Editor's Note: Beginning today, the Clinton Herald will publish a three-day series commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday. Today's installment features the story of Paul Heun, a Fulton, Illinois, man who was drafted into the U.S. Army and was in the first wave of the land invasion at Normandy, France, on June, 6, 1944.
On a cold January day in 1948, with temperatures hovering near the zero mark, a 5-year-old girl stood with her mother and her grandparents on the platform at the Chicago Northwestern train station in Clinton, awaiting the arrival of a passenger train from Chicago – a train that was carrying a very special passenger on the last leg of a very long journey.
In due time the train pulled into the station, and the family members were greeted by a man in a U.S. Army uniform who introduced himself as Cpl. Russell Fox. While others were busy in their travel plans of coming and going and exchanging greetings and saying farewells, the family and Cpl. Fox gathered in front of a baggage car, and when a rail worker slid open the door, the little girl knew that the special passenger had arrived.
For there in the car was the flag-draped coffin of her father, Private Paul J. Heun, Company E, 16th Infantry Regiment of the First Division of the United States Army. After a period that spanned 4 1/2 years, Private Heun’s journey had come to an end. He had returned home to his family, his friends and his community. But what a journey it was for this young man who grew up in Garden Plain near Fulton, Illinois.
This is a story about that journey.
The preparation for Private Heun’s journey began in mid-July 1943. That month, and just a year after becoming eligible for the draft and dutifully presenting himself for registration at the Whiteside County draft board, civilian Paul Heun received a letter in the mail. Upon opening it he read the words that would be read in identical letters by over 3.3 million Americans that year:
"Greeting: Having submitted yourself to a Local Board composed of your neighbors for the purpose of determining your availability for training in the armed forces of the United States, you are hereby notified that you have now been selected for training and service in the Army. You will, therefore, report to the Local Board named above at....."
The letter went on to give a report date just 10 days out and an hour and location. He was advised to inform his employer (the Pillsbury Feed Mill in Clinton) and to pack enough clothing for three days. The letter further informed him that if he passed the physical and other exam requirements he would be inducted immediately into the Army. So, on or about July 31, 1943, Heun and others from the area were transported at government expense to an induction center located at the Army’s Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois.
After a day of being herded like cattle and poked and prodded by military medical personnel, he was found fit to serve, took the oath of allegiance, and on July 31, 1943, found himself to be Private Paul J. Heun, U.S. Army, Serial Number 36678159. His term of service was open-ended – until hostilities cease plus six months. There would be no returning home for farewell parties and hugs. No return to Fulton anytime soon to see his wife Leona and his daughter. Private Heun was in the Army, and within days of arriving at Camp Grant, Private Heun received his first orders – he was to be transported by train to the Army’s Camp Wolters, in Mineral Springs,Texas.
Camp Wolters, located 75 miles west of Dallas, was one of several and the largest of the Army’s Infantry Replacement Training Centers. Private Heun’s orders assigned him to the Second Platoon, Company C of the 55th Infantry Training Battalion. For the next 17 weeks, Private Heun, along with 54 others in Second Platoon, would be transformed from farm boys and city kids into soldiers. The training, along with hours of calisthenics and a good diet, would create in Private Heun a disciplined and confident infantryman who was physically fit and well-trained.
After finishing Basic at Camp Wolters, Heun was able to travel home in December and spend a few furlough days with his family. But his time would pass too quickly, and before Christmas arrived he would leave once again, this time for the Army’s Fort Meade in Maryland for POR, Prepare for Overseas Replacement duty.
There he was issued additional clothing as needed, received inoculations, had his blood typed, received orientation on what to expect overseas, and was checked for physical and medical condition. Within 30 days of arriving at Fort Meade, Heun boarded a troop ship bound for England. The most that he could do to inform his family regarding his destination was to fill out a military change of address card that would indicate his unit and an obscure Army Post Office address. What he could not tell them – because he did not know – was that he was being prepared to be a part of the largest amphibious invasion in world history.
When he arrived in England, Private Heun was assigned as a replacement in the battle-tested 16th Infantry Regiment of the Army’s First Division. Battle hardened after defeating the Germans in North Africa and then Sicily, the regiment had arrived in England in early November and was encamped in the southwest England county of Dorset, in and around some 20 villages with such names as Dorchester, Puddletown, Bridport, Blandford, and Lyme Regis.
Living out of Quonset huts, they were there to reequip, replenish and train for the Allied invasion of Europe. Heun was assigned as a replacement in the regiment’s Company E, a force of approximately 200 enlisted men and officers. In an April 19 V-mail letter to his uncle, Clarence Bos, he wrote regarding his company, "I like it fine". What Private Heun could not have known at that time was that Company E, because of its combat experience, would be one of four companies from the regiment that would make up the first wave of infantrymen to land on the Normandy beaches. Over a period of the next five months Company E, including Private Heun, and the other companies in the 16th Infantry would organize, train and practice for an assault on a beachhead using sea-born landing craft designed especially for that purpose.
While the training during this period for Private Heun and his company was intense, there were off-duty passes to be offered and opportunities to venture into the villages and mix with the English locals.
There were movies for the troops, dances, USO shows, including visits by the Glenn Miller Band and Bob Hope, and church services in Bridport. In April, Heun saw General Eisenhower, who came to present the company with an award for winning a rifle marksmanship competition. For many of the troops, and likely Private Heun as well, if they could not be home, being hosted in this part of England was the next best thing.
As the date for the invasion approached, Company E, and the entire infantry division, moved out of its village locations in Dorset County and into marshalling areas near the English ports of Weymouth and Portsmouth. To maintain the secrecy of the invasion force, each camp was secured and guarded by military police. There were no passes to be handed out, and no coming and going of the troops. Company E’s camp was in a wooded area outside of Dorchester and surrounded by barbed wire. Training was effectively over, and the troops were in a waiting mode.
In a V-mail letter to his father, Albert, Private Heun wrote from what would have been at the time Company E’s marshalling camp: "There isn’t much for me to do. I got up this morning and ate breakfast. Tell John (one of his brothers) we had pancakes and were they good."
But by now Private Heun and his company knew all of the details of their part in the invasion, save the date and the hour. They knew that they were going ashore at Normandy and they knew what the Germans had in store for them upon their arrival. In a May 22 V-mail letter to his father, Private Heun wrote: "Well I suppose you are also waiting anxiously by your radio every day. I guess you know what I mean....... We hope and pray that this war will be over soon and also hope and pray that the good Lord will guide us through and if it be his will that we come back home."
On June 3, Private Heun and Company E boarded the attack ship USS Henrico and sailed into the Channel in preparation for the attack. During the period on the Henrico, the cramped and crowded troops of Company E had little to do to but think about and await the day of reckoning.
At 3:30 a.m. June 6, after a Navy breakfast of bologna sandwiches and coffee, Company E was called to the disembarkation stations, and at 4:15 a.m. the troops started to make their way over the sides of the Henrico, down rope scramble nets and into the awaiting landing crafts.
The weather was not good and the landing crafts were rising and falling on 6-foot waves as the infantrymen were boarding. This complicated and made the boarding process dangerous, requiring the soldiers to jump from the scramble net into the landing craft at a point when the craft was high in the water, a daunting task considering the weaponry and gear that each soldier was carrying.
As a landing craft would become loaded with its complement of 32 or so soldiers, it would pull away from the Henrico and then circle in the area, while other craft were loaded from the Henrico and other ships that were disembarking troops. As the landing craft circled, the rough Channel waters caused the men to become seasick, and many of the soldiers, veteran and green alike, to vomit.
In addition, the combination of rough seas, wind and heavily loaded landing craft resulted in large amounts of sea water spraying over the sides and bow of the craft, soaking the now sickened soldiers. With some of the landing craft, the bilge pumps could not keep up, forcing the soldiers to use their helmets to bail out water in order to prevent the landing craft from floundering altogether. At 6 a.m., the landing crafts, including those of Company E, lined up in an attack wave and began an 8- to 10-mile run in the rough seas toward Omaha Beach.
There are many eyewitness accounts of the landing of Company E on Omaha Beach, and too many details to be accounted for in this story, but it is sufficient to say that it was brutal and devastating. As the landing crafts came closer to the beach, the troops became aware of bullets striking the ramps. When the landing crafts had gone in as far as they could go, the ramps went down and the German machine guns opened fire on the exposed troops.
Weighed down with 50 to 60 pounds of equipment, the soldiers struggled in waist-deep water as they tried to get to shore in the face of murderous enemy fire. Some of those coming off of the landing craft found themselves in water over their heads, and weighed down with equipment, drowned outright.
Others were hit while trying to make it to the beach and were either killed or drowned. Still others would make it out of the water and be struck down while trying to get to some cover. For those that could make it out of the water there were 300 years of open beach to cross before the bluffs and cliffs could be used as cover from the overhead German guns.
The invasion of Normandy would ultimately succeed, with second and third waves arriving behind Company E and the other initial assault companies. But in the crucible of fire, Company E had been broken and decimated. The after-battle casualty report for Company E on that day indicates that the beginning strength of the company was 211 enlisted men. By the end of the day the company strength was reduced to 85, with the majority if not all the losses occurring within the first minutes of landing. Private Paul J. Heun was one of those casualties.
On June 8, with the beach now secure, the Graves Registration units of the Quartermaster Corp came ashore to begin the process of collecting, identifying, recording and burying the dead. An area in the sands of Omaha Beach was selected for a temporary burial ground for the American fallen at Normandy. In rows on the beach, the American dead were buried, one man to a grave, with each grave, including that of Heun, marked with a stake to which was attached one of the fallen soldier’s two dog tags. This scene could not have been imagined by Private Heun’s family because not until July 6 would his wife, Leona, receive a telegram from the War Department informing her that her husband had been killed in action in France on June 6. No other details were provided.
In the weeks ahead, these fallen heroes would be exhumed from the sands and moved to a new and larger burial spot near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, a village that overlooks the beach. Here a simple white wooden cross with an aluminum plate bearing Heun's name, rank and serial number marked the grave.
By the end of hostilities, over 330,000 Americans had died overseas. Most were buried in temporary military cemeteries like the one at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. In 1947, Congress passed Public Law 368, which allowed the next of kin of the fallen soldier to decide whether they wished the remains of their loved one to be permanently interred in an American-designed and maintained cemetery overseas, or repatriated to the U.S. and placed in a national military or private cemetery. The total cost of repatriation would be covered by the government.
In 1947, Heun’s family received a letter requesting their preference regarding the remains. It was decided that he would be returned to Fulton. In the fall 1947, the work began to exhume and prepare the designated remains at the temporary cemetery in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer for shipment to the U.S.
Once exhumed and identified, Heun’s remains were placed in a brown metal casket, which was then enclosed by a specially constructed wooden container to protect it from damage. The containerized casket was then draped with an American flag that would remain with the casket until it reached its final destination and re-internment in the U.S.
On Oct. 30, 1947, Heun along with 1,051 others from Normandy were loaded aboard the repatriation Liberty ship, Robert S. Burns. The ship left the French port of Cherbourg, France, on Nov. 4, with Private Heun and the other honored dead, and after stopping in Antwerp, Belgium to receive the remains of 3,150 additional fallen servicemen, departed for the Brooklyn Army Base in New York City.
On Nov. 21, his family received a telegram from the Army Quartermaster Corp notifying them that Heun's body would be arriving by train in the near future. The containerized casket containing the remains, accompanied by an honor guard, arrived in Clinton in January 1948. His journey was complete. Today, in the Fulton cemetery, a small inconspicuous headstone reminds us of this young man and the journey that he took.
Paul J. Heun Apr 26, 1924
Killed in France D Day June 6, 1944
Co. E 16h Inf.
Tomorrow's installment in this series will feature local women and the war.