MILLHEIM - "You had to bear it, you couldn't give up, couldn't quit. You were in it for the duration."
Russell Stover sat in his living room, his eyes remembering the one thundering, crimson day when he invaded Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-Day.
At 92, it was clear he could still hear the explosions, feel the drenching slap of waves as they neared the beach, the qualms that whispered, "Thou shalt not kill," the whistle of bullets, though he was in the quiet of his home with his wife of 66 years.
ELIZABETH REGAN/THE EXPRESS
Word War II veteran Russell Stover, 92, and his wife, Violet, 90, in their home in Millheim.
"It's past history for me. I don't talk about the bad things that happened on the beach," he said.
He was an Army private first class light machine gunner in I Company, 116th Infantry of the 29th Division.
D-Day was the first time he saw action.
And when he went back to that beach in 1979, the gritty details of that day roared once more.
"It was very dark. The sea was wild" as the soldiers approached the beach, he wrote in the July 1993 Twenty-Niner Newsletter.
They were supposed to land on the western half of Omaha Beach in the third wave. Their first objective was to capture the high ground west of Longueville and prepare to advance on Isigny.
D-Day was originally to be June 5, but due to inclement weather, was moved to June 6.
They were told they would have plenty of cover, that their invasion would be preceded by a 40-minute naval bombardment, that tanks would provide counter battery fire, that 13,000 bombs would be dropped, that rockets would be fired on the beach.
The rockets were fired. Stover heard the flash from the naval bombardment.
But because of the dust and smoke from the battle, the soldiers missed their landmark to the right of the Les Moulins draw. Instead, they had to land east of their assigned area.
He was the gunner in the machine gun squad and his best friend, Donald Pyle, was his assistant gunner. The machine gun squad also consisted of Sgt. Woodrow Combe and Charles Pitcock and Brack Lyle, ammunition carriers.
"The boat stopped... The ramp went down and we leaped out into waist-deep water and three-foot waves. Some lost their footing, some their weapons," he wrote.
"We landed early in the morning; it was just getting to be daylight. It was cloudy, raining, we were all wet. I could hear the battleships bombarding the beach, a lot of explosions."
But the 13,000 bombs never reached the beach; they were dropped on farmland instead because of the weather.
"There would've been less casualties," Stover said.
And the 30-minute naval bombardment was not long enough. "The big German guns could fire almost the length of the beach," according to the veteran.
He had earlier struggled with the biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," but had come to this conclusion: If he lived to see the beach, he was allowed to kill the enemy.
A HEAVY LOAD
"We had 62 pounds we had to carry, wading in the water, and then it was wet, wet, wet," Stover said.
He did reach the sand, though his "impregnated pant legs were filled with water."
But there were no foxholes or craters for cover. There was no artillery fire. No naval fire came. A boat burned as it floated out to sea.
Thankfully, a mortar shell had caused a grass fire with smoke that provided cover.
"If not for that smoke, we would not have made it in," he wrote.
Their mislanding was also fortunate and saved many lives.
"We went in between very defended positions," he said. "It would've been worse."
It was Col. Meeks, commander of the battalion, who helped decide where to land.
But Stover also saw that the first and second waves had not been able to go farther than the beach. Three tremendous rolls of barbed wire had kept them from advancing.
The squad that was supposed to blow the wire had either mislanded or met a darker end.
Stover and his squad took action, and began firing at the top of the bluff.
Eventually, word reached down the beach that they needed Bangalore torpedoes to blow the wire.
"We were there hours before that happened."
Finally, they had four torpedoes, and after blowing the wire, were able to advance.
"I was firing up a cliff, protecting the guy who blew up the wire," Stover said, then paused. "Our machine gunner was killed."
"The hardest part was having so many friends killed," he said.
As they climbed the bluffs, they found mines all over.
It was on those bluffs that one particular stark and courageous image remains in the forefront of Stover's memory.
"(A) GI was to my right, near the top of the bluff, east of the Les Moulins draw, above Omaha Beach. His right foot was broken and bleeding, his shoe full of blood, but he was still struggling upward, clawing at the grass with his hands to make any progress, great pain on his face.
"It was a perfect example of the 116th regiment's motto, 'Ever Forward.'"
After they scaled the bluffs, they realized their "exit" wasn't open yet, so they fought down the other side to open the draw by St. Laurent.
During this time, Pyle was wounded. He'd heard the command, "Machine gun up front!" and both started running. He heard Pyle yell out, saw he was wounded, but he couldn't stop, couldn't stop, had to assemble the gun, run toward the stone wall, leaving Pyle...
"Leaving Don lying there was a very painful experience for me, as we had shared the same pup tent since March 1942," Stover said.
But when Stover's company got to the farm buildings, he saw the village of St. Laurent was far too large to attack with their rifles and machine guns.
While deciding their next move, the soldiers heard many loud explosions. Later, Stover learned it was from the battleship Texas firing on German defenses.
He would also learn how lucky his company was. The only company (A) to land in its assigned area suffered 90 percent casualties.
That company landed in the right spot because there were no visual obstructions like the cover the grass fire had provided Stover's company... which meant the Germans could see them, too.
Meanwhile, as the officers decided what to do, Stover and the others lay in the grass. When they looked up, they saw Germans approaching from several directions.
After Stover's company attacked and took some prisoners, they realized they were fighting the 352nd Infantry Division, a much tougher group that had fought on the Russian front.
"The 29th division took the most casualties for the shortest amount of time" since the Germans they fought were the elite 352nd division, not the 716th division they'd expected.
According to www.army. mil/d-day/beaches.html, "Advances up the steep bluffs were difficult in the extreme. German strong points were arranged to command all the approaches, and pillboxes were sited in the draws to fire east and west, thereby enfilading troops while remaining concealed from bombarding warships. These pillboxes had to be taken out by direct assault. Compounding this problem was the allied intelligence failure to identify a nearly full-strength infantry division, the 352nd, directly behind the beach. It was believed to be no further forward than St. Lo and Caumont, 20 miles inland."
As they advanced farther, Boyd, the other machine gunner, was shot and killed by a sniper.
Finally, at 11:30 p.m., the soldiers were able to dig in for the night. They'd been going since 3 a.m.
A LONG DAY
"It had been a long day... my Longest Day," Stover wrote.
To sleep, they dug a slit trench. But his squad had to protect the others while they slept, so they took turns on watch.
Because of the continuous combat in the days to come, sleep was a rare gift.
"The thing we missed the most was water. Sometimes, we went a day without. We got (water) from farms, streams. Farms sometimes gave us food. It was pretty rough," he said.
To purify the water, they put pills in their canteens.
The second day, they attacked Vierville, relieved the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, and captured the town of Grandcamp. It was then they were placed in division reserve. They continued fighting toward St. Lo.
Then, on June 17, Stover was wounded and flown to England.
His comrade Baker's US badge sliced into Stover's right ankle from an explosion.
He was back in action six months later with the 3rd Army but was wounded again in February of 1945.
"I saw the (tank) driver firing in the wrong direction. He hit a mine field" which exploded, Stover recalled. Luckily, when he went to tell the driver where to shoot (at the German pillbox), he stepped out of the way of the worst of the explosion.
"If I had been where I was supposed to be, my injuries would've been worse," he said.
He served Feb. 21, 1942 to Feb. 11, 1946. He received two purple hearts and a good conduct medal.
His assistant gunner, Donald Pyle, survived. And every June 6, they get together to commemorate that fateful day.
Stover talked about who they'd been before the war, before the day he had to struggle with one of the 10 commandments.
"Don was a milkman before the war I was a farm boy."
Stover also made sheet metal prior to joining the service.
But his background had its advantages.
"I think the country boys did better than city boys; we weren't as educated, but we could take the physical part of it better," he said. The soldiers had to carry all their heavy equipment, about 60 pounds, and were assigned 20-mile hikes. "We were made tough; conditioned for it."
"You had to bear it, couldn't give up, couldn't quit; you were in it for the duration."
When he came home after the day that forever changed his life, things were different.
"Afterward, when I came back here, there were lots of changes I had to catch up with," he said. He shook his head. "You never wanted to repeat what we had to do the first time. I'd never want to be in battle again."
He looked away, cleared his throat. "I lost a dozen friends who were killed in battle with me(and) 119 friends never made it back."
He didn't talk about what happened for 25 years. But when a friend approached him about it, he convinced him it was time to put ink on paper.
"I'd wanted to clam up, but it was time to talk... I'd rather forget about it," he said.
RIGHT OR WRONG
If he had enlisted, his experience may have been entirely different.
"I'd gone to trade school and worked in sheet metal before the war. I'd wished I'd been in the Navy fixing planes," he said. But to enlist meant leaving the next day, no goodbyes. Instead, he was drafted into the Army.
His younger brother, Francis, was stationed in Wales, England, and processed new troops for the Army. His older brother, Lowell, was a welder and repaired battalions in the Navy.
But his twin, Randall, stayed at home and helped Dad on the farm.
"We used to hunt together," he said. "We're still close."
His youngest sibling, Esther, became a nurse at Geisinger Medical Center.
The rest of them, due to the Depression, never got to college.
Stover never really thought he could do anything worth remembering.
"I always thought of myself as inferior, small and uneducated," he said. He was shorter than others when he was young.
"Dad told me I was too small to go to school yet, said I couldn't defend myself so (years later) I didn't want to be a sergeant. I wasn't big enough to be an intimidating person, though I scored high enough to be a lieutenant."
That turned out to be a burden he is still grateful to not have to bear.
"But it was good I wasn't. They must make big, heavy decisions," he said.
Years later, he knocked on a lieutenant's door with whom he'd served that day. The lieutenant had made a necessary decision to shoot a man in civilian clothes running toward them with a rifle from an enemy-held position.
After all these years, that decision still weighed heavily on his mind.
"Was I right or was I wrong?" he asked Stover.
"You were right, sir," Stover replied, easing some of that burden.
And Stover, while thinking he'd never leave a mark, lived and fought through one of the bloodiest days in history, offering the most significant gift of all: freedom.
But the best decision of his life had the name of Violet Warritz.
"Did you tell her I wrote you every day?" Violet, 90, asked throughout the interview.
Indeed, when he was recovering in the hospital after one of his injuries, 66 letters all arrived on one day. Though all weren't from her, a good number were, he said with laughter.
They married on June 24, 1945, when Russell was on furlough the first time.
"I said, 'Let's get married.' And we did. Violet was ready for it," he smiled.
"Well, I waited," she answered.
They'd met when they were young. Every day, they'd see each other at their school bus stop.
But it was from a dream he knew he was to marry her.
He was napping under a big crab apple tree and dreamed of her walking on an old dug-up road to take a picture of Round Top Mountain.
When he woke up, he went there - and there she was, just like in the dream.
"That day, it all came together," he said. "We just liked each other."
"Now, 66.5 years later, we've lasted," he said.
Every May for most of their marriage, they'd go to different national parks, even different countries, like Canada.
"We've been to every state but Kansas," Russell said.
They have two children, Darlene and Douglas, and several grandchildren.
After they married, Russell worked at Farmer's National Bank and Trust Co. from 1946 to 1983. He started as a bookkeeper, but eventually "took over" the trust department.
Violet worked for eight years at the Municipal Police Education and Training Commission, and worked at the Bellefonte Courthouse for 11 years.
Their living room walls are lined with books - Russell has always loved to learn - and beside the shelves are numerous plaques and awards for both of their various achievements.
Though his legs hurt from the polio he contracted in 1953 and his old war injuries, he's still living the motto that got him through his Longest Day on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944: Ever forward.