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Our War: Highland man recalls his role in D-Day invasion of France

Henry J. Metzger, 87, of Highland, still puts in a full day at his furniture store in Greenville. The farm boy from Highland found himself in the English Channel waiting to go ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Henry J. Metzger, 87, of Highland, still puts in a full day at his furniture store in Greenville. The farm boy from Highland found himself in the English Channel waiting to go ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Henry J. Metzger knew the invasion was near when the ground shook in England.

"All of a sudden, there were bombers everywhere overhead," said Metzger, 87, of Highland. "You never heard such a sound -- the ground literally shook -- and they'd make one sound going over and another sound coming back because they were empty."

When June 1944 came, Metzger was in Southampton waterproofing vehicles for an amphibious landing.

"One of the jokes used to be that there were so many troops, we were going to sink the island," he said.

The island began emptying and Metzger found himself in the middle of the English Channel on June 6, 1944, out of the sight of land. He said he had a pretty good idea what was happening on the beaches of Normandy.

He and a few other members of the 11th Port Headquarters Co. were put on Omaha Beach the day after the invasion. The company was split up in different landing craft so they all wouldn't be killed at once.

When the ramp went down, out he went into the water with his rifle above his head. His buddy went under and was struggling.

"He almost drowned. He was shorter than I was. He must have stepped in a hole or something. I helped him out or I guess he might have drowned."

The Germans weren't shooting at Metzger, but every night they flew over and dropped flares.

"They lit up the beach like it was daylight. Every night I thought, 'Here it comes.' But they never did anything. I guess they just watched us. We were there several weeks and just got used to it."

Several times a day, Metzger would head up a road from the beach by foot, Jeep or weapons carrier to the chateau that served as his company's headquarters. Another member of his company was walking and stepped out of the rut in the road.

"He blew himself up. I never got that out of my mind, that it could have been me. They were supposed to have cleared the mines. Apparently they missed one," Metzger said.

Metzger said he was amazed at the honeycomb the Germans had made of the Normandy bluffs. Networks of pillboxes were everywhere, and there was a cave entrance near where they worked.

Several weeks after the landing, two German soldiers popped out of the cave. They were starving.

"They were right by where we were working. They'd finally had enough and surrendered."

One of the supply trucks was making a run to St. Lo. Metzger tagged along. It was the first time the farm boy from Highland had seen a place leveled.

"The road from the beach to St. Lo was littered with dead animals. When we arrived there was nothing there but waste. It was bombed flat."

Metzger eventually moved in from Omaha Beach and was headquartered at Rouen, on the Seine River in Normandy. He had a girlfriend, Ivy McCall, in south Wales and was heading to see her on May 7, 1945.

"I was in a staging area in France when we heard the war was over. The place turned upside down with yelling, cheering. They were drinking cognac and calvados -- mostly calvados because it was cheap."

The war wasn't totally over. The Japanese would still fight until the middle of August, and Metzger was shipped home to prepare for war in the Pacific.

"You can't imagine the feeling coming into New York Harbor. It seemed so strange to be greeted by these people speaking English."

The Japanese surrendered before Metzger was shipped out. He married the girlfriend from Great Britain, and had two children with her before the marriage broke up.

He worked in a lumber yard, worked with pinball machines in New Jersey, worked on massive generators in Pennsylvania, then returned home to Highland where he sold insurance and encyclopedias. He started selling furniture and in 1973 opened Metzger's Home Furnishings in Greenville. He still puts in a full day's work.

He and his new wife, Elza, returned to Omaha Beach in the mid-1980s.

He remembered the invasion dead had been wrapped, placed in a trench on the beach, layered with lime and then layered several more times. Metzger said it was horrible to be caught downwind.

When he returned with his wife, the soldiers had been moved to a cemetery above the bluff.

"You walk into that cemetery and you just whisper. It just feels so sacred that you automatically tone yourself down," he said. "That was quite an experience."

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