Columbia veteran on D-Day: 'Who wouldn't be scared?'

News-DemocratJune 6, 2014 

The country and Luis Garcia mark a milestone June 6: D-Day's 70th anniversary.

It was the day in 1944 when Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, a World War II turning point in Europe.

Luis, 90, a machine gunner with the 430th Antiaircraft Battalion, was getting ready to ship out of Southampton, England that day.

"Me and all my 145 pounds," he said. "Part of our battalion was in the gulf. We were on the Loring. We didn't get there till the 9th.

"I heard there were 5,000 to 7,000 ships in that channel. Can you imagine? When we were waiting to get in, we could see destroyers shelling German positions in front of us. You could hear the airburst and see the flash. A battlewagon passed us, lobbing shells onto the beach, trying to take out emplacements."

Luis sat at the dining room table of his Columbia townhouse reliving the war: The friends he lost in an instant. The thought that any day could be his last. The sad faces of German girls who had been brutilized and raped by the Russians. Frostbitten soldiers of the Battle of the Bulge who looked like zombies.

""War is hell, mam," he said. "That is a picture that will be in my mind till I kick the bucket."

So will the first night just up from Normandy Beach.

The soldiers climbed down net ropes onto landing ship tanks that took them to the beach.

"The man there was the beachmaster," said Luis. "He had a bulldog. He kept waving us on to get off the beach.

"They wanted to get troops off the beach and get them on the line. The more on the line, the faster they could break German lines.""That's when we went to Sainte-Mere-(*131*)glise, an assembly area three or four miles off the beach. We weren't allowed to go more than 20 feet from our vehicles. Getting off the truck, a guy named Brownie, was curious. He reached up and grabbed an anti-personnel mine. It blew up in his hand."

Late in the day, Luis and his company set up in the center of one of the hedgerows, a small enclosure of bushes and trees where farmers would have animals graze.

"That first night was a catastrophe," said Luis. "There were Germans in the hedgerow. We lost Arnold Helcamp from Granite City. A man named Solit got shot in the leg. That was our introduction to Normandy.

"I was scared. To lose one of your guys in your own gun section and to lose another guy (to an injury). With what happened to Brownie in the first few hours there, who wouldn't be scared? ... I'm pretty sure we laid there until morning. We heard all the commotion along the hedgerow road, firing during the night. In the morning, we saw a medic had been shot through the head."

Going back

The retired businessman and community volunteer visited Normandy last year.

"I was very very awestruck," he said. "Hardly any of the obstacles were there. It looked like a resort. There were people on the beach. There were sailboats on the water."

He asked the tour guide what had become of the caissons, concrete structures used to unload men and equipment.

"He said they had washed away, or whatever. They were all gone."

Luis' son arranged the 11-day trip.

"We knew he wanted to go back to Normandy, and to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid," said Bryan Garcia, 53, of Waterloo. "He was somewhat reserved. (What happened there) still bothers him. It was through Overlord Tours. They treated Dad like royalty when they found out he was a veteran and almost 90. They said, 'The tour will proceed at your pace today.'"

No matter what his pace or what he's seen, Luis is a friendly, optimistic guy. He peppers his conversation with "yes, ma'ams" and "If I felt any better, I wouldn't know what to do with myself."

Photos arranged on a dining room wall are a tribute to those near and dear.

"That's my family up there," he said. "My wife Eleanor and son Bryan. That's me in uniform, a lowly PFC in the service. That's a picture my son took when (Mark) McGuire got his big hit."

One of seven

Luis was born and raised in the Lansdowne neighborhood of East.St. Louis.

"40th and Waverly," he said. "It was poor, predominantly Spanish people. I went to Hawthorne School, Lansdowne, Eastside.

"We had good times. Washed windows, cut grass. If we couldn't find a job, we played sports. Late afternoons, we walked to Jones Park swimming pool, pretty close to a mile. To save money, we took a shower before we came home." He was one of Jose and Flora Garcia's seven children.

"I was the fourth boy. I have three sisters younger than myself."

At 18, Luis couldn't wait to go off to war.

"Two of my brothers were in the service," he said. "I quit school. My job was to go help. I went to the draft board. I told them about it. They said, 'You can't volunteer. You have to be drafted.' They told me to go home and the draft board would take me."

It did in 1943.

You're in the Army now

The young GI went to Scott Field for a physical and shots, then took a four-day ride on a coal-fired train to Camp Davis, N.C., then to Fort Fisher.

"The colonel got up on the machine gun nest and said, 'You fellows are going to go overseas with me.' He had tan jodhpurs on and two pistols on each side."

Before Luis knew it, he was leaving Boston harbor for Cardiff, Wales.

"They played 'Paperdoll' (a Mills Brothers song about a man's regret that his girlfriend has left him) as we were getting on the transport."

Troops gathering for war took over buildings and turned them into barracks.

"We chased civilians when we moved in," Luis said of a stop in Yeovil, England. "We laid on the floor a couple days. The British brought in doubledecker beds with no mattresses. How can we go to sleep on these straps? You wake up in the night and you've got those black marks on your back. Two weeks later, they brought us hay and bedrolls."

Maneuvers occupied much of his time, but he still had fun.

"We were a happy-go-lucky bunch of fellows," he said. "When we were stationed at Burtonwood, we had passes to go to Liverpool. The only money in our pockets was for fish and chips. As we were walking along the street, we saw a little light."

The blackout was in full force. but the soldiers spotted a marquee for the show, "This Is The Army," (a wartime musical comedy with songs by Irving Berlin).

"This guy with a World War I uniform on said, 'It's show time. Are you guys going in?' He was on the other side of the ticket collector. He said, 'Fellow, let them in. That's what this is all about.'"

It was a full house. They stood to watch the stage play.

"The curtain goes down," said Luis. "A little gentleman walks up the stairs onto the stage. Someone says, 'Irving Berlin.' He's the gentleman that invited us to go in."

Wartime musicals gave way to the real thing.

"The way you knew it was time, you could feel it in the air," said Luis. "Talking to officers, we surmised something was happening. They told us to get our religious feelings adjusted."

A few days after landing at Normandy, Luis and company were on their way to Carentan and Saint-L(*153*).

"There was a smell of death from the time we got there. The place was a shambles, completely devastated. We weren't front-line troops. We were anti aircraft. We were shooting at planes outside a highway junction below Saint-L(*153*).

"The Germans had it one day. We'd have it the next. A lot of lives were lost at that junction. Those roads were vital to the Germans and more vital to us. There were weeks of fighting to see who controlled it."

Luis headed for Paris, 150 to 160 miles away.

"You have to remember there were a lot of battles going on, a lot of death. Our officers would go to meetings, find out and tell us, but wouldn't tell us all."

One time, they were behind German lines for a couple hours.

"Trying to figure out positions in the middle of the night from a map is hard to do. We were grateful to be alive."

From near Paris, they moved to Belgium, Holland and the Rhine.

"The run to Berlin was unbelievable. You would go into a little community and they would have white flags, but there were still Germans who believed in Hitler."

Sometimes, they were attacked from behind.

He's proud to have been part of it.

"(During the war), we knocked down 38 planes and I think we did a good service to our country."

They were optimistic.

"We started talking about it, we are going to make it. That was a goal. So was Paris a goal."

And, eventually near the Elbe River, where the war for Luis ended on May 7, 1945.

He's proud to have been part of it.

"We guarded tanks, artillery ... Part of our battery guarded convoys. The chores were all different.

In the meantime, our gun section, our battery knocked down 38 planes. We were able to work that in between other assignments. I think we accomplished quite a bit."

But he wishes he could have done more.

"I saw the destruction of towns. I used to talk to my buddies. 'Why don't we go back and rebuild Europe?' ... but I couldn't find anyone to come with me. My wife used to tell me I was nuts."

On the home front

"We had a mailman. My mom loved the man."

How could she not? He brought letters from her boys.

"When you have three sons in the service at the same time, that's hard," said Luis. "I don't know how she survived. One is bad enough. Two is bad enough. Three is horrendous."

Ted earned a Bronze Star in the Asian theater.

Joe, a combat engineer in the Asian theater, earned two bronze stars.

Luis came home without a scratch.

A few years later, he met Eleanor on a blind date.

"She loved clothes and loved to entertain," he said. "She was a hard worker -- loyal and dedicated."

Luis worked 14 years at Mobil Oil.

"It was the best job I ever had," he said, "but the midnight shift used to kill me."

That led him and Eleanor to buy an East St. Louis dry cleaning business, one they owned for about 35 years. They raised a son, Bryan, in a home on West Main.

Luis volunteered through United Church of Christ and was involved in social work with Beacon and took an important part in Bethany Place when it was forming. He still belongs to Turkey Hill Grange where not too long ago, he gave a talk about D-Day.

"He didn't say much about it until the last year or two," said son Bryan. "He wants people to know more about before he passes. I know he struggles. He feels people need to know it and remember it."

And know that servicemen still face challenges.

"Whatever you write, would you put a plug in for the Wounded Warriors?'" said Luis, of the veterans service organization. "We owe them something."

About Luis Garcia:

Family: son Bryan, of Waterloo, two grandchildren (one a professor at Indiana Unviersity, the other married to an active-duty Marine), and four great-grandchildren. His wife Eleanor died on Jan. 2, 2013.

Where he lives: A townhouse in Columbia

Where he grew up: East St. Louis

How he met his wife: "I went to a football game for Illinois University on a blind date. What a beautiful lady. I don't think I remember the football game at all."

How you might know him: He and wife Eleanor owned Fairlawn Dry Cleaners in East St. Louis for 35 years, from about 1963 to 1998. "Some of my old customers are going to call me and say, 'Where are my clothes?'" They lived near 8200 W. Main St. before moving to Columbia.

Interests: "I like to read."

Favorite authors: John Grisham. "David Balducci spins a good story. I also like murder mysteries. I read Sue Grafton."

What's next: Luis likes to travel. "He would go by himself to Europe. He loves Spain," said his son. "His parents were both from Spain." In August, Luis, Bryan and Bryan's fiancee are going on a two-week Baltic cruise.

Luis' advice: "If you go to Europe, go to Barcelona. It was like being in paradise."

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