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D-Day veteran went 'to hell and beyond'

June 05, 2009|By DAN DEARTH

FUNKSTOWN -- Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, an armada carrying 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops departed from ports in southern England for the coast of Nazi-occupied France.

Among the members of the Allied invasion force was Hagerstown resident Kenneth Jones, a 20-year-old Army corporal who had joined the 29th Infantry Division shortly after the United States entered World War II.

The 29th was a patchwork of men from the mid-Atlantic region, including about 40 from the Hagerstown area. Until D-Day, the unit never saw combat.

Jones said his mind was flooded with anxiety as the ships made the five-hour trek across the English Channel toward the Normandy coast.

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"I was just wondering what war was like," the 85-year-old Jones said recently from his Funkstown home. "I soon found out -- we went to hell and beyond."

German artillery and machine gun fire intensified as the 29th abandoned the relative safety of the ships to board the smaller Higgins boats that would ferry the soldiers to Omaha Beach.

"It was something," he said. "You couldn't see the water, there were so many boats."

Jones said he and his squad were supposed to set up a mortar and start firing at the German-fortified cliffs as soon as they were able, but heavy resistance stalled the American attack on the beach.

"There was a lot of confusion," Jones said. "There were a lot of dead bodies and wounded."

Among the dead were 11 of the 40 soldiers from Jones' company.

"It was just sickening," he said. "It was a sad thing, but things were happening so fast ... I guess you just didn't have time to think."

Jones said the casualties undoubtedly would have been more severe had the medics not risked their lives amid the German gunfire to tend to the wounded.

"They did a helluva job," he said.

Jones said the first of his two Purple Hearts came on D-Day, when he was hit by German shrapnel. That didn't prevent him from rejoining the fight after he was patched up on the beach.

For the next two days, the 29th would slug its way inland using German fortifications as cover.

"The bunkers the Germans had -- even big bombs couldn't knock them out," Jones said. "Of course, they had four years to fortify that coastline."

Jones said few of the Allied commanders anticipated the fanatical German resistance at Omaha Beach. The Americans were supposed to push about 15 miles inland and take the French town of Saint Lo on the third day of the invasion, he said.

It took more than a month.

After the fall of Saint Lo, the 29th drove its way further into France.

Jones said he was wounded by German shrapnel for a second time on July 30, 1944, as he and other squad leaders met with an officer near a hedgerow.

"Four of us got hit," Jones said. "It didn't touch (the officer). Three of the four (who were wounded) were from Hagerstown."

Jones said he would recuperate for three months in a hospital.

It was there that dispiriting news would visit his bedside in the form of a returned letter that he recently had written to his brother, Jay.

Jones said on the outside of the envelope were the letters "KIA" -- the military's acronym for Killed in Action. He later would discover Jay had died July 31 while fighting in France. He said another brother, Bill, had been wounded six days earlier.

Because all three brothers had been casualties within a week's time, Jones said, the military allowed the two survivors to briefly meet before he rejoined the war.

Jones would return to the front and fight with the 29th until 1945, when the unit arrived in Bremerhaven, Germany.

"That's where I heard the war was over," he said. "We got drunker than hell."

Jones was discharged shortly thereafter and returned to the U.S. In 1946, he married Betty Wolfenberger. The couple had seven children. Three of their sons -- Gary, Harold and Phillip -- would serve in Vietnam.

Betty died eight years ago.

The multitude of family photographs in Jones' home greatly outnumber the few items he displays as reminders of World War II. His medals -- among them a Bronze Star and the Purple Hearts -- are kept in modest cases.

Jones is the only remaining survivor of the Hagerstown unit that fought with the 29th on D-Day. At 17, he was the youngest to join.

"I guess that's the reason why I had to outlive the rest of them," he said. "It goes with the territory. I'm just biding my time."

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