Today marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France. Reflecting on the events of that day, I am humbly reminded of the service and sacrifice of the men who risked their lives to save nations.
It also reminds me that several of my ancestors served in the military and how much I love to learn about their time in the service. One of my military ancestors is WWII veteran Edward Hilden.
As a student at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University), Ed participated in the ROTC program for four years. Following his graduation from MSC, Ed commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army and entered active duty on June 20, 1942. After nearly 4 years of service during WWII, Ed earned the rank of Captain shortly before his discharge. Most of his time in service was spent stateside, much of it in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but Ed did eventually get sent to Europe in late 1944 and stayed for the duration of the war. He served with the 768th Field Artillery as a forward observer.
The following is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Edward Hilden in May 2012. It has been edited slightly for clarity.
We organized, and…it was called the 768th Field Artillery Battalion. I was in service battery, and they supply everything for the rest of the battalion. That’s their job. Maybe supply uniforms, for example, or food to the kitchens. The other three batteries… all had these big cannons. They were 155 mm. They shoot a shell about that big around [demonstrates]. They could shoot that thing 3 or 4 miles. It could go a long ways. These cannons were mounted on, they called it, 155 mm self-propelled. And being self-propelled, they were on something like a tank. In other words, there was a big track, like a tank; they could go just about any place, just not very fast.
Apparently, somebody in higher headquarters wanted us to get into action, so they wanted us to go overseas. There was one…warrant officer. He usually knows all of the book work that is involved. It’s almost like a lawyer, you might say. His name was Lyles, Larry Lyles, from Dallas, Texas. And a Corporal from New York City, I can’t remember his name, and myself. (We had to) go over there, get onto France land, and get a place for our Battalion to come. Get set up to move from there probably into Germany or whatever. Well, the Army usually – they use the word ‘snafu’ – messes up all the time. You think the orders are this way, and there they are in the other direction.
We were expecting to land at France. Where did we land? Liverpool. Well, we got out, the three of us, and thought, “Now what are we going to do?” Well, we got out and fooled around. Larry Lyles wrote out an acquisition for a jeep. We went to an Army motor pool and got us a jeep. The three of us drove around in England for a while. That was kind of fun. One restaurant we went in, we came out, and the jeep was gone! The Military Police had picked it up. We found out you’re supposed to leave a man with the jeep because things get stolen.
We ended up staying at a campground called “Canadian Camp Foxly.” A bunch of Canadian troops trained there, and they went across long before D-Day, but they got slaughtered. Killed almost all of them. The Germans were up there and they had pill boxes and machine guns and they were waiting for anything.
They did that on D-Day. We went over there with so many thousands of men, and a lot of them just jumped into the water and ended up drowned because they had so much gear on them. The water was just a little bit too deep. I think we lost, I forget how many, 6,000 men on D-Day, or something like that. I wasn’t there then; that was before I went over.
(In a separate conversation with Ed, he stated how thankful he was not to have been involved in D-Day because it was such a horrific event.)
Our outfit finally came over, and they were way down in the southern part of England called Southampton. We were over here at Camp Foxly. Well, we joined them, and I don’t really remember too much of what went on then, but it wasn’t too long when we went across. It must have been January, cold as the dickens. We slept on the ground if you can imagine that. Most of us carried a half of a pup tent. Some other guy would carry a half of a pup tent. So you put it together and you have a pup tent like this [demonstrates]; we crawled in there with a sleeping bag and froze to death.
We were what you’d call a lone battalion. We were not attached to any corps or division, we were a lone battalion. Higher headquarters could order us, “You go and help that unit out, and you go over this way, and help that unit out.” Well, we got orders to go south. So we went way down to the other end of the Rhine River, and again, I was ahead of our outfit. And I went across on a pontoon bridge with Patton’s army. Remember Patton? He liked using the armored division, the tanks. That was his favorite.
They were going up there to rescue Bastogne, I think. They were going ‘lickety larup,’ and I’m going ‘lickety larup,’ too. I had a jeep and a driver, an enlisted man, and an enlisted man on the radio, and I was with them. And we’re headed toward the tail end of Patton, going ‘lickety larup,’ and we lost contact, we were so far away from our outfit. But some other outfit says, “Hey, you’re from the 768th, they’ve been trying to get a hold of you!” Well, they probably had better equipment in their outfits. “You’d better get back, they’re calling you back.” So I went back.
My job was forward observer. See, here’s these three battalions back there, spread out, and they all had, I forget how many cannon, maybe four to an outfit, and they could shoot these things three, four miles. Well, I was way up there where the shooting was going on, because I was a forward observer. But I never got hurt. I saw death, as far as that goes. But I was safe.
We were entering a village, and the other forward observer with his driver and his radio operator was about a block ahead of me. All of a sudden, I’m looking way up ahead, because there’s a town there, and there’s sparks coming down the road, spark, spark, spark. You knew a shell was bouncing along. I told my driver, “Turn this over quick!” and we run over and bumped into a house, an empty house. We flew outta there, into that house, with the shell coming along and it got that other jeep. I know it killed one of the men, and badly wounded the second one. Now, if we hadn’t have turned off, we would have got it, too, see. We did bend the bumper a little bit on the jeep but that’s all. But we sailed into that empty house, the three of us!
This story about narrowly missing the shell bouncing down the road and crashing into a house as they veered off to safety really makes me stop and think – what if Ed had been in the car that was hit by that shell? I wouldn’t be here and neither would my siblings or kids or many other people who are his descendants. My heart breaks for the soldier that did get killed in that event and how life changed for his family after that. Was it luck that saved his life that day, or something more?
By the time we conducted this interview, Edward Hilden was already 92 years old. Less than five years later, he passed away. It is such a treasure to have a record of some of his memories and thoughts about his time in the military and his life in general.
Our WWII veterans are rapidly dwindling in numbers every year. Take the time today to reach out to your veteran family members or anyone who may have experienced life during the War and ask if they would share their memories with you. Their stories could very well be a treasure to you, too.