2009-06-17 / Family

Delivering the goods at Normandy

By Jerry Reid

Jerry Reid/Chesterfield Observer D-Day veteran Walter Duncan Jr. with his wife, Laura
The tractor-trailer rig was alone and silent, except for the cooling off noises all vehicles make after a hard run. All around Walter Duncan Jr. and Ted Cable were other sounds - frightening sounds of war - explosions, airplanes full-tilt overhead and the harsh staccato rat-tat-tat of machine guns. And, unmistakably, there were German voices from the hedgerow at the designated stopping point just inside the last green reflective marker on the side of the road.

Duncan, now nearly 87 years old and living in Chester, doesn't remember everything that happened to him as he followed American troops ashore at Normandy on June 8, 1944. But he does recall how he and his partner high-tailed it back to the beach after delivering their truck full of supplies. There was no sense in staying there; the Germans were on the run, angry and not in a mood to take prisoners.

Duncan was with the U.S Army 855th Ordnance Company, a multi-purpose unit that repaired vehicles of all types and brought gasoline to the troops so the tanks could roll through France on their way to German soil. They delivered, among other supplies, the artillery, anti-tank, rifle and machine gun ammunition to the front. Their loads, flammable and explosive, were just one hot German tracer round from sending the drivers to total oblivion.

From 1942, Duncan was on the way to war to fight for his country. He took basic training at Fort Lee. In November 1943, his unit shipped out from New York and landed in Liverpool, England, and various stations followed, with Duncan and his unit ending up in southern England in the field for two months prior to D-Day. After being moved from truck mechanic to truck driver because of a recurring hernia prohibiting heavy lift work, he was given orders to load his tractor-trailer onto a huge supply ship.

"The motor sergeant came to me one day and said, 'Can you drive a tractor-trailer?' I said, 'I can drive a truck, and that's a truck.' He said I had the job," Duncan recalled.

"They loaded everybody on the boat, the tanks and all of the halftracks went in the bottom with the big box trailers (loaded with parts and supplies). They started loading the moving equipment we were to be driving in the bottom and filled it up. Then, the single units they put on the top first.

"I kept waiting there and waiting there, and I had a trailer on the back of my truck, and I asked one of the guys, 'Am I going to have to float this thing where I'm going?'" Duncan's answer came soon enough, and he was told to back his load up on top of the completely packed ship. "I put it up there, no trouble. I just backed right straight on up there," Duncan remembered.

Duncan wanted to know why he was putting his truck up top…and dead last to board the ship. He was told that he was going to be first off when they hit the beach at Normandy. Duncan was given a compliment - and a bull's-eye - because his superiors believed he could get through the seven or eight feet of water without blocking the unloading ramp for everybody else.

"We landed," he paused emotionally, recalling the wreckage and bodies floating everywhere. "We didn't have any trouble."

His unit didn't catch any artillery fire; those who came before took that brunt and cleared the way for the equipment and supplies to land, so they could replenish the men and engines of war raging eastward.

The trucks had their engine intakes on snorkels good for seven and a half feet of water. Anything over that, and the engine could suck in water and stall, blocking the unloading ramp.

Duncan went off the boat in six feet nine inches of water. He and his co-driver, Ted Cable from Michigan, made it to the beach and kept moving up the road toward their close call with the enemy.

"They had these little green reflectors one right after the other, and they told us to follow those little reflectors right to the end. We did, and we waited and waited. We could hear people across the hedgerow from us. I told Ted, 'Something ain't right here. Nobody's come in behind, and those people over there, I haven't understood a word they've said.'

"'We'd better get out of here,' he reckoned. We left that truck. It was nearly a mile back to where the company stopped," recalls Duncan, and nobody had followed them to the end of the markers

The next day, after observation plane scouting, the unit moved up the road. The Germans had retreated after dark the previous night, never finding or not caring about the truck.

That wasn't the last close call Duncan would have before the war ended in May of 1945. Outside of Liege, Belgium, he was almost gathered up by a German "buzz bomb," socalled because of the pulsating jet engine on the unmanned flying explosive. He got under his truck when the engine quit on the bomb, because that was the silence before the explosion. The force lifted his huge tractor-trailer off the ground and dropped it back on him. He wasn't hurt by the truck, but to this day suffers some eyesight problems from the concussion.

Duncan also recalls having Gen. George S. Patton come speeding up to his unit of gasoline tankers, trying to right a truck that had turned over in a ditch. There was a blackout in effect, but Patton's jeep roared up to them, lights blazing, and according to Duncan, went to each truck and told the drivers to get their rigs moving and drive them until someone shot their lights out. His tanks needed gasoline now.

But regarding what is known as "The Longest Day" and beyond, there were an estimated 110,000 casualties from both sides in the battles for the beaches, with 77,866 of them German. It's estimated 520,000 on both sides were wounded, killed, missing or captured during the whole Normandy campaign lasting from June 6 to August 31, 1944. This total includes 12,200 French civilians.

Duncan saw the effects of U.S. shooting firsthand. "There were more Germans than there were Americans. I saw dead Germans stacked three-feet high in a GMC truck. They were buried there somewhere or another," he recalled sadly.

Duncan knew he was a part of something both grand and horrible, and he was willing to play his part. "We were part of a clock. We might have been the ticker or a hand or whatever," he stated.

It was not his time to die in the carnage, though. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, and he returned to Floyd County, Va. in July. He met Laura Sutphin that August, and on Dec. 21, 1945, they tied the knot. That was 63 years ago. The couple had two sons, and tragically lost one in 2006 when their son, Wallace, owner of a renowned high-performance engine building shop for local stock car racers, succumbed to heart problems. Their other son, Richard, carries on the engine building tradition with great success at Southside Speedway.

Duncan continues the love of automobiles he passed onto his sons, riding in his 1941 Chrysler three-passenger coupe. He also has a rare 1936 Ford Roadster, a convertible with a rumble seat.

Duncan is a member of "The Greatest Generation," and this is his story. Efforts are under way to preserve stories like Duncan's because Normandy D-Day participants are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day.

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