Today, Henry Gurney is heading to Bedford, Va.
That’s because 65 years ago this weekend, Gurney was in a much different location, aboard a transport ship and preparing to storm the beach at Normandy, France.
“I try to make it to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford every year,” said Gurney. “It is a very impressive looking monument, and it is emotional every time I go down there. It brings back the thoughts of what happened that day.”
Gurney, who was drafted into military service because the recruiter told him when he went to enlist that his number was coming up in a couple of weeks so he should just wait until then, was part of the first wave of soldiers who took to Omaha Beach as part of Operation Overlord.
“You don’t realize what you are a part of until after you get home and everyone is talking about it,” said Gurney. “At the time, I just thought we were doing something that every other soldier was being asked to do. Then I came back and realized that I was probably in one of the biggest campaigns in the war.”
On the morning of June 7, 1944, Gunrey started his day on an English tugboat before loading onto a landing ship.
“The cook on the tugboat was giving the soldiers doughnuts,” said Gurney. “It was the only thing that he could do to support us by then, I guess.”
As the troops approached the beach, the landing ship stopped about “a football field” short of dry land due to obstacles and deployed troops.
“Some guys drowned without getting to the beach,” said Gurney. “We were all loaded down with equipment and there was also still German sniper fire and the German fleet was still coming over.”
Gurney made it to the beach and advanced to the mainland, where he received the first of three gunshot wounds that he would get during his service.
“Once on the mainland, a bullet hit me right square in the center of the helmet,” said Gurney. “It must have come in at an angle, because it hit the helmet, went around the side of the padding and then busted out the back.
“All I had was a small scratch on the front of my forehead,” he added. “There was no medical record of it because I did not go receive care for it.”
Gurney said that he continues to remember the events of that day with the help of people asking him about his experience in the war.
“It helps when I do interviews like this and I also go to the school to talk with students who are studying about the war,” said Gurney. “It helps to bring it back.”
Run as a side-bar
Henry Gurney served in four campaigns in the European Theater during World War II, including Normandy, Northern France, Belgium and Germany. The first Purple Heart he received came as the result of a high-explosive shell he took in northern France that shattered his helmet and left him with shrapnel in his head.
On his way to receive medical attention in England, he was placed in the hold of an Allied ship and received simple K-rations. What he did not know was that those surrounding him were the enemy.
“I had camouflage on because I was a scout and it was just being introduced to the Army and all of the scouts were issued the attire,” he said. “So I am in the hold of the ship on a stretcher, and this guy comes down that I thought looked familiar. Our eyes met and it was Russ Norton – I took geometry with him.
“Our eyes met and he said, ‘what are you doing here,’” he continued. “I told him that I was injured and this is where they had put me. He told me to wait there and came back a little later and told me that I was in with the German POWs. He then brought me up above deck to a nice bunk with clean sheets and warm meals.”
Gurney said that Norton wrote to his father, who notified Gurney’s family of the incident.
“They knew what had happened before the War Department told them,” he said.
Gurney’s third injury came when he was covering a strategic withdrawal for the Allied forces at the Elbe River. Along with receiving a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster for multiple injuries, Gurney also received the Bronze Star for Valor for his actions in protecting the Allied troops.
“We fought like hell to get in there, but we were overwhelmed and got the order to withdraw,” he said. “I was a machine gunner and had to cover the withdrawal. I guess my action in getting those guys out is why I was awarded the Bronze Star.
“I have had people come up to me afterward and tell me that they remember me and thank me for what I did for them in helping them get out,” he said.
Gurney was flown to Paris after the third and final wounding when word came that Berlin had been captured and the Axis forces in the European Theater had surrendered.
“I was very proud to have been a part of that final push,” he said. “At the hospital, it was a celebration. They were blowing up condoms and making balloons that were going all over the place.”