D-Day, 75 Years Ago; Curt Thomas Was ThereBy CECILY BATEMAN,
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." ---Winston Churchill, referencing Operation Overlord.
One doesn't have to travel a country mile to find a soldier who was with the Big Red One, the storied military unit organized in 1917 during World War I and based at Fort Riley, Kansas.
I didn't have to exit The Era-Leader office. Our Editor, Steve Kuperstock, was executive officer (XO) for a battalion headquarters company in the 1970's. Describing his role as gopher for the captain (the CO), Steve explained that he was promoted to 1st lieutenant before departing Fort Riley. He described night drives across Kansas, to and from Fort Riley, the purpose of which was to miss the scenic countryside. He and his buddies joked, "I'd give a dime for a curve in the road."
I fully comprehend. I have been to Kansas. My husband Rodney and I ventured there once with my mother. Having read ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote, she was a wreck, citing the atrocities that took place at the Clutter farmhouse.
But the Big Red One had no fear of anything. On this 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, recognition is owed. It was on June 6, 1944, that Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, a pivotal move in the liberation of Europe from Adolph Hitler and his Nazis. The 1st Infantry Division of the United States Army, nicknamed the Big Red One for its uniform patch, played a critical role in the Allied victory over the Axis in World War II. When Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied forces, gave the final order for D-Day, with the words "OK, let's go," the Big Red One went.
My father's close friend, Curt Thomas, was among the infantry. Mr. Curt's daughter Nancy Miller and I enjoy pouring over pictures from our late fathers' 1994 tour of Europe. Twenty-five years ago, they travelled together to France for the 50th anniversary of D-Day on Omaha Beach where President Francois Mitterrand of the French Republic, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and President Bill Clinton of the United States, among a host of other dignitaries, presided. But Mr. Curt and his fellow soldiers were the real dignitaries.
His story was best told by renowned columnist, Moggie Bickham, in a feature article in The Era-Leader, dated June 1, 1994. Though she included the stories of Ford McKenzie with the 101st Airborne and my father, a liaison pilot with the 8th Infantry Division, interviewing all three, it was Mr. Curt who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, part of Operation Overlord.
Actually, arriving by landing craft, he waded to shore. Twenty years old, Mr. Curt had joined the Army in September of 1943. His role prior to D-Day was that of Company Aide Medic with the 1st Infantry in England. In his interview with Ms. Moggie, Mr. Curt set the scene: "We were living in pup tents somewhere in the country. We knew the invasion was coming, we just didn't know when. After one false alarm, we were told to pack our bags and we were sent further south. One morning we went to breakfast and you wouldn't believe what they gave us: Any thing we wanted. I had four eggs on my plate. It was the first eggs I had seen since we left the States. We knew something was up right then…" "Later we were told we were going on maneuvers, but they gave out new rifles, new shoes, waterproofing kits, all that kind of thing. I got a new medical bag full of equipment and medicine. I looked in it and saw it had morphine and lots of sulfa milamide and codeine and I thought, 'This isn't any maneuvers!'"
Once loaded on the ship, Mr. Curt described the situation: "We all had numbers on our helmets and were moved around by those numbers. Nobody was telling us anything except where to go. My number group was waiting topside. Just before dawn we were wakened by the guns. All over the water were ships as far as you could see. We waited until late afternoon and then a landing craft came and got us. We were to replace the first wave. When we got to the beach there were soldiers with rakes scooping in bodies and parts of bodies from the waves. I'll never forget it." Transported inland in a truck, it was three days before they reunited with their unit --- only half of them remained. As Mr. Curt explained: "We were separated from them and when we caught up only about half of the original group was still there. Some had been killed, others wounded…I don't know."
Then, Mr. Curt headed toward Germany where on December 15 in the Hurtgen Forest he stepped on a mine during the Battle of the Bulge. Describing the dire circumstances, he said: "When I went down, someone threw me a medical kit and I tied a tourniquet on my leg. I got a shot of morphine and gave it to myself and poured sulfa milamide all over the stump. I guess I saved myself because I was a medical aide and knew what to do. I wasn't scared until they started marking the mines and saw that one was only a foot from where my head lay. Then I got scared!"
He returned home to Washington Parish following nearly a year of rehabilitation and medical treatment and an honorable medical discharge. A Purple Heart recipient, Mr. Curt was the long-time Assessor of Washington Parish. He and his wife Wanda had two daughters, Nancy and Cathy, and a son Allen. But long before --- seventy-five years ago tomorrow --- he crossed the English Channel and waded ashore with the Big Red One, playing a significant role in liberating Europe from the Nazis.
•Please read my column, to be published later this year, on the late Ford McKenzie, another Franklinton 1st Infantry Division veteran. Mr. McKenzie parachuted into France on D-Day.