World War II Vet Al Willett Recalls Normandy Invasion
Still thinks about those who perished
In October of 1942, Wakefield’s Alfred Willett was an 18 year-old Maine farm boy. Twenty months later, he was storming Omaha Beach with the United States Army in the Invasion of Normandy.
When the draft notice arrived, young Willett was working at Commonwealth Shoe & Leather Company in Gardiner, ME in addition to his chores on the family farm where he lived with his parents and five siblings. His father told him that he could get a six-month deferment if he took a full-time job on another farm. But young Alfred wanted no part of that.
“I said, ‘Everybody else is going to go, so I’m going to go,’” Willett recalls.
Willett says that once he was drafted, he could have gone into any branch of the service. He knew that his father and uncle had been in the army in World War I. “They survived,”
he recalls thinking at the time. “So I said, ‘That’s where I’m going to go.’”
Soon he was off to Portland for some testing, then on to Fort Devens for about a week before heading down to Fort Bragg in North Carolina for 12-weeks of basic training. He trained on 155 Howitzers. It took two guys to load the 100-lb. shells into the big guns, Willett says.
He ended up as a soldier in the 29th Artillery Division. Willett says that his farm background played a part in determining his eventual role in the war.
“They needed people who could dig in the big guns and ammunition,” Willett says. “Being a farm boy, I could do plenty of digging,” he adds in his still noticeable Down East twang. Back in Maine before the war, he had helped dig a 30-foot deep well on the farm from which they ran water into the house and into the barn for the cows.
“I was lucky getting into the artillery instead of the infantry,” he says. “There weren’t too many in the artillery that got killed. I knew I was going to be safer there.”
After basic training, his division shipped over to England. Al Willett had just turned 19 and spent the next eight months in England while General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the other generals prepared for the invasion. In the meantime, there was more training on the heavy artillery as well as physical training. They had to run two miles out and two miles back to the barracks first thing every morning.
The Normandy Invasion commenced on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Willett describes the atmosphere coming over from England on the big ship, climbing down the rope ladder carrying a full field pack and a gun and then making his way onto Omaha Beach with bullets flying everywhere.
“I stayed down and finally made it in,” Willett recalls. Once on the beach, he was grateful that he was a relatively small target. “I was only 140 lbs. at the time,” he says. “I’d dig down in the ground and stay there.”
Omaha Beach was known as “The Blood Beach.” In Willett’s division alone, 2,500 men lost their lives there. Willett says that the Normandy Invasion as depicted in the opening sequence of the movie Saving Private Ryan was realistic up to a point.
“Damn right I was scared,” Willett recalls. “But you get over that. You have no choice. When you are out there, you have to do your duty, whether you’re scared or not.”
On the beach, one of the division’s officers put things into perspective, Willett recalls. “The lieutenant said to me and everybody else that was still alive and walking, ‘You’re going to die on the beach or you’re going to die somewhere else, so get going.’”
Willett recalls that much of the heavy artillery they came with had been destroyed by German bombs during the invasion. So his unit ended up fighting as infantry on or near the beach for a month or more until they could finally move out.
Once they did get going, the 29th Artillery Division captured St. Lo and Brest, France from the enemy and was instrumental in liberating Paris. They were also part of the Battle of the Bulge, the single largest and bloodiest battle that American forces fought in the war.
Willett recalls one battle where he and another soldier were sharing a hole next to one of the 155 Howitzers as a barrage of German bombs rained down all around them. The frightened soldier asked Willett if he thought one of the bombs was going to land on them.
“Well if it lands here, don’t worry about it,” Willett told him. “And if it doesn’t land here, don’t worry about it.”
Willett tells of an incident toward the end of the war. German soldiers running from the Russians were floating across a river on inner-tubes to surrender to the Americans. Private Willett spotted a Luger in the holster of a German captain and decided the pistol would make a nice souvenir.
“I stuck my carbine in his gut,” Willett recalls. But the German officer shouted to his American counterpart who was standing a few feet away. The American captain ordered Willett to leave the German officer alone. He then came over and took the Luger for himself.
After serving almost four years, Willett returned home after the war. A few years later, his father gave up the farm and the family moved from Maine to the Boston area, eventually settling in Wakefield, where Willett’s father worked on the construction of Route 128 and his mother worked in the shoe factories on Water Street.
Alfred Willett and his wife of 58 years, Anne, live on Louise Avenue where they raised two children. Before retiring, Al worked in the machine and tool industry and later for the B&M Railroad. He will turn 86 on October 4. He still walks four to five miles every day and chops his own firewood.
Willett has been a strong supporter of the effort to replace the World War II Memorial on Wakefield Common, which will honor all the Americans who fought in that war.
But Willett was adamant about one thing throughout the interview for this story – that he was in no way seeking glory for himself.
“I’m doing this on account of the ones who passed away,” Willett says. “I’m not one to march down Wakefield and say, ‘I was in World War II.’ I didn’t want any of that. I think about the ones that didn’t make it. I thank the Good Lord that I’m alive and walking and got to raise a family. It breaks my heart for the ones I saw fall in front of me. They never had a chance.”
[This story originally appeared in the September 20, 2010 Wakefield Daily Item.]
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