It’s a day that lives in infamy. June 6th, 1944 - when more than 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France.
One of those soldiers was LaGrange resident Neal Barnes. According to his son, Donnie Barnes, Neal was a private with the Army’s 10th Infantry Regiment, Third Army Division commanded by General George Patton. Just 20 years old, and having deployed to England just four days before the attack, Neal and his men stormed the Normandy beaches on June 7th, in a Sherman tank.
“I remember him saying when he got to the beach, there were still bodies lying everywhere,” Donnie said. “They cleared the beaches to bring the armor in ….. dad said it was hard to fight … the German Tiger tanks were a formidable force …. he got two tanks shot out from under him.”
Neal Barnes was inducted the Army less than a year before D-Day, on June 26, 1943. He was 19 years old, working at the Callaway Cotton Mills in LaGrange. According to Donnie, his father only had a third grade education. He dropped out of school to pick peaches and help take care of his parents and 10 siblings during the Great Depression.
That hard working mentality would pay off for Neal, as he and his fellow comrades crossed the choppy Atlantic Ocean in a convoy of ships in May of 1944, landing in England during the height of World War II. The water still so cold, Neal and his men used axes to chop up chunks of ice floating in the ocean. Once they landed, Donnie said his dad and the soldiers still weren’t totally sure what was ahead of them.
“They knew they were going to invade, but they didn’t know when,” Donnie remembered. “They started practicing. If they went to the shore, they didn’t know if that was the day they’d be invading.”
While hundreds of thousands of soldiers reached the shores of Normandy, France on June 6th, Neal and the 10th Infantry Regiment began their invasion on June 7th. According to Donnie, his dad said it took two months for his unit to “bust” out of Normandy. And the fighting didn’t stop there. Once past the shore, Pvt. Neal Barnes and his fellow comrades continued their march towards Germany.
According to the D-Day museum website, the invasion force that week alone consisted of 5,000 warships, and close to 300,000 soldiers from the U.S., Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and several other countries. Storming the beaches in Normandy helped break the German occupation of Europe, liberating prisoners of war at Nazi concentration camps, and putting an end to the conflict that left much of Western Europe in physical and economic ruin.
For Neal Barnes and the 10th Infantry Regiment, their fight would take them through France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Holland, and finally, into Germany. Part of this battle is now known as the Battle of the Bulge.
“He [Neal ] said the Battle of the Bulge was extremely cold. It was so cold, they chopped down trees and ran the tanks on top of the trees to keep the tracks from freezing to the ground,” said Donnie.
Nazi Germany fell and it’s troops finally surrendered to Allied Powers starting in late April and early May. Neal Barnes and his unit were finally sent home.
“He [Neal] said it was sheer numbers that we won that war,” Donnie said. ” But he remembered General Patton being such a good leader.”
That following July 31, 1945, just one year, two months, and 11 days after Neal Barnes was drafted into the Army, he was given an honorable discharge. He left a decorated war hero with an American Theater Ribbon, an EAME Theater Ribbon with five Bronze Stars, and a Good Conduct Medal.
The 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion will be on Friday. Sadly, some of those memories Neal shared with his family are slowly fading away. At 89, Neal suffers from dementia, and is a resident at the Florence Hand Nursing Home. But the stories and accolades have already made a big impact on Donnie, and his three siblings. Especially when he and his twin brother, Ronnie, entered the Army during the Vietnam War era.
“I look back at the years we served… from 1972 - 1975. It was a learning time, we got a real education,” said Donnie. “It taught us to be men, instead of young boys. My dad inspired me. I was proud of him.”
“I’ve always been amazed at that generation and what they accomplished,” Donnie added.
And he hopes more people do the same; honoring and remembering those who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy, those who survived, and those still a soldier in their heart, like his dad Pvt. Neal Barnes.