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Our War: Belleville veteran recalls grisly duty after D-Day

Bill Carriel of Belleville
Bill Carriel of Belleville

He spent two days picking up bodies, and parts of bodies, from the beach in Normandy.

Bill Carriel, 83, of Belleville, landed on the beach the morning after D-Day with the Army's 32nd Medical Depot Co. based out of Fort Knox, Ky.

"There were bodies all over the place," he said. "We picked them up and carried them up to a place along the road. We had to take one of the dog tags off the body and leave the other one with the body. We put raincoats over the bodies, but I don't really know what they did with them after we picked them up."

His company attempted to make shore on the first day but was pushed back by intense fighting.

"They put us in lifeboats to get to the beach," he said. He was 19 years old. "Then, they said, wait a minute, they didn't have enough land captured. We didn't carry guns, so we turned around and went back to the ship. I remember standing on the ship, waiting, watching the planes all going over. There were hundreds, thousands of them."

When the company made it to shore to begin its grisly task, Carriel jumped out of the lifeboat and onto an unexploded hand grenade.

"Thank goodness it didn't go off or that would have been the end of it for me," he said.

The days he spent picking bodies off the beach and out of blood-tinged water didn't affect him as much as he thought it would, he said.

"I don't know why it never really bothered me. We had a job to do, and we did it. You didn't have time to stop and cry for every body," he said. "Some of the bodies were missing body parts and you could tell what killed them. Others just had small bullet holes. I remember I saw an arm sticking out of some rocks and I pulled on it, thinking it was attached to a body, but it was just an arm."

The medical depot company followed the front line through France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, lugging with it several tons of bandages, blood, morphine and a variety of medical supplies to keep the medics stocked.

"We were pretty close to the action," he said. "We didn't carry guns. There were a couple of guards with us, but we didn't carry guns. Which was OK with me because I don't think I could have shot someone anyway, so I was in the right unit."

As the company made its way through France, the soldiers picked up about 20 German prisoners of war. They helped the men in the company move and carry supplies. They were under armed guard the entire time, Carriel said, but he didn't think they would have tried to escape.

"For them, the war was over," he said. "All they had to do was carry supplies. We fed them. We treated them well."

The closest Carriel came to getting hit was in France, where his unit was waiting for more supplies to move.

"We were working and straightening everything out when two German planes flew over," he said. "Our guard guys shot at 'em, and the planes turned around and started strafing our camp. I was standing out there and they were shooting right at me, like I was the only guy in the world. Dirt and bullets were flying everywhere. I jumped into a 6-inch ditch and just lay there."

When members of his company were stationed in Czechoslovakia, he befriended a family there, particularly a 10-year-old girl and her brother.

"Her name was Kamila Herejkova," he said. "They lived in the ghetto in a little one-room house, and I don't think they had a cent."

He visited the family in their home and sent extra food to them from time to time.

"They tried to teach me the Czech language," he said. "I wasn't very good at it. I tried to teach them English."

After the war Carriel kept in contact with the family and sent them letters and care packages.

"When I'd get a letter from them, I'd have to take them to East St. Louis and have them translated and read to me by a Czech speaker," he said. "We eventually lost contact. She was a nice little girl. I wonder what ever happened to her."

Carriel was discharged from the Army on Aug. 14, 1945, one year, four months and 13 days after he was drafted into the military and shipped overseas.

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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