EDITOR’S NOTE: The “We Were Soldiers Once” profiles are researched and written by Perry Giles, one of the founding members of the Ellis County Veterans Day Appreciation Committee. Giles’ columns are written in first person based on information compiled from newspaper articles, letters from home and interviews with family members. The features will be published each week through Veterans Day.

We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...

My name is Jessie Cleveland. But everybody calls me “Henson.” I was the seventh of 12 children, and was born and raised east of Ennis near the Trinity River. When I was just a young kid, I got my right hand mangled in an accident and lost my index finger and part of my middle finger.

My dad was a farmer and he also worked at the cottonseed mill. I attended Liberty School at Peeltown. After dad retired from farming he did some commercial fishing on the river. I helped him every time I could.

I grew up in the country. We had to do everything the old-school way, you know, build our own stuff,  grow your own food, shoot your own meat, catch your own fish and fix our own problems.

After my schooling, I worked in construction jobs and became a fairly good carpenter. Then I met this girl from the Chatfield area; her name is Julia Ray. After a while we got married and started our life together. Life was good, even if it was during a depression.

I landed a good construction job in Houston, so we made the big move south. We had a baby, but it died in childbirth. That was a really tough thing for us to go through, but hopefully we will have another baby someday, but only time will tell.

After the war started, our company got a big contract to build modular homes. We were hauling them in sections up to the new Red River Army Depot and putting them together on site.

Working that job, I sometimes lived temporarily in an apartment in Hooks, Texas, near to Texarkana. That is when I received my draft notice. I reported to the draft board and they questioned me about my hand. Being right-handed, they asked me if my crippled fingers gave me any problems. I told them no, I can shoot just fine with my middle finger.

In January of ’43, I was inducted into the Army in Houston and spent the next several months in West Texas in training. I had never seen such dry countryside as that was.

I am glad it’s the Army they put me in instead of the Navy because I‘ve never been a good swimmer. Having a background in construction, they put me with the engineers. After all, I guess the Army can use some good carpenters.

We shipped out for England as part of the big buildup for the invasion of Europe. After arriving at the southern tip of England in Cornwall, we settled into a life of forced marches and PT. When not working, we played a lot of softball.

We expected to stay here in Cornwall for a time after D-Day and then be given a routine assignment somewhere in France, but this all changed! New orders came down that we were to start training immediately in the art of demolition. We were to become explosives experts and go in on the first waves of the invasion.

You can imagine the surprise and shock that we felt. Yesterday, I was a construction soldier and now I am an explosive expert that can’t swim, going in with the first wave. I had to sit down for a while and reconsider my prospects of ever seeing my wife again.

In mid-April of ’44, we were teamed up with a naval combat demolition unit and given intensive training with C-2 plastic explosives, fuses, blasting caps and primacord. We were now part of a gap assault team and our mission was to take down the beach obstacles at our landing site.

In the beginning, my team was made up of us five Army engineers, five Navy demolitions men and three Navy seamen to help out with the boats and our gear. I actually got to where I enjoyed the work but I didn’t care for training in the deep surf.

We learned how to waterproof all our fuses and other gear with a thick sticky grease. You could say that we learned to waterproof ourselves as we took a saltwater bath twice a day as we practiced jumping from our landing craft into the cold rolling surf. My uniform spent a lot of time hanging on the clothes line.

One day while we were practicing blowing up steel obstacles, there was a bad accident. A soldier that had been sleeping in the sand dunes more than 100 yards away was killed by flying steel fragments. He wasn’t supposed to be there. This was a sobering demonstration of the lethality of what we were working on.

The day before we were to pack up and leave for the marshalling area, one of the fellows had a quarter-pound block of TNT go off in his hand. It was a gut wrenching disaster for us. Melvin died four hours later. He was well liked by everyone and what made it seem even worse was because he was such a talented guitar player. I started to really wonder about my chances of surviving this invasion.

Once inside the marshalling area near the Isle of Portland, we were kept inside a perimeter fence and armed guards for about 10 days. That time was spent getting our explosive packages ready and squared away in a large rubber raft.

Our outer fatigue coveralls to be worn over our wool uniform were impregnated with a smelly dope designed to protect us from chemical or poison gas. A large black No. 8 was painted on the back of our coveralls so we could be recognized by our tankdozer and the infantry that was to follow us in. We were Gap Assault Team No. 8.

On June 1, we moved to Portland Harbor and were introduced to our 112-foot-long landing craft tank (LCT). It was towing the 50-foot landing craft mechanized (LCM) that would take us in to the beach.

There were three Sherman tanks already on board and one of them was the tankdozer that would follow us on to the beach. Our 500 pounds of C-2 explosives in our rubber raft were placed in the center of our LCM. In addition, there were our fuses, blasting caps and rolls of primacord. We also had several bangalore torpedoes for the final push through the barbed wire at the seawall.

Our C.O. called us together and gave us the lowdown on our mission. He said, “You have been given the most vital mission and perhaps the most deadly job on Omaha Beach. Our team will land at H-Hour plus three minutes and clear a 50-foot path through the wooden and steel obstacles on the Easy Green Sector, right in the middle of Omaha Beach, so the men and equipment following us can drive through the obstacles right up on to the beach. We have to get into Normandy and rescue our paratroopers or they will all be murdered. The German defenses where we are landing are probably more concentrated than at any other place along the entire beach-head. The entire plan, the outcome of this war depends on you men taking Omaha Beach!”

No one spoke. There was a very loud silence. It was at this moment that I felt the cold fingers of fear grip on to my heart. I had not been afraid, not until now. But the responsibility bore down on me like a ton of lead. We just looked around at each other and nobody said a word. And me, I’m just a carpenter.

Our LCT left the harbor on the afternoon of June 4. It was terribly stormy weather with high winds and choppy seas. We gathered in a massive collection of minesweepers, fighting ships, assault crafts and barrage balloons. We spent a miserably cold and seasick night bobbing up and down moving slowly toward Normandy, but about midnight the ship reversed course and returned to Portland Harbor. Word is that we have been postponed because of the weather.

Then we left again on the afternoon of June 5. The rough seas kept us wet, cold and seasick. I have never seen so many guys puking all at the same time.

Then they read General Eisenhower’s message to us: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.” It gets a fellow to thinking.

The seas were so punishing that two nearby LCTs lost sections of their side rails and seawater was sloshing over the poor fellows aboard. I don’t know how they’ll keep from sinking.

In the dim light, there were boats as far as the eye could see. Some of the boys starting singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Others sang “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I was just doing a whole lot of remembering.

It was now early Tuesday morning, the 6th of June. They offered us a meal of wieners and beans, but I didn’t have much of an appetite.

In the dark at 0330, we picked up our gear and our rifles in their transparent waterproof plastic sleeves and moved over to the heavy rope nets. We said goodbye to everyone on the deck, and scrambled down into our wildly bobbing LCM. We could hear but could not see many planes passing over us.

Our LCM took off, joined up with other landing craft and began circling in a big counterclockwise pattern. This circling pattern seemed to last forever and the puking started up again. Our boat was like a cork bobbing up and down. We were so miserably cold and sick that we were ready to land just about anywhere. It’s hard to feel scared when you are so sick.

My head was spinning with thoughts, with memories. I am a 29-year-old Corporal, Tech 5, of B Company of the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion attached to the Naval Combat Demolition Unit 137. And I honestly don’t know how I got here today, with the first waves on an invasion.

Suddenly we straightened out and headed for the beach. I tried to look forward toward where we were headed; most everything was obscured by the fog and the mist. Every 10 seconds or so a wave would slam against our steel ramp and make a loud crashing sound, spraying cold water down over the top of us.

Just as we passed by the bow of a huge battleship, I looked up and saw the name “TEXAS.” Moments later, without warning, she fired the first broadside of the invasion. The belching flame and brown smoke of her 14” guns was in itself quite a spectacle, but the concussion of the blast was unbelievable to me. It would have blown off my helmet had my chinstrap not been fastened.

All the other ships started firing over us. The sudden, slamming thud of naval gunfire, even though our own, was enough to cower the bravest of the men. It sounded as if they were shooting whole railway cars across the sky just above us.

As first light began to streak the cloudy sky, we could see great numbers of our bombers overhead all with the alternating black and white invasion strips painted on the wings. Give ’em hell, Air Force!

A short distance west of us, the LCTs let loose with several volleys of hundreds of rockets each. Once again, the sound of it made most of us duck down. Untold dozens of rockets leapt arching upward with great tongues of fire and making the ear-piercing scream of something unearthly.

Watching the flashing crash of the rockets on the hillside above the beach gave us some comfort. There were secondary explosions, probably some of their land mines going off, and grass fires started burning on the cliff. At the very least, they were all now awake.

As we came closer, our Navy gunner began hosing down the beach ahead with his .50-caliber machine gun. We then saw several dead GIs in the water face down, bobbing and rolling in the surf. This was unnerving as we were only a couple minutes behind the first men to land and these poor guys aren’t even close to the beach.

As we approached the beach, I could see splashes in the water around us. These were coming from the Germans. I immediately lost interest in being an observer and ducked down behind the sidewalls. I tried to work up a spit, but could not.

The sounds of gunfire and the thump of explosions began to increase in volume and intensity. I looked at some of the fellows around me, their faces were white. I guess mine was too. An occasional bullet started to clank loudly against our steel ramp.

Some of the guys started to pray. Most of them were just teenagers or barely older. I thought to myself: This is really serious business. I may get myself shot today. I may even get myself killed today, but being one of the oldest men on my team, as scared as I am, I have to be an example to these boys.

The coxswain yelled out, “30 Seconds!” Our C.O. shouted, “This is it, boys!” Pulling the plastic sleeve off my rifle, I said over and over, “I can do this. I can do this.”

Our Navy coxswain ran the LCM hard into the sand and the ramp dropped suddenly with a great splash. In an instant, I was down the ramp and running in water that was just over my boots. We were still 400 yards from the seawall and at least 100 yards from the outer most row of obstacles.

There was a fortified house up on top of the seawall and I began to see the wink, wink of gunfire from the windows. We hurried inland, zig-zagging through the ankle deep water toward the first line of wooden pole obstacles.

I could see no DD-tanks or infantry up in front of us as was the plan. It was 0638 and we were on Easy Green beach all by ourselves. We were it!

The German machine guns opened up on us and the bullets starting hitting the water like so many raindrops, making a “sip-sip” sound. We began taking casualties and there were cries of “Medic!” heard from several different directions.

Another Texan in our unit named Ivey took a bullet through the wrist, but he refused medical attention, telling the medic to help someone else. He kept firing away as fast as he could – with his wrist obviously broken. I spotted a dark figure move on the seawall and fired off several shots.

Sprinting in short dashes, hitting the ground and staying low was the only means of survival. We all spread out and took cover behind the wooden poles and work began in earnest in tying our C-2 package onto each obstacle. A 12-inch pole didn’t really offer a whole lot of protection but it sure felt better than being exposed out in the open.

Most of the poles had a German Tellermine attached to the top of it, and we tried our best to place our C-2 package close to the mine. Some of the boys required a boost on someone’s shoulders to reach the mines.

One of the younger fellows was down on his back, his head pointed toward the beach, his blood streaming out on the wet sand. He was crying out, “Mother! Mother!” There was nothing I could do.

I raced frantically through the wounded from one obstacle to the next, placing the package. The German MG-42 machine guns were tracking our every move. Bullets were hitting the pole above my head and showering me with splinters and larger chunks of wood. My hands were shaking so bad I could hardly tie off the C-2.

We starting rolling out the primacord to every one of our charges. The din of battle was really picking up now. We had to scream into each other’s faces just to be heard.

Without warning, a terrible blast came from a big gun just behind me. I dove from the shock of it in behind a wooden pole. I turned just a little to see our tankdozer just feet behind me. I had no idea it was there and the blast of its gun nearly blew out my eardrums. Now all I could hear was a loud ring.

Kneeling there, trying to clear my rifle and regain my senses, I turned to see two unknown faces of young GIs huddled in behind me. Their eyes looked at me as if pleading for help. I shouted, “Get out of here! We’re fixin’ to blow! Get off the beach!” It was the only help I could give.

I struggled to my feet and tested my legs, to see if they would hold me up. They did, and I moved forward to rejoin the effort.

Within minutes, everything was set to blow with all the primacord tied together. Purple smoke canisters were thrown to each side of our gap. The 45-second detonator was set and we all moved a short distance inland as the blast went off. It made quite a mess of poles and firewood bouncing in the surf.

I noticed a soldier sitting on the sand with his back to the Germans. Small-arms fire was kicking up sand all around him. We yelled for him to take cover but apparently he didn’t hear us. When I looked back over there, he was slumped over in the sand and the water sloshing around him was slowly turning pink.

The only way to describe this place: Someone has opened up the gates of hell, and we have run straight into its jaws.

Now we moved toward the steel hedgehogs. They were next in line and a little closer to the seawall. The German fire only increased in intensity as we worked closer to shoreline. The striking pop of “clank-clank-clank” grew louder as the bullets were now hitting the steel hedgehogs in front of us.

The tide was already starting to come in and our time was running out. There were lots of troops and tanks due to pile up behind us here at any minute. I could see the landing craft approaching in the distance.

Keep moving! Got to stay low! I ran past Tom Wilkins, who was in behind a hedgehog tying on his C-2. He screamed at me to take cover.

I yelled back, “I’ll still be going when you’re dead and gone!”

Somebody has to clear this path! And I will do it!

I felt something strike my neck and I was spun around.

My job is done now.

Remember us… For we were soldiers once, and young.

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