“They needed those tanks immediately, but with tanks, you have to get close. If the tanks would have been there, we wouldn’t have lost so many men. Those tanks would have run right up on those machine guns.” — Russell Hendrickson
CENTERBURG — Sixty-five years ago today, Russell Hendrickson was sitting on a boat in the English Channel, waiting to land on Omaha Beach. D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, France, by Allied forces, had begun.
“With all of the smoke and firepower, you really couldn’t tell what was going on,” he said of the activity on the beach, “but you knew it was bad.”
Hendrickson was part of the 2nd Armored Division, the division known as Hell on Wheels. Battle-hardened from combat in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily, on June 6, 1944, the division was waiting to take part in Operation Overlord, the operation designed to liberate France from the Germans.
Hendrickson said the initial plan to get the tanks ashore called for the 30-plus ton tanks to be on floatation devices towed by landing craft.
“The landing craft were to tow them up as close as they could, then cut them loose,” he explained. “But they weren’t stable enough, and the wind capsized them. So that was a failure.”
Some of the tanks are still sitting on the bottom of the channel today.
Abandoning the floatation devices, the tanks were brought in on landing craft.
“When I went in on the third day, the landing craft hit a sand bar and got stuck. We finally got it in reverse and got off. When we got on the beach, they already had an opening, and we drove on a road up to the bluffs.”
Hendrickson said when he sees TV footage of the event, he remembers it as clear as if it were yesterday.
“That was the gateway,” he said of the D-Day landings. “That was what opened up the gate to Europe.”
In the invasion of Sicily, Hendrickson was in a tank. In Normandy, his job was to drive the company officers.
“I was up at the front line with an officer at all times,” he said.
Moving off the beach and into hedgerow country, the 2nd Armored hooked up with the 101st Airborne at Carentan, France. Moving south, the division, with the 101st acting as infantry, came up against the Germans’ 2nd SS Panzer Division.
“We busted their butt,” said Hendrickson.
The town of St. Lo was next.
“We couldn’t break through,” said Hendrickson. “The weather had been kind of bad. We were stationery, and camouflaged. Then all of a sudden we got orders to uncammouflage and get ready to move.
“I looked up early one morning and saw a plane. Then I saw another plane, then another ... 3,000 planes at one time. They bombed an airstrip 3 miles wide by 10 miles long. I was standing on top of a tank, watching the dogfights. It was two or three hours before we got orders to move. When we went through, there was absolutely no resistance.”
St. Lo fell on July 18, and the Allies pushed on. On Aug. 8, Allied forces, including the 2nd Armored, started hemming in the German 1st Army in the Falaise Argentan Gap.
“British, Canadians and the U.S.,” said Hendrickson. “We were to seal off the gap, connect the two cities. The German general surrendered his whole army — the field was full of the German army.”
According to history books, about 50,000 Germans surrendered.
“After that, we made a mad dash for Belgium,” said Hendrickson.
The Hell on Wheels was the first American unit to reach Belgium, for which it received a commendation from the Belgian government.
“Belgium cited us twice,” said Hendrickson. “My division was part of being the first army to enter Belgium, the other time was for the Battle of the Bulge.”
Hendrickson and the 2nd Armored Division were part of the biggest tank battle on the Roer Plain, action that was a precursor to the Battle of the Bulge. Hell on Wheels lost 17 tanks before the Germans withdrew across the river.
“The 7th Armored replaced us while we regrouped,” he said. “I began to see a lot of German airplanes. This big tank battle we had with the Germans was a diversion while they built up their forces in the Ardennes.”
The 7th Armored was dispatched to reinforce Allied troops in the Ardennes.
“We saw a lot of 7th Armored tanks and Jeeps with swastikas on them; the Germans had used the tanks,” said Hendrickson, of the 2nd Armored’s march to the Ardennes. “We went 100 miles in 24 hours.”
The 2nd Armored ran into the German 5th Panzer Division in Celles, Belgium, on Dec. 24 and 25.
“We hit them head on. ... We completely destroyed the 5th Panzer Division,” said Hendrickson. “It’s in our citation.
“The weather was so bad. ... The snow was so bad. Foggy, cold, below zero. The infantry was just really pitiful, living in the cold.”
At this point, Hendrickson said, he was put back into a tank.
“I pulled a roadblock [duty],” he said. “There were five in a tank, on eight-hour shifts. We’d take turns getting out and stomping our feet to get warm. It was like sitting in a deep freeze — your breath froze and frosted.”
Hendrickson still deals with the frostbite his feet suffered during the battle.
Drafted at the age of 18, Hendrickson spent 32 months in the Army. Three of his four brothers also served. A cousin was killed.
Hendrickson, who never spoke about the war during the years his children were growing up, now has plenty of stories to tell. Like the time time his unit was lost.
“We turned off, made a loop, and heard a tank in front of us,” said Hendrickson. “We were driving blackout. We stopped, trying to figure out where we were and what we were going to do.”
Looking at tank tracks, Hendrickson’s lieutenant realized it was a German tank, and ordered Hendrickson to go check it out.
“Sure enough, it was a German tank,” said Hendrickson. “We reversed real carefully.”
Or the story where Hendrickson’s lieutenant, who carried a 45, asked if he could take Hendrickson’s Tommie Gun. Hendrickson refused.
Following World War II, Hendrickson returned to Centerburg, where he married and raised his children.
Hendrickson was in the war from start to finish. He was part of the first troops in North Africa, and his division served as honor guard at the Potsdam Conference following Germany’s surrender. He has six battle stars, one for each campaign he was in, and two citations from the Belgian government.
But the one thing he wants everyone to understand is that he is no hero — he is just one of many who did their duty, serving their country when they were called.