Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message echoed among the soldiers as they prepared 70 years ago for what became a historic day.
“The free men of the world are marching together to victory,” Eisenhower said in the send-off before the start of the D-Day invasion.
Leonard Hatfield and his fellow soldiers in the U.S. Army 741st tank battalion had been preparing for more than two years. They knew they’d be invading continental Europe eventually.
But never did it occur to them that what they were doing would change the war and the world.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Hatfield recalled what he experienced in history’s greatest amphibious invasion. But rather than focus on the monumental impact D-Day had, the Franklin resident instead remembers the men who worked by his side and those who died in the intense fighting.
What his unit accomplished wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, he said. It was all part of his duty.
“We didn’t think of it that way. We were in the Army because this nation needed us to do a job. We had to do that job,” he said. “We tried to help this country. This country needed help.”
In a drawer at his Franklin apartment, Hatfield, 94, keeps reminders of his time during World War II. He has his D-Day ribbon, with five battle stars emblazoned on it.
His European Theater of Operations Medal and Good Conduct Medal are in protective boxes. A gleaming cartridge from a German rifle is among the relics.
He keeps his uniform hanging in the closet, crisp and dry-cleaned, with the patch of the 741st tank battalion and four stripes for his two years of service.
But Hatfield also holds on to the memories of his service in the Army, including the hellish conditions of training that bonded him to his unit and huddling in a freezing foxhole during mortar attacks.
He’ll never forget the hero’s welcome he received when the troops entered Paris.
“There were signs and banners and cheering. They made us feel like the most important people in the world,” he said.
Hatfield enlisted in the U.S. Army on Jan. 12, 1942, as a 21-year-old. He was assigned to the 741st tank battalion, which would help blast the way through the German forces. The battalion trained for two years all over the country, learning the skills needed in tank warfare.
The troops came together at Fort Knox. They trained in desert sand in California, mud and swamps in Louisiana, and on the beaches of Virginia. The soldiers learned to outfit their tanks with “snorkels,” allowing them to travel in up to 9 feet of water without drowning.
Part of the training was to prepare the men for the worst situations imaginable. At one point, they were all placed on an island swarming with mosquitoes. They had to endure it for hours, just to toughen them up.
In another training, the soldiers would run across a field, while others threw handfuls of explosives around them.
“We got blasted by sand and dirt, and, man, it hurt. But they were making us tough. They were making us realize that this was a job that would take courage,” Hatfield said.
Joining an armada
Finally, in late 1943, the unit boarded a troop transport and started the final journey to the war.
Hatfield was part of a convoy of 55 ships moving across the Atlantic Ocean. He was on one of seven troop ships, flanked by destroyers, supply ships, battleships and cruisers.
“You should have seen that armada. Ships as far as the eye could see,” he said.
German submarines sank two destroyers, but the troop ships made the ocean passage safely. After landing in Liverpool in November 1943, they spent the next seven months preparing for the assault across the English Channel.
“We knew we were going to go, but we didn’t know when,” he said. “We didn’t know when until the day before.”
Hatfield didn’t find out about the invasion until June 5, the day before it was scheduled to start. Massive troop movements were planned, and preparations were made to get more than 156,000 troops onto the beaches at Normandy.
He was a medic, leading a group of 27 men charged with caring for the battalion’s soldiers.
As the sergeant of the tank battalion’s medics, Hatfield didn’t cross the English Channel on D-Day. He remained in England for the first two days of the invasion, caring for the wounded who were shipped back from Normandy.
By the time he made the crossing, the Allied soldiers had claimed the beach at Omaha. But intense fighting was still ongoing inland.
One of the most difficult issues to deal with were hedgerows that were growing in thick barriers around the fields of France.
“What they’d do is set up a machine-gun nest in there, and then you couldn’t get through,” Hatfield said. “What we had to do was weld angle irons on the front of the tank, break that hedgerow and pull it right up.”
Slowly, the tank battalion moved field to field, clearing German soldiers.
The German army had pulled back from the beach, establishing an entrenched position up on a hill called “192.” Hatfield had set up an aid station in a big house set back from the hill. He watched as planes dropped bombs on the enemy tanks.
From the smoke rising behind the uplands, he could tell how the fighting was going.
“If the bombs didn’t hit anything, there was brown smoke rising. If there was blue smoke, we knew we got them,” he said.
Hatfield was standing in the front vestibule, watching one of the planes, when a bomb came loose and dropped directly toward him. He said a quick prayer and swears that divine intervention saved his life.
“That bomb hit 15 feet to my left and knocked me flat over,” he said.
Other incidents were just as harrowing. Hatfield was called to drive in a jeep to a disabled tank, where one of the soldiers had a broken leg. A bevy of mortars forced his vehicle off the road, and he took cover under a tank while artillery exploded around him.
The battalion moved through France and Belgium, pushing the German army back progressively. The momentum stopped when they reached the Siegfried Line, a system of tank defenses built at the German border.
Using armor-piercing shells, the battalion blasted holes through the perimeter. The troops became the first to cross the Siegfried Line.
As a medic, Hatfield would move as far forward as he safely could to help set up a care station.
View from a foxhole
One December night, the medics were moving toward the Siegfried Line when a shell attack came. The team dug into their foxholes to prevent themselves from shrapnel.
“We stayed in those holes, and that night it snowed heavy. When the snow melted, it filled up the bottom of the hole we were laying in with water,” Hatfield said. “But we had to lay there. If we’d lift our heads out, we’d get shot.”
Despite the close calls, Hatfield was never seriously physically injured in the fighting. He did develop battle fatigue in early 1945 and was unable to keep any food down. A doctor recommended he be sent back to England to recover. Though he begged not to, he was transported back from the front line. It took him two weeks to get back to his battalion.
By May 1945, the battalion had passed through Germany. It didn’t stop until reaching Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, when the war ended.
It took more than six months after the war ended for Hatfield to make it back to the U.S. Transport ships weren’t available while the war was still going on in the Pacific, he said.
When he returned, he left the medical field and trained to be an engineer. He worked for 32 years for Western Electric, living first in Whiteland, then in Columbus before moving to Franklin.
Looking back at his service, Hatfield and his fellow soldiers never expected any celebration or recognition.
On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, he still feels that way.
“Each man tried his best that he could for the other men,” he said. “Each man tried to help everybody.”