William E. D’Huyvetters’ family moved to Easton from Fair Lawn, N.J., when he was about 7. After graduating from Easton High School in 1942, he worked at his father’s tannery until the following spring.
Uncle Sam said he needed me. I was drafted into the Army and had basic training at Camp Croft, S.C., along with Henry Kissinger, the future Secretary of State for Nixon. We called him Henny. He was a heck of a nice guy, a smart cookie. He wasn’t in my company, but sure, I talked to him.
I had a good six months of infantry training there. Then I shipped out from Boston in November 1943 on a big freight ship, the USS Explorer, one of the old-timers that was all riveted together. We got halfway across the Atlantic and she broke down. There were German submarines in the area. The rest of the convoy went on, but they left two destroyers circling our ship, shooting off these depth charges, trying to break the submarines apart. We were stuck for two or three days until they got the engine fixed.
In Bristol, England, we took infantry training for the invasion. I was 19 years old, a private first class with the 282nd Port Company [attached to the 5th Engineer Special Brigade]. Our job, after we got settled on the beach, was to unload the food, ammunition, gas and medical supplies that came over on these ships. Whatever the troops needed, we were the ones to supply it to them.
They told us we were going across the English Channel to land in Normandy. Where, how and when, we didn’t know.
Right before the invasion, I met Churchill. We were lined up to get on a ship, a coaster, to take us across the channel, and he was standing at the gate. He shook everybody’s hand that was going on that ship.
“Keep up what you’re doing and do a good job,” he said. “God bless.”
He was a big guy with a big belly and a black suit and a hat and a big cigar. He shook my hand and looked me right in the eye.
We were just getting started across when we went back, because that channel was so rough Eisenhower called it off for a day. The coaster took us back to port, and the next day we went back out.
Early on the morning of June 6, it was hazy. There was a lot of ships, oh geez! They were all over. I’m surprised they didn’t bump into each other. We could see the shore, Omaha Beach, but it was quite a long distance away. The Germans were all in concrete bunkers and they were firing their guns like crazy. Oh, it was loud! We climbed down the netting. We had 80-pound packs on our backs and carried M1 rifles. I dropped 2 or 3 feet to the landing craft. It was bouncing up and down. I didn’t get seasick, but quite a few guys did.
I felt trapped in that boat. I wanted out. Shells were hitting near us and on the shore. I saw planes getting shot down and pilots bailing out over the channel. I was thinking: When they drop the ramp, what are we going to run into? I was so darn scared I was shaking like a leaf.
The guy piloting the landing craft got as close to the beach as he could. I was up by the ramp when it went down. Let’s get the hell out of here! Bullets were flying all over. You had to get off and keep moving, because if you didn’t, you were a dead duck.
We jumped into about 2 feet of water. You could hear bullets hitting and whizzing past you. I knew I couldn’t stand still. Keep moving! Guys were getting hit. I hid behind obstacles the Germans put in the water. One guy got shot, he couldn’t swim, he was lying in the water. I got his head above the water and tried to see where he was shot and if I could do anything for him. I couldn’t. I pulled him in the best I could, so he was on the beach. He died.
I had to keep moving or I’d be killed myself.
On the beach, I tried to help two or three others — they were moaning — but it was taking too much time. You had to stand there to do it, and you couldn’t stand still, because if you did you were surely going to be shot. I could hear the bullets hitting here, hitting there. I saw some of the guys falling.
There was nowhere to hide. Some guys right next to me, a few feet away, got hit and went down. What could you do? What could you do? I prayed, I prayed, I prayed. What’s going to happen if I get shot?
A few times I looked back and saw those big ships fire shells, boy oh boy! When those guns went off, you’d think the whole ship was going to explode. Wow, smoke and noise, unbelievable!
We didn’t run up the beach but we moved pretty rapidly. I yelled as loud as I could: Keep moving, buddies! We got to a place where we could form a company, far enough up the beach that they couldn’t be firing at us as rapidly as they did before, at the base of the bluff. They told us all to dig a foxhole as quick as we could. It’s not as easy as it sounds — stones, rocks. We just had to go deep enough that we could lay our bodies in. That didn’t happen until the afternoon.
We stayed on Omaha Beach four or five days, then we moved inland. Supplies came over on big ships, and these big cranes with nets dropped them in Ducks [amphibious transports]. And then these Ducks would take them in to shore, and after they got to shore it was our responsibility to get the supplies to the troops. But we didn’t do that on the first day.
On June 6, we were just trying to get ashore and stay alive.
Later on, one of the officers came up to me in a Duck and he had a blanket over some men. He pulled the blanket off and he said, “Bill, can you identify them?” They were all men from my company, all dead, three of them lying in a row. I knew them.
I knew them when they were vigorous and healthy.
The war took D’Huyvetters (pronounced DYE-vetters) through northern France to Belgium and Germany. In Antwerp, he dodged German V-1 rockets, the buzz bombs. Near Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, he endured bitter cold. Around Aachen, his unit took over German homes for several days.
“A Russian woman in her 30s would come with a little child — a girl no more than 4 years old — and go through our garbage can to get food to eat. They would take our scraps. That hit me hard, so I gave her half of my meals. She came to me one day and said, ‘You have been so good to me, I want to give you something to remember me by.’ She gave me a little silver cup. I still have it. She said her mother was a waitress for Stalin, and it was on his table, and when they cleaned up, she brought it home with her.”
After occupation duty in Germany, he came home on a Liberty ship and was discharged Dec. 1, 1945, as a technician fourth grade. He took a bus from Fort Indiantown Gap to Easton, arriving about 7:30 p.m.
“My father picked me up at the bus station, down on Northampton Street near the Hotel Easton. He put his arms around me. ‘My boy, my boy,’ he said, ‘I never thought I’d see you again.’ Mom was home making lamb chops. She knew that was my favorite. They had a big banner on the porch of our house on Line Street in south Easton. WELCOME HOME, BILL. Mom was in the kitchen. ‘Come here, son,’ she said, and started crying. She hugged me.”
His brother, Gus, 10 years older, was “out West.” He served in the Army Air Forces stateside.
A girl D’Huyvetters met while training at Camp Croft, near Spartanburg, S.C., and who had written to him while he was overseas, wanted to marry him. Her name was Helena. She asked him to return to Spartanburg, where her family had a dairy farm. Her father would teach him the business and it would be theirs.
“I said, ‘Gee, that’s an awful big move to make. I want to be with my family for a while.’ ”
He ended up not going south. Instead, on Sept. 25, 1947, he married Geraldine Voorhees, a next-door neighbor. His father helped him build a house on Park Road in Palmer Township. It was the couple’s home for 50 years.
D’Huyvetters worked for 35 years at Victor Balata Belting Co. in Wilson.
Geraldine suffered from Alzheimer’s and died in her husband’s arms in 2010 at age 78. A son, Brent, lives in Georgia, and a daughter, Elaine Young, is in Palmer. D’Huyvetters has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He stayed in touch with Helena, who was twice widowed. When she asked him to visit her, he declined.
“I thought it would bring back too many memories,” he said.
He remains in touch with her family.
For his role in the Normandy invasion, he received France’s Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty in 2004 from then-U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. In 2012, D’Huyvetters’ granddaughter, Jenna Young, produced a YouTube video in his honor titled “Embodiment of an American.”
“June 6, 1944, is a day I’ll never forget,” said D’Huyvetters, who is 90 and lives in Moravian Hall Square in Nazareth. “Occasionally I have bad dreams and they wake me up. I think about all the terrible things that happened and the guys that died. They’re buried over there. They gave their lives for our freedom today.
“I’m blessed that I’m not there with them.”
We honor you, William D;Huyvetters.