One day at D-Day
VIDA: Not many men these days could put on the uniform they wore when serving in World War II. One who can is Ennis Nestle of Vida. He won’t do it in the summertime because it would be too hot to don the all wool clothing.
As a 24-year old McKenzie River guide, Ennis had two choices in 1943 - sign up or be drafted. He picked the second because it gave him eight days to notify his “fisher people” that he’d be unavailable for a while.
He was a little put out to learn volunteering meant there’d be no chance of advancement beyond a Private First Class, recalling he responded, ”You’re a little choosy, aren’t you?” That limitation was more than made up for when he was issued his serial number: 39330775. “My God. Those are all lucky numbers, every one of them. This is going to be interesting,” he thought. And it was.
Assigned to the 37th Amphibious Combat Engineers, Ennis’ civilian life had given him insights to some of the problems they’d deal with, including bridge construction. The first one he encountered was a training exercise. Unfortunately, the material used was green eucalyptus, a poor choice. He advised not to run a tank over it and left the scene, not wanting to see it take an 89-foot tumble. Afterwards the lieutenant he’d been talking to tracked him down to give him his first of many advancements in rank.
The day the world had been waiting for arrived on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed on the beach in Europe. The waves were high that day, adding to the challenge of going from a troop ship to a landing craft. Then there was the seven-minute time allotment to get to dry land.
The craft Ennis was in hit a sandbar so he had to swim for it, shimmying out of the full pack that was dragging him down. Luckily he still had with him aerial photographs taken only hours before that clearly showed the mines he’d been assigned to deal with. He was on Georgia Beach, about a mile north of Omaha Beach where the rest of his battalion had gone. But he wasn’t truly alone, even though his first encounters were with the wounded – a colonel who’d already had 3 shots of morphine and another man with a leg cut off “slick as a whistle.”
Moving the body of the second man sideways to clear his way through the barbed wire, he found everything was connected and moved to the right to open up a clear pathway. That exposed a Navy medic team just behind at the bottom of a hill where he started carrying over other casualties.
Getting back to his job of clearing the minefield, the photos came in handy because they clearly showed dead grass where each charge had been buried. Using his bayonet to check for any connecting wires under the surface, he made his way back to the body with one leg. Just as he got there two mortars came in – “right between my feet and that guy’s head.”
When they exploded Ennis let out a yell for help. In response a battleship in the sea just behind him fired directly at, and hit, the mortar crew. “There was no noise, no bang, no nothing but a phfft,” he remembers. “It was just like that.”
The combination of the poor powder in the mortar shells – that didn’t even penetrate his boots – and the quick response to his call for help came from a higher power, he believes. “I found that I had an archangel, Michael – the angel of war. He was right there and he’s the one that got the battleship in there. It was the only help I had and he stayed with me for the war.”
After a quick look at his hand by the medics, Ennis went back to his job, declining a sling because it would only get in the way. He scoured the area, gathering up 28 landmines, pushing in their locking pins and bending the key to secure them. He piled them up in a mound for the infantry to dispose of.
That night he went halfway up a hill to get settle down. Just as he did, a German bomber appeared dropping its load of bombs all along a line about 50 yards in front of him. “Let the Navy take care of that,” he thought, “because they’re sitting out there waiting for some action. By gosh pretty quick the motor quit and down he come.” Again, he remembers, the guns they used made no noise – just a phfft. “It was a quiet war,” he said.
On June 7th he was sent back to England. “They transferred me from the Navy back to the Army. I was in the Navy all the time I was on D-Day – only one day. That’s when the medals started coming in.
After spending three months in the hospital a lieutenant showed up carrying a jacket with his name on it. On one shoulder was the insignia for the Seahorse Battalion of the Navy. On the other was the Army’s Amphibious Engineers. It also had a French fleur de gear decoration. “You’re the only one I ever knew who won one,” the lieutenant told him.
Ennis said he didn’t get to keep it, or even look in the pocket to see why he had won the honor. A transfer agent came running up and grabbed it away saying, “no one was going to wear something more valuable than what the United States has.” Ennis reaction was, “Hell, go ahead and take it.”
Editor’s Note: In honor of Veteran’s Day, more of Ennis’ recollections will appear next week.
Image above: Ennis Nestle, 92, was a Combat Engineer with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II.
McKenzie River Reflections