Memories of D-Day still fresh for NH veteran
HANOVER — When Clinton Gardner's still-nimble mind takes him back to 69 years ago today, the main thing he remembers is landing on Omaha Beach and seeing the chaos and the bloody bodies and thinking, "Nothing is going as planned."
It was June 6, 1944, and the Allied invasion of Normandy, France — D-Day, the operation that ultimately would lead to the defeat of Hitler — had begun.
"We landed at 9 a.m. expecting that our troops would be a mile inland, and they were only 300 yards inland," Gardner said in an interview this week. "So they in fact were fighting on the cliff, trying to get up the cliff from the beach. It was just beyond the surf; we were still on the sand."
There were about 200 to 300 bodies lying in the water and the beach, just in his immediate area, he recalls.
"There was even some thought that we wouldn't continue the invasion at that point," he said.
But the invasion did continue, about 160,000 Allied troops under the command of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower landing on a 50-mile stretch of French coastline for the operation that would turn World War II inexorably in the Allies' favor.
The turning point on Omaha Beach that day came around 5 p.m., when the Allies managed to blow up a large concrete barrier that had prevented them from getting off the beach. Soon after, though, shrapnel from a mortar that landed near Gardner pierced his helmet. He was carried to the base of the cliff and sheltered from further harm, but it would be another 24 hours before he receive medical attention.
"At noon, I had seen a truck full of medics completely blown up and killed, so the medics simply were not there," Gardner said. "I didn't think I would survive … I was able to put two hands in the hole in the helmet and I thought, 'Good Lord, I can feel my brains.'"
Amazingly, it turned out the soft material he felt was the folded skin of his lacerated scalp; his skull had not been fractured as he had feared.
When he finally did receive medical attention, it took several medics to pry the gaping helmet from Gardner's head.
"There was a huge wound up there," he said. "When I was operated on, they took skin from my leg to close up the hole."
While he was recovering from surgery at a hospital in Salisbury, England, a British captain representing London's Imperial War Museum visited and asked for the helmet. The hole, the captain told Gardner, was the largest he had seen worn by any survivor of World War I or World War II.
"I said, 'If it's that interesting, I'd like to show it to my grandchildren," Gardner told the captain.
A native of Larchmont, N.Y., Gardner attended Phillips Exeter Academy and joined the Army in 1942. He was a member of the highly decorated 110th anti-aircraft artillery battalion.
He received the Purple Heart twice, for the injuries he sustained on D-Day, and later for injuries he sustained at the Battle of the Bulge six months after the invasion.
In 1945, after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, he was appointed commander at Buchenwald, overseeing care for the survivors and the interment of many of the estimated 55,000 who were killed there.
A first lieutenant on D-Day, he rose to the rank of captain before his discharge.
After the war, Gardner returned to New Hampshire and graduated from Dartmouth College, served as the managing editor of a U.S. military publication in postwar Berlin, Germany, raised a family in Armonk, N.Y., with his wife, Libby, and moved back to New Hampshire with Libby in 2003.
He is the author of a memoir, "D-Day and Beyond,"
He says it doesn't take the anniversary of a battle for memories of the war to come flooding back.
"I certainly do think of it — not only when the anniversaries come up," he said. "I often think of the war."
When he thinks of D-Day, he said, "I usually think of how much went wrong — primarily how the best-laid plans turn out the opposite of what you expected ... of how many people were killed and how we barely got off the beach. I often think of how easily I could have not been here."
In all, an estimated 9,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded.
But Gardner is still here, and so is his D-Day helmet, which he has been able to show his three children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
The helmet is part of the special collections of Dartmouth's Rauner Library, along with Gardner's war correspondence, scrapbooks and photographs, all of which he donated to his alma mater.