Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TOP STORY >> Memories of liberating Europe

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader news editor

Russell Hoggard had just turned 22 when he took part in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Hoggard, 87, witnessed one of the largest invasions in history as a staff sergeant gunner with the 746th Tank Battalion.

Hoggard, who lives in rural Jacksonville, believes he is the only surviving member of the battalion.

He said that its members would reunite once a year until recently. All of his old friends from his military days have passed away over the years.

“I guess that I’m the only one left in my company. I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.

World War II veterans are becoming scarce, making their stories even more important and cherished.

“There aren’t many of them who are able to get around anymore,” Hoggard said.

Each serviceman’s story is historically important, and Hoggard understands that. He feels obligated to share his experiences, and they’re compelling to hear.

Hoggard puts a human side to a part of American history that is becoming too distant, too quickly.

He recounts his war stories from 65 years ago with a clarity that gives listeners an understanding of the effect that the war had on his life.

His story is similar to other young men’s of his generation who made it through the Great Depression by joining the Civilian Conservation Corps and later survived the battlefields of Europe.

“The night before the invasion, they told us plainly (that we were going to invade.) First, they put us in a big compound in England. They gave us maps of the terrain over there. They sewed American flags to our clothes and removed all signs of our ranks,” said Hoggard, a White County native.

“Our first objective was to capture a little town called St. Mere Eglise,” he explained. The Germans had occupied the French town for about four years.

Nearly half a million men from Allied forces landed at Normandy to liberate Europe from fascism.

“I hit the beach about 9:30 or 10 o’clock in the morning,” just behind the first wave, he said.

Hoggard remembers seeing the sky filled with airplanes, paratroopers and piloted gliders carrying ammunition. He was awed by the magnitude of the invasion. The Allies’ military might was set to conquer Hitler’s Europe.

“If it hadn’t been for the united effort, the Germans would still be goose stepping,” he said.

It wasn’t always easy for Hoggard to talk about his experiences during the war. Over the years, he began to share his stories with his wife and children.

His memory may have been jogged when he came across a few World War II photographs up for auction in Rose Bud about five years ago. He even fought in one of the villages in the photographs.

Hoggard bid for the pictures, but he lost. When he explained to the winning bidder that he had helped liberate that village, she was so moved that she gave him the photos.

“I wonder if he made it,” he said about a soldier shown resting in the war-torn village. The chances of survival were not high.
In many ways, the photographs may be his most prized wartime memorabilia. He earned the others on the battlefield.

Hoggard was injured twice during the war, which earned him the Purple Heart and an Oak Leaf Cluster for his sacrifice.

He fought in five battles: Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium (six months after D-Day) as well as the campaigns for northern France, the Rhineland and central Europe.

“I got shelled. I lost two tanks, and our outfit lost 44 tanks in just one month,” he said.

Hoggard remembers when a fellow soldier was shot by a sniper after he raised his head out of the tank scouting for enemy positions. The soldier was shot through the neck.

Hoggard and the other men got the soldier to a medic. Hoggard’s clothing was covered in the soldier’s blood. He’s not sure how long it was before he got a fresh change of clothes.

After the soldier recovered, he was sent back to the front lines, where he died just a few days later.

Life was hard along the battle lines. The bitter cold deepened the misery of the war.

The men would sleep in holes they dug that were lined with ponchos and blankets. Two or three men shared the makeshift beds just to keep warm.

Back home, his wife Marthell was working at the ordnance plant in Jacksonville. “I worked out there from the time he went overseas until July 1945,” she said.

Marthell remembers hearing the plant’s manager announce over the intercom that Japan had surrendered and that the plant would close immediately.

Although separated by thousands of miles, the couple was helping to fight the same enemy.

“I think the Lord was keeping him for someone,” she said about her husband’s survival after so many bloody battles.

The couple was married in 1942, soon after Hoggard returned from working in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Oregon.
C.C.C. camps were set up for the thousands of young and jobless men during the Great Depression.

One day in 1939, he was working on his family’s small dairy farm near Vilonia, where he was born, when a C.C.C. recruiter asked him if he wanted to join. Hoggard couldn’t turn down an opportunity that would make life easier for him and his parents. It was a chance to earn a solid income.

“I earned $30 a month in the C.C.C. I kept $8 and sent $22 back home to help my family,” he said.

When he got back to Vilonia, to his surprise, his father had saved all of the money that he had sent.

“The C.C.C. was one of the best things to happen. Franklin D. Roosevelt was like a king. That was one of the best things that happened,” he said.

During his time in the C.C.C., Hoggard worked as a night guard. He was responsible for waking up the men in the work camp and giving them fresh coal rations each morning.

The program gave him food and clothing, and training that would help him the rest of his life. It also prepared him for the Army.

After the war, Hoggard farmed from 1946-50. Then he worked in the engineering department of the Veterans Hospital in Little Rock for the next 25 years.

He and Marthell have four children, three sons and one daughter. Two of their sons fought in Vietnam.

“If I was a young man now, I’d go straight into the service,” he said.