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Beaver County's Connection to Private Ryan

By Jack Goddard

Milestones Vol 32 No. 4


One can't really blame Center Township's Vivian Jackson for getting misty-eyed when she sees "Saving Private Ryan". The wallpaper hanger claims it has nothing to do with Tom Hanks or Matt Damon either. Her ties with Steven Spielberg's 1998 hit goes much deeper. You see, the blockbuster immortalizes the 29th division on D-Day, June 6, 1944. And, her father was a member of that unit.

William Jackson, who also lived in Center, Beaver County, had a front row seat in that battle at Omaha Beach in Normandy. He was one of the lucky ones who returned home to tell about it. The informative, World War II Super Facts Book describes it "as the greatest invasion in history".
Although scared, one can just imagine the goose bumps Bill would feel when he squinted overhead to see wave-after-wave-after-wave of 13,175 aircraft. Some small; Some large. He then perhaps glanced out in the water and saw some of the 185,000 Allied troops poised to attack from 4,066 landing ships. Now he could probably see some of the 18,000 paratroopers who were dropped behind enemy lines.

He could make out giant parachutes in the distance. These would be gently setting down 20,000 other military vehicles, including tanks and jeeps. This was an all-out critical time. A setback here would do much to supply the Germans with enough military gear to prolong the long bloody war for possibly years. To review, there were five beaches to control. Canada and British troops were assigned to three, the Gold, the Juno and the Sword. Bill and his comrades hit the Utah and Omaha beaches. But, problem number one erupted. They had the misfortune of running into a German Division out doing maneuvers. They were dug in and had mined both the waters and shore in that area. This is where most of the 347 minesweepers came in handy.

"Virtually everything went wrong at Omaha," was how A War to be Won put it. The clouds obscured the tricky beaches at dawn. Consequently, the heavy bombers propped their loads too late, completely missing their assigned targets. The Navy botched it badly too by dropping amphibious tanks well beyond the drop point. And, many of the 29 Division Infantry tanks were destroyed by German anti-tank guns. Plus, the artillery didn't fare much better. Many of their DUKWS (amphibious vehicles) capsized at sea. Many of the American survivors barely made it to the shores. On the first day alone, 2,500 men died at Omaha Beach. Lastly, the mission came close to failing at Omaha due to several costly blunders by General Omar Bradley.

"We were nearly pushed back out into the sea," explained Allen Levin, who helped Spielberg. He praised the director and was invited to a special showing before it was released to the public. "It was very authentic," Levin said of the movie. "The film brought back a lot of memories."
The memory Vivian has is, "I still don't understand why they drafted Dad. He'd already been in the service for six years! He gets out and he's drafted again at 32 years of age." He was apparently puzzled too. "Drafted and shafted," he was quoted to have said in the June 6, 1994 Beaver County Times. He died at home just short of his 92 birthday, his daughter notes, "on February 2, 2000."

The D-Day attack was originally planned for June 5 but had to be scratched due to the steady drenching rain and heavy winds. Allied weather planes reported that a short break was due June 6. Staff Sergeant William Jackson and his mates were now on stage. They probably, amidst drizzles, left England on June 5 at dusk. His ship would spend the night chugging through the waters of the English Channel for that historic rendezvous off the coast of France. Ships came in from the entire theater. With radios off, paratrooper pathfinders were secretly being dropped down under the cover of darkness at midnight to make the clandestine drop zones.

Jackson's landing craft pitched and swayed. Nerves were tense and the soldiers looked up at the barely visible stars. Some said, "Hail Mary's", some prayed, others just looked on, staring into the darkness. Then came dawn, the sun coming up to shine on the steep cliffs that were their goal. Many knew that they may not be around to watch the sun set later in the day. But, on these brave men went. Vivian pointed out, "That only 20 of my dad's 217-member unit survived."

This was a top-secret mission. "We weren't told where we were going until we were out in the sea," Levin acknowledged. The Germans were taken by surprise as they didn't figure anyone would be fool enough to attack against such an unforgiving and rough terrain. Thus, most of the enemy was dug in and waiting for an assault further south at Pas de Calais.

This beach, further south, was once where the German soldiers went on vacation. Now it was a beehive of activity. But, the Allies instead chose Normandy - and managed to keep it secret. The first reason was obvious: "Why would anyone attack at Normandy?" So, the German army built thousands of bunkers at Pas de Calais and lay in wait. A second reason as to the Allies' choice is that the enemy, who could counter-attack at any of three directions at Calais, could only do so from the south at Normandy.
The former Ambridge wallpaper hanger told in the newspaper article how, "My division raced from the water line to a cliff. They hugged it for cover and then skirted the bottom of the bluff until they found a path that led inland. We'd zig-zag up the hill." He, told of the secret to success. "I knew where to find the hole and hide." His wife had her own theory though. "Ha, he was so skinny, they missed him every time." He added, "When we got to the top, we ran through a small village and back into the country."
He didn't think much of Rambo, John Wayne or those other one-man armies you see on screen. "Heroes died young. We had one guy who like all these young kids, decided he wanted to be a hero. He went up over the hedge row and started out across the field. Then he went down... some of us went out and brought him back. We got his helmet. A bullet had pierced both sides leaving bone and fragment. Some of us were a lot more careful from then on."

Although I call it a great honor, William played it down, "It was just another day. You were sent in to do a job and that's what you did. It was all hell," he had emphasized. "Ha," Vivian mention, "And he joined the first time to ride horses or be a chauffer for the higher echelon. Quite a contrast, huh?"

"He and Mom had dated for a long time, about eight years," his only daughter Vivian pointed out. "But, after he was drafted he told his mom he'd like her to get ready to go to a wedding. She said, "Okay, who's getting married?" Dad answered, "I am." So, while he was on leave from basic training he and his long-time girlfriend wed on August 19, 1942. Vivian said, "It was a real fast simple ceremony. He had his sister and brother stand for them. They had to spend their wedding night at Grandma's and Grandpa's as he had to be back for duty the next day."

Vivian had a sister who died when only 10 years old due to a birth defect. Viv is among the last remaining members of her family. All of her mom's and dad's siblings are no longer with us. Her mother's brothers included Otto, Herman, and Walter, who died while a baby. Her mother, the former Helen Martha May, was blessed with two sisters, Matilda and Emma. Her dad's only sister was Sarah. He had three brothers, Roland, Jessie, and David. Ruth Ann was Vivian's little sister. "She was one smart cookie. I miss her."

That major victory on D-Day brought VE-Day to us quicker. It was as horrid as it was immense. Following a heavy bombardment by the Navy, Germany quickly sent some troops up. The Allies had hoped they'd be kept in the south to ward off another invasion. It didn't work. As Navy shells thundered overhead, the enemy dug in on high ground and returned fire. Many of our troops were cut down by mortar and machine gun blasts, either when jumping into the shallow water from their landing craft or running across the small shores.

To make himself lighter and more agile, Campbell reported that he tossed much of his gear off. This included the pup tent, rain jacket, the blankets and anything else but, "You didn't throw away your rifle, although you felt like it at times." Levin, able to speak six languages, noted, "The waves were huge and pushing our landing craft east towards Utah Beach. We had to gun'er and leave early."

The Germans thought they had Omaha shut down, but gradually men like William and Allan prevailed, with the help of that two-hour constant barrage from the Navy.

Americans clawed and scratched their ways to those draws that led through the cliffs. By afternoon, they had established a foothold on the plateaus above. By sunset, the allies had landed 155,000 men on French soil by aircraft and ship.

Once again our guardian angels were with us in at least one aspect. Enemy commanders, misled by the weather reports, figured it was a good time to take a break while the weather was playing havoc and causing an intermission. Rommel, for example went on leave to take his wife a birthday gift on that day. Other senior officers didn't attend this important battle since they had been sent to Riennes for a war games seminar. Therefore, it put the German defenders in a relaxed mood.

Finally, only troops under common-sense type commanders left their southern posts. Hitler was sleeping and gave strict orders that he, and, only he, had the power to move troops from southern France. He also gave another order - "Do not disturb under any circumstances."

For those who can walk the silent and hallowed cemeteries of Normady, one can see the cost of this victory. A War To Be Won reports that, "the fighting between June 6, 1944 and August 29, 1944, cost the 21st Army 83,045 casualties. And that doesn't include the 125,847 American troops lost. Altogether, Allied losses were about 225,000 while the enemy suffered over 200,000 dead with an additional 200,000 captured."

William, who was an avid gardener, remembered that after pushing the Germans back, he and a buddy went in what was left of a war-torn village: "We were loofing a little booze. My friend found some in a cellar. I went down with my flashlight and settin' between it and us was an unexploded bomb. 'Oh, holy hell,' my buddy screamed as we tip-toed back upstairs."
Vivian recalls her dad as being, "real loving. His family came first. He was strict though. But, he'd been through a lot." "He was a supply sergeant," Levin interjected, "and, a darn good one too. He was very organized and enjoyed making sure everything was just right." His daughter mentioned, "He was a very determined man. A good man." She said that he was working at Sherwin-Williams in Pittsburgh during the big 1936 flood. "He had to carry supplies up to the sixth floor." She noted that they told him he'd never get home in all the water. "I don't know how, but he did!" She then laughed and closed, "He came home from the service on September 15, 1945; he and mom finally got that honeymoon. And Wa-La me!"

A War to Be Won by Will Murray Allan Millett.
Day of Deceit by Robert Stinnett.
D-Day by Terry Ziegler.
Great Land Battles by Col. J.D. Morelock.
June 6, 1944 by Gerald Astor.
Historic Encyclopedia Of World War II, Varied.
Prelude to Downfall by Saul Friedlander.
Twentieth Century by Jerry Cams.
The World Almanac, Varied.
World War II Super Facts by Fred Worth Don McCombs.
Beaver by Jeanne Mooney, June 6, 1994.