West Virginians Were There During D-Day Invasion
The Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 is one of the most profound moments in American history. D-Day was the largest seaborne invasion in the history of mankind and a desperate attempt to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi control.
Our troops had the monumental task of facing battle-hardened German forces. German soldiers were part of the most highly trained and well-equipped military of their time. While German forces had experienced some defeats in North Africa and Italy, they had conquered most of mainland Europe.
Despite the odds being stacked against them, Allied forces persevered. They stormed the beaches of Normandy, sustaining around 10,000 casualties, 4,414 of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. After just less than a month of fighting, the Allied forces were able to establish a stronghold in Normandy, pushing the Germans out.
Thirty-eight West Virginians lost their lives in fighting during D-Day and many more participated in the invasion. These men were like many of the thousands of soldiers that came from across the United States — citizen soldiers.
They were not raised and groomed to become fighters. They were farmers, miners, college students, and factory workers. Despite this, men from communities across West Virginia showed up when their country called upon them — and some made the ultimate sacrifice.
Men like Darius Crites, a painter from Upshur County, who served in the Army’s 393rd Medical Collection Company. He was killed on Omaha Beach during the invasion. According to records from the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, Crites was the first solder from Upshur County killed in the invasion of Europe.
Men like John Henry Shreves of Fairmont, who served as a Seaman First Class for the U.S. Navy and whose landing craft was hit by shore Nazi shore batteries off of Utah Beach. He is listed as being buried at sea.
Another of the citizen soldiers who served was Harrison C. Summers. Unlike the 38 West Virginians who died on D-Day, Summers survived. He was a coal miner from Rivesville, Marion County, and he fought in the 101st Airborne. On the day of the landings at Normandy, Summers was dropped in by parachute and removed Nazi forces from the French farmhouses they occupied in St. Martin-de-Varreville. For his bravery, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross and a battlefield commission.
Before the war ended, Harrison Summers was wounded twice, earning him two Purple Hearts. Following the war, he went home to Marion County where he lived peacefully until his passing in 1983.
Boone County native Pierre “Pete” Gunnoe was part of the 5th Army Ranger Battalion that attacked the most fortified section of Omaha beach. Of the 10-man section, which included Gunnoe, five were killed. Gunnoe himself suffered five wounds, including shrapnel that remained in his body for the rest of his life. He died in Alabama on June 6, 2000, 56 years after the battle.
Many Mountaineers served their country well on that fateful day. It’s nearly impossible to imagine what these men and women experienced during World War II. We have their stories and that is something we must preserve. Those stories live on in places like the West Virginia Archives and History and the U.S. Library of Congress’ History Project.
The stories of the men and woman from this state are a link to our past and they serve to remind us that West Virginians are a patriotic bunch. After all, veterans make up about 10 percent of our state’s population, and West Virginians continue to answer the call to serve.
Of the total veterans in West Virginia, World War II veterans make up 4%. They are the oldest members of the veteran community. The Department of Veterans Assistance works to connect these veterans with the services they need. Those needs range from providing them with round-the-clock care at the West Virginia Veterans Nursing Home or helping them obtain federal benefits at one of the benefits offices located throughout the state.
Our mission is to serve those who have served. And, as long as West Virginians continue to answer the call of duty, we will continue to be here, ready to answer their call when they return home. More information can be found on our website at https://veterans.wv.gov
Dennis Davis, a retired educator, former West Virginia Workforce Development director and U.S. Army veteran, serves as the Cabinet Secretary for the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance. Davis was appointed by Governor Jim Justice to head the Department of Veterans Assistance, the agency that provides claims assistance and other benefits to W.Va. veterans.