SAYRE — Now 96-years-old, World War II veteran Bill Cowles recalls memories of the days that shaped not only the subsequent 75 years of his life, but the futures of Europe and the United States.
Graduating from Waverly High School in 1942, Cowles enlisted in the U.S. Army when he turned 18 in August of that year.
“If I didn’t enlist, they were going to draft me anyhow — then I wouldn’t have a choice,” he said.
Life in the military “had its good days and its bad days,” but he had several brushes with death along the way.
Cowles stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy with the 415th Escort Guard on June 6, 1944.
Along with the rest of the 415th Escort Guard, which was attached to the 5th Ranger Battalion, Cowles stormed Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 in the infamous D-Day invasion.
“When I went down that rope ladder and got in that LCT (boat) I was practically crying,” said Cowles. “I was only 18-years-old. I said ‘good Lord, you take care of me and I’ll serve you.’”
“We lost a lot of guys getting off the LCTs, a lot of them drowned — the water was very deep. It was over your head,” he explained. “I was a powerful swimmer, so I made it, but there were many that didn’t.”
Each carried almost 100 pounds of equipment, including their M1 Garand rifle.
“I can still see that rifle and that auto-discharge,” he said, eyes closed.
In getting to the beach, Cowles wondered where all the shells were coming from since German troops were shelling the coastline, and U.S. forces were shelling entrenched German forces.
“I laid down in that shell hole, and I hardly had any sleep,” he said. “This fella was with me — he was a heck of a nice guy — they were shellin’ the hell out of us.”
When one struck close, Cowles raised his head out of the hole and said “What’s going on here?”
“I called out his name, and he said ‘Get down you damn fool, it’s the Germans — they’re shellin’ us!’”
At that point, a shell landed close to the hole Cowles was in and blew out his hearing.
Later on that day, his hand was struck with shrapnel.
“How it happened, I don’t know,” he said. “Things happen that you just don’t know on that beach.”
“If I went to a first aid guy and told them I had a little brush there with a shell and my ears hurt, with guys laying around here with their arms missing, shot up all over the place, legs blown off — I know exactly what they told me I could do.”
Asked how long he was on the beach, he said “I don’t know, it was like a daydream.”
From the beach, Cowles made his way through southern France, where he and his company continued “chasing out the Germans.”
“We didn’t stay for the victory parade (in Paris) — our outfit was a fightin’ outfit,” he smiled. “We chased the Germans.”
“We did some house-to-house when the French asked us,” Cowles said. “There were Germans all over.”
He recalled a woman coming out of a nice cafe and offered them some ice cold beer.
“I hated beer, but I was dying of thirst,” he said, adding how terrible the water was that they carried.
“I said ‘OK boys, let’s go in, but on the sly, very carefully — load your weapons, take ‘em off safe and be ready,” Cowles said. “We went in cautiously, but she turned out to be true blue.”
“I just sipped on (the beer),” he said. “Anything but that damn water from the lister bag.”
He noted that she was an English woman who had opened up a cafe until the German troops came into France.
“We had run them off — she was very nice,” he recalled. “From there, we went back and forth across the channel several times because we took prisoners back to England. I had a (doozy) of a time.”
Cowles made at least eight-and-a-half trips across the English Channel taking prisoners through the roughest inland body of water.
“I couldn’t even remember some of (the trips), that’s how goofed up I was,” he said. “My friend from Chicago, when I said something about five trips, he said ‘Bill, you nut case — this is our eighth trip that we’ve made!’”
Cowles recalled one night in South Hampton, England, after he had got docked to unload prisoners.
They were sleeping, the sergeant walked in and asked if anyone had experience driving a truck.
Cowles said he had driven an eight wheeler, and was subsequently told to get outside.
“He said I had to take a load of prisoners to the hospital,” Cowles recalled with a laugh. “I went outside and said ‘Sarge, I’ve driven eight wheelers, but this is an 18 wheeler.’”
“He said ‘Here’s the manual — learn it right now and get ready,’” he continued.
“This was at night,” Cowles explained. “All you had was cat’s eyes (headlights) — you might just as well not have any.”
“It was all dark.” he said. “I made a few grindin’ gears because there’s six sticks in an eighteen wheeler. I made it over with that load of prisoners to the hospital without wrecking.”
“It’s all a strange country to me — not like here where I know where I’m going,” said Cowles. “But we made it. We took pretty good care of the Germans.”
“We came back, pulled into port, and they took us over to a railroad yard,” he continued. “I said ‘What the hell are we doing over here? Where’s the trucks?’”
“They said ‘Well, we’ve got news for you. You’re not getting in the trucks. You’re getting in the box cars,’” said Cowles. “‘You’re headed for Belgium,’ they said. I said, ‘What the hell are we going to Belgium for?’”
“They used to always let us have a rest, but they had us come right back over,” he explained. “I said ‘How come we don’t even get a little rest?’ All they’d tell ya is ‘you’ll find out.’”
“I can still picture that, no question about it,” he said. “They had us in the railroad yard there.”
“They finally told us that the Germans had a counterattack at Belgium and Luxembourg, and we were heading for it. Woohoo. I said ‘Jeez, it’d be nice to give us a rest,’” he continued. “We went to the lower side (of the front), but we were in the bulge.”
Cowles was headed to the Belgian border with Luxembourg — the infamous Battle of the Bulge — as German troops had spilled west.
“We were stuck in one spot for a long time, Walt (Jones) and me,” he recalled. “We had been up for 78 hours without any sleep.”
Cowles ended up with frostbite on his right leg, giving him life-long neuropathy.
While he didn’t remember many details of the battle itself, he remarked that he was lucky to remember as much as he does about the war: “My brain doesn’t work like it used to.”
“Well, after the battle, it was a quite a while before we were fighting our way through to take over the camps that we fought for at the bulge in Luxembourg,” he said.
“We captured one head of the Gestapo, and we had him in a building we kept separate from the troops, naturally, to keep him from stirring up trouble,” Cowles recalled. “He was in this building, and the orders were if he came to that window to shoot him. He was a bad apple.”
Cowles also fondly remembered a 16-year-old Italian boy among those captured after the battle.
“He had a German Mauser (rifle) — he was shooting at us. We captured that crew quite a while after the battle,” he said. “He was fighting with (the Germans) because they made him. We changed that.”
“We took his German uniform, burned it and gave him a GI one,” he continued. “He was so happy, you couldn’t believe the smile on his face.”
As Cowles was headed home, he spent his 21st birthday going through the Straights of Gibraltar.
Staying true to his pledge on the beach of Normandy, Cowles was a Eucharistic Minister in the Episcopal church in Waverly until his legs wouldn’t let him stand anymore.
Despite being wounded, and countless efforts made to obtain it, Cowles has still not been awarded the Purple Heart.
“I wouldn’t have this stuff — (injuries, and 75 years of PTSD) — if I hadn’t gotten mixed up in that mess,” he said. “The proof in the pudding is that I never had a physical for discharge. The colonel was so damn mad I wouldn’t re-enlist, he just signed the discharge and the next thing I knew, I was shipped out to come home.”
“The Syracuse VA said I should’ve had my Purple Heart, but the colonel that interviewed me gave me a ring job — he didn’t report a damn thing about what had happened to me,” Cowles recalled.
“He was asking a guy to re-enlist that, when he came home, was about ready for the nut house,” he continued.
“This colonel that just signed it, Bob Adams, he saw me someplace (years later) in a big gathering of ex-GIs ,” he said. “I don’t know how we got to talking with him, but I said I didn’t even have my Bronze Star for Normandy. He sent it to me.”
Seventy-five years later, Cowles still has periodic anger outbursts, nightmares and anxiety — nothing has changed in that regard since he came home from the war — he’s lived with it his whole life.
“The only thing that kept me from jumping off a bridge was that lovely lady that I’ve been married to for 70 years, last December,” he said of his wife, Virginia. “She’s the only thing.”