Just west of the mouths of the Douve and Vire rivers, a stretch of level beach on the French Peninsula of Cotentin became a killing ground on June 6, 1944. Overhead, 276 Marauder B-26 bombers dropped tons of bombs on targets from les Dunes de Varreville to Beau Guillot as troops from the 8th Infantry Division scrambled ashore. Ships from Task Force 125 in the English Channel bombarded enemy positions. In the chaos, the oldest soldier on the beach, Brigadier Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. realized they had landed more than a mile from their assigned area. Roosevelt notably stated, “Then we will start the war from right here.” Americans called the sector Utah Beach.
The mounting casualties were not the first born of a former president. They were boys from the tough streets of Chicago and rough boroughs of New York, the vast plains of Texas and coals mines of West Virginia, from thousands of farms across America, and one from an agricultural community in Georgia called Rutledge.
Julius Astin was born into the farming community of Rutledge in 1924. He grew up planting, feeding livestock, doing chores, and walked a mile to school. He recalled Pearl Harbor: “I was 17 years old at the time and kept farming until Uncle Sam invited me to join the war in 1943.” Astin would be leaving Rutledge for the first time.
On basic training at Ft. McClellan, Ala.: “Well, at least I was off the farm,” he said smiling. Trained as an infantryman, Astin eventually boarded a troop ship in New Jersey for the war in Europe. Recalling the voyage, “I lost 10 pounds on that ship. I was seasick the whole time.”
Assigned to the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, Company G, Astin recalled, “I remember our base in England near the Channel. We trained hard because our next job would be a rough one.” By ‘rough’ he meant being in the first assault wave to hit Utah Beach. “I only saw one German plane above the beach,” Astin said. “I don’t know if the pilot strafed the beach or not. Shoot, I was too scared to care.” All the boys were scared, but they had a job to do. He continued, “I lost a few friends, but we got off the beach pretty quick. I got shot at, I shot back, that’s the way it was.”
Their main objective was the vital port of Cherbourg. “We were approaching Cherbourg when a German 88mm round exploded right in the middle of us,” Astin said. “A lot of guys got killed and I took shrapnel in my back, neck and legs.” Astin spent the next three months recovering in an Army hospital in England. “I still carry a lot of shrapnel,” he said. “I still have pieces of it work its way to the surface of my skin, then I have to visit the doctor so he can remove the fragments.”
The farm boy from Rutledge returned to action in September of 1944. His new battleground was the near impregnable Hurtgen Forest. “The Germans were dug in,” Astin said. “We couldn’t make any headway because the forest was thick with vegetation, booby traps and mines. One thing we hated was the airburst 88mm shells. The Germans fused the shells to explode as soon as they struck the trees, sending shrapnel and wood splinters sharp as spears down on us.”
American soldiers became tree-huggers, embracing trees to avoid the shrapnel and spears darting from the heavens. Astin spent one night sharing a bunker with dead men. “You move, you die,” he said. “One thing I remember is waking up every morning and seeing all the fresh replacements. Most of the old guys were gone. These new guys were rookies shuttled in to replace the dead.”
The Battle of Hurtgen Forest lasted from Sept. 19 to Dec. 16 of 1944. The mêlée would be the longest single battle in the history of the U.S. Army, an estimated 33,000 killed, wounded or missing American soldiers. In mid-September, the company commander asked Astin to take over a decimated squad. “I told him to give it to somebody else,” Astin said. “I didn’t want the responsibility.” Astin not only took over the squad but within minutes he was ordered to take over the entire platoon due to the tremendous casualties. “That didn’t last long,” he stated. “My short-lived responsibility ended when a sniper caught me in his sights. I took a round in my left shoulder. My war was over.”
First England, then back to a hospital in the states, Daytona Beach to be exact. “I loved it,” Astin said. “It was like a vacation after the Hurtgen Forest.” As with so many members of the Greatest Generation, Astin downplayed his service in WWII. “Shoot, I just did what I had to do.” Just doing what he had to do meant two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for bravery.
Julius Astin still does his laundry, cuts his lawn, buys groceries and does the housework. On being in his 90s, “You know, I guess that’s not bad for a soldier the military doctors said didn’t have too long to live.” Retired from the construction business, his projects included the Lake Oconee Georgia Power Dam, Coach Vince Dooley’s first home, and as owner/operator of the Standard Oil Service Station in Rutledge. As of this writing, Astin lives 1 mile from his childhood home.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration or comments: email@example.com.