My Uncle Donald

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 30, 2010

When the first week of June comes around, this year, next year and from now on, I will remember my Uncle Donald.

Don was an Ironton, Ohio, guy. He was born in Ironton on Aug. 10, 1925, and grew up there during the Depression. His father had been associated with the automobile since its first appearance.

His mother was the first woman in Ironton to drive an automobile. Two of his brothers once built an airplane in the backyard well before World War II and flew it. His mother sewed the fabric for its covering.

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There really wasn’t much to distinguish Don early on. He was part of a large family and had plenty of chores to do.

He was a good student and pursued a scientific course in high school. He, like many of his brothers, had inherited the mechanical talent of his father, a third generation German-American.

The summer between his junior and senior years he drove a laundry truck to earn spending money. He made $15 per week. The laundry folks liked him because, as the owner stated, he was reliable and trustworthy.

The next year Don graduated from Ironton High School; it was the spring of 1943 and he was a wiry 6 feet tall, weighing all of 143 pounds. That summer he worked for his brother Bill at the Ironton Russell Motor Co. as a general mechanic. He had an aptitude for this work and scored especially high on the GM proficiency tests for both mechanical repair and body repair.

America, in the summer of 1943, had officially been in World War II for nearly two years and young men were going off to war. Many were not coming back. The tide of the war by then, however, was beginning to turn.

The conquering advances of the enemy had been stopped. The Germans were in full retreat on the Eastern Front, but Hitler still had a very firm grip on Western Europe.

Don attempted to follow his brother Albert, a Seabee, and enlist in the U.S. Navy. The Navy rejected him because of a color discrimination issue with his eyesight. So, next he tried the U.S. Army.

The Army accepted him and he was inducted on Oct. 4, 1943. He had just passed his 18th birthday. I do not know this for certain, but I believe there was a very good chance he had never fired a weapon prior to his induction. Our family members, at that time, were not hunters and did not own firearms.

Don went through a period of training in the states and then he was sent to England on April 13, 1944. He was now an Army Infantryman and had qualified as a sharpshooter with the M1 Garand Rifle.

England was an armed camp in 1944 but, in any event, crossing the Atlantic remained a dangerous proposition. The Battle of Britain was over, but the war around England nonetheless raged on. The British soldiers in England were saying, “There are only three things wrong with the American GI; they are over-sexed, over-paid and over here.” Much of that was about to change.

Don was now assigned to the 29th Infantry Division, 116th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, E Company. He and the others of the 29th were undergoing some additional training in England. It was seaborne invasion training. The 29th Division was known as the “Blue and Gray Division” because the core of its membership was made up of National Guard units called to duty from Maryland and Virginia.

Don and the 29th were preparing to march into history at the invasion of Normandy in German Occupied France. The Germans knew the Allies were coming and they had a pretty good idea where: It was Normandy.

The Norman coast of France boasted the most heavily fortified seacoast ever constructed, before or since. One of Germany’s best commanders, Field Marshal Irwin Rommel, had been assigned to design and build the “Atlantic Wall” there and he had done so magnificently. His strategy was keyed to stopping invasion at the water’s edge and the Atlantic Wall seemed impenetrable.

The 29th had been assigned to assault about half of a six-mile strip of Norman coastline, to be known forever after as Omaha Beach.

The other half would belong to the legendary and battle tested 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.”

Thus the assault by the 29th would be a significant part of the amphibious invasion of France beginning on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Given the beach defenses at Omaha, the 1st and the 29th had been chosen to carry out what was probably the most difficult task that could be imagined for the invasion, with the possible exception of the Ranger assault on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, which were immediately to the right of the 29th’s planned landing zones. Omaha Beach on June 6 was a death trap in waiting.

The 116th Regiment’s Companies A, G, F and E were to be the first wave of the assault on Omaha Beach. Don was in E Company.

A Company made it to the beach first and within 10 minutes every officer in that company was a casualty. The survivors found themselves pinned down by Germans shooting from the tops of the nearby cliffs.

A Company suffered more losses getting ashore than any other unit of the 116th. Forty-six guardsmen from one small Virginia town were in A Company, but only 23 survived that day.

There is no way to know which of the four E Company landing craft Don was in. But many of the invasion craft from the 116th did not even make it to the shore.

They hit obstacles or mines and sank. Still others were beached on sand bars or were hit with exploding shells.

Sometimes, when their front ramps went down, the Germans machine-gunned the interiors before anyone could get out.

Some of the soldiers climbed over the sides of their damaged boats into water above their heads and many drowned due to their heavy packs.

Others shed all of their gear and swam to shore, arriving without helmets or even weapons in many cases. Once the beach was reached there was machine gun fire raking it in all directions.

The soldiers who did reach shore had to cross approximately 100 yards of sand to reach the only shelter, which was a relatively low sea wall, all the while lugging their equipment as the machine guns were strafing and the shells were raining down upon them. Nobody in the invasion crafts was landing anywhere near their assigned zones due to tides and wind.

The leaders were dropping right along with the men and the pre-invasion bombardment by the Allies didn’t do any of the damage that was anticipated.

Other words, nearly every plan made ahead of time had failed, yet in they went. It is impossible to imagine what this must have been like and Don was there.

A contemporary newspaper account stated that Don had experienced several “narrow escapes” during the invasion. That had to be a gigantic understatement. Somehow though, Don made it to shore and through the fight to capture Omaha Beach. That battle lasted for three days before the Germans were thrown back.

After the beach fighting had ended, Don and the other survivors of the 29th moved immediately into the next phase of the conflict. This was the advance through the “hedgerow” country to capture the town of Saint Lo. Don did not fare quite so well this time.

On June 15, he, along with some comrades, was positioned along the front lines in a defensive trench, maybe a drainage ditch, during a period of darkness. Despite strict orders to the contrary, one of his comrades, giving in to the stress of the moment, lit a cigarette. This was all the indication the enemy needed to pinpoint their position and they launched a barrage of shells.

One shell exploded near the men. Don was hit by shrapnel in the arm and legs.

The concussion also rendered him deaf on the left side. He always believed that he was the only one of the group who was not killed in the attack.

Don was first removed from the front lines and taken to a battlefield aid center. He received sulfadiazine dressings for his penetration wounds there and eventually he was evacuated back to England, where he was hospitalized.

Following that period, he was transferred to the states and hospitalized once more in Cleveland.

Another contemporary newspaper account reported that Don was recovering “splendidly.” This was not entirely accurate. While hospitalized, he began to develop symptoms for another kind of battlefield wound. He suffered headaches, had battle dreams, experienced convulsions and a grand mal seizure, as well as other tell-tale signs. He now had what was called at the time, “shell Shock” or “Combat fatigue.” Today we know it generally as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It has been said that having your comrades killed and horribly wounded all around you for days on end takes a terrible toll on those who must endure it. The carnage in Normandy was indescribable and Don was there.

During his first visit home in late August 1944, while on a convalescent furlough, Don’s family saw great changes in him and, as they put it in a letter, significant cause for concern.

They wrote to the Army medical authorities about their concern. The doctors replied with a detailed questionnaire. They were concerned about him too.

Don remained under medical care in Cleveland for several more months, then on Nov. 10, 1944, he was given a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, an honorable discharge from the Army, and, I suppose, the thanks of a grateful nation. Don was just barely 19 years old.

Don survived the war and apparently he learned to live with his PTSD. I never heard him or any member of our family ever discuss any part of the detail I have written above. I only knew he was a WWII vet, was somehow wounded in action and that was it.

It was only recently during my research, as a genealogist, into his military service that I discovered the elements of his participation in the Normandy Invasion and the aftermath of its toll on him.

Looking back at the times, I believe I know why there was the silence. I have learned since that silence regarding these disorders is quite typical for the victims and their families. These issues were nearly always pushed below the surface then; I hope there is more understanding now.

After the war, Don went to Marshall College on the G.I. Bill and earned a degree in chemistry. He married his Ironton High School classmate, Margaret. They had a son, Freddie. Don got a job as a chemist at the Ironton Solvay and worked his way up in the company.

He developed and obtained numerous patents for the company relating to the coke making processes. He was, you know, his father’s son. Don eventually became president of the coal and coke division and an executive vice president with Allied Chemical in New Jersey. Then, he retired.

He, as if it were a family destiny, re-entered and engaged in the automobile repair business. He died on Aug. 3, 1995.

So, exactly who was this guy, my Uncle Donald? He was Donald Gates Marting, the 10 of Arthur and Mary Gates Marting’s 12 children.

His wife was the former Margaret Jane Townsend, also now deceased, who at one time was a math teacher at Dawson-Bryant High School in Coal Grove. Don was truly a member of “The Greatest Generation.”