WWII veteran: They took me off the farm and took me to war

June 05, 2011|By DAN DEARTH |
  • Robert Blair talks about his experiences during World War II, including the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

Omaha Beach was stained red with blood when the steel door of 19-year-old Robert Blair's landing craft crashed open on June 7, 1944.

A day earlier, on D-Day, thousands of American GIs landed there to begin the Allied invasion of western Europe. The bodies of dead Americans and Germans remained on the beach.

"I remember that day really well," Blair said recently at his Paramount home. "When we got there, I saw nothing but blood. It was one of the most horrible days of my life. I never saw a dead person before the war."

Blair, 86, said his education never advanced past seventh grade. He spent his teenage years on his family's farm in Washington County near the Pennsylvania state line. In 1943, the Army drafted him to join the war effort.

He said he bid farewell to his mother and walked down the lane without soles on his shoes.

"They took me off the farm and took me to war," Blair said. "My mother stood on the porch and said goodbye to me when I left. I never thought I'd see her again."

After the Army trained him to drive tanks and half-tracks at Fort Belvoir, Va., Blair set out on a two-week voyage across the Atlantic to England, where he anxiously awaited the invasion with millions of other Allied troops.

Blair said his unit, the 3rd Armored Division, trained for seven months until it received the signal to go.

"Can you imagine how a kid felt when something like that happened?" Blair said. "They taught us how to kill people. They trained us how to kill people."

'If you weren't scared, you weren't there'

On the morning of June 6, 1944, 160,000 American, Canadian and English infantrymen stormed the beaches of northern France. The night before, thousands of paratroopers landed to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.    

Blair was part of the second wave. The mission of those troops was to drive inland to support the soldiers who established a foothold the day before.

He said fires still burned and the German artillery shells still showered the beach on the second day of the landing.

"I thought I was going to get killed then," Blair said. "If you weren't scared, you weren't there."

The 29th Infantry Division, made up of soldiers from the mid-Atlantic, including Washington County, had cleared a path for the tanks on D-Day.

Blair said the commanders ordered the tank soldiers to push inland to join the war.

"We just kept moving," he said.

After the tanks cleared the beach, they slashed their way through the hedgerows of France and eventually reached the outskirts of Saint-Lo, a strategic crossroads town that German soldiers seized in 1940. Allied air power was called in to rout the German occupiers.

Blair said the explosions were so intense that his 30-ton tank rocked "like a cradle."

During the airstrike, one of the explosions caused a house to collapse on Blair and two other soldiers. He said they survived by eating raw potatoes and drinking beet juice. After two weeks under the rubble, they burrowed their way free, only to see approaching German soldiers walking down the street.

"We played dead," he said. "They went past us. After they went by, we had enough ammunition to take care of them."

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