to take the town of Cherbourg, anywhere from six to nine days.

To read the entire article, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.