A last minute change of orders may have saved Carl Hagler's life.
"We were scheduled to go with them on D-Day to land in France," the Belleville man said. "But they changed plans and we landed on D-Day plus six. Another battalion went instead of us and they were completely wiped out."
Hagler, 86, was a corporal in Company A in the Army's 447th Signal Battalion out of Langley Field in Virginia. He was 20 years old when he was drafted.
The battalion was responsible for making sure the front lines could communicate with central command during its march across Europe. The men built telephone lines and laid cable over all kinds of terrain.
"There were times when we were in a lot of danger because we were close to the front line," Hagler said. "We were always a short distance behind the front line. We were never right up there on the front, but we could hear the 'boom, boom, boom' of the artillery."
Hagler's company was an all-black unit and didn't lose a single man to enemy fire, he said.
In one of Hagler's aging World War II photographs, he is posing with a dog and smiling.
"We found that dog wandering around the countryside in France," he said, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "That was the prettiest dog I ever saw. He was bright red with the silkiest hair."
The company dubbed the dog Red and treated him like one of the soldiers, Hagler said. Red traveled with the men for about a year through France to Belgium and into Germany.
"We kept him with us and when we got ready to come home we had to leave him in France," Hagler said. "He became a good companion to us. We couldn't bring him back over here, we just had to leave him. That was the saddest part. Everybody had just fallen in love with him and then we had to leave him."
The small company of troops grew close during their time together. Their unit was commanded by a white first lieutenant and they never crossed paths with another all-black unit during their trek across Europe.
"I wouldn't give up the experience I had for anything in the world," he said. "I saw some things and experienced some things I never would have. And I met all these guys. I made all these good friends and a lot of really good men. That is an experience that as long as I live, I will always treasure, I will always remember."
Hagler said the men of his company didn't keep in contact after the war, but he cherishes the memories he has of the friendships he had during his year in Europe.
When his unit marched through France after the front lines forced out the occupying Germans, he remembers being greeted by the residents.
"The people would be so glad to see us," he recalled. "They would often greet us with a bottle of wine and they treated us very, very nice. A lot of the Germans treated us nice, too. I think a lot of them were glad to see us, too. They wanted the war to end just as much as we did."
He also recalls the hunger and desperation of many of the French residents, returning to homes formerly occupied by German forces.
"They had no food, no water, and when we would meet them, we'd give them what we had," he said. "As those Germans left, they took everything those people had."
The rotting corpses of cattle and horses killed during the fighting were fair game for the returning hungry Frenchmen.
"I saw some of them take knives and cut off pieces of those dead animals so they would have something to eat," he said. "It made you feel bad to see that."
Even with all the experience Hagler had laying cable and putting up phone lines in a war zone, he couldn't get a job with the phone company when he returned to the metro-east.
"They weren't hiring blacks to work in the field at the time," he said. "I had all that experience in cable splicing and telephone lines, but I couldn't work for the telephone company. I had to go back to my old job."
He went back to work for Armour Packing Co. in National City.
Eventually he got a job with the U.S. Postal Service and retired at the age of 79 from the Post Office in St. Louis in 2000.
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at email@example.com or 239-2667.