Surviving Normandy Invasion by Melissa Hargrave - Kaplan Correspondent
Louisiana soldiers played an instrumental role in helping secure the United States’ victory during World War II.
Not only did our men and women serve the war effort, both at home and overseas, but a Louisiana native built a mode of amphibious transportation which gave significant tactical advantage to the United States.
These Louisiana manufactured vehicles, the Higgins Boats or LCVP, are what enabled sea-to-shore battle during the Normandy Invasion and for many other battles.
In fact, Dwight Eisenhower credited creator Andrew Higgins as being, “…the man who won the war for us.”
Louisiana native and World War II veteran Hulan Boothe landed on Omaha Beach aboard a Higgins Boat on the infamous D-Day.
During his time overseas, the now Kaplan resident fought battle after battle against the Germans, earning four medals and his spot in World history.
Hulan and his twin brother Houston Boothe, born in 1923, decided to enlist in the United States Army shortly before their 20th birthday. The natives of Covington traveled to their nearest recruitment station in New Orleans.
It was December of 1943, and Hulan contracted pneumonia which ultimately led to the separation of the two brothers. Houston was sent for basic training in Wichita Falls, Kansas while his brother recuperated, and the two remained apart for the duration of their service.
Once Hulan recovered, he was sent to Fort Hood, Texas where he received approximately four months training as part of the tank destroyer battalion.
In April of 1944, Hulan was sent to New York where he boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth, which, at the time, was the world’s largest passenger ship afloat. During the voyage, Hulan and more than 10,000 men were entertained by the day’s biggest Hollywood stars.
The onboard soldiers slept in shifts as the ship made a longer expedition than usual to avoid German submarines.
Once docked in Glasgow, Scotland, his division was sent by train to a location in England near London. There he was taken out of the tank battalion and transferred into the infantry where he was needed. He spent his time there in preparation for the legendary Normandy Invasion.
On June 6, 1944 at roughly 6 p.m., Hulan and the entire Third Army, under General Patton’s command, stormed Omaha Beach.
They came in by sea in the Louisiana crafted Higgins Boats and encroached upon the beaches.
Boothe can recall that before reaching the beach, the boat he traveled in malfunctioned.
“Would you believe the boat I was riding on, the ramp wouldn’t go down? We had to go over the side on a little ladder. We were still out at sea, so their gunfire couldn’t reach us. We were about 200 yards offshore. The water was about shirt pocket high and we carried our rifles over our heads and waded into shore while we were under fire”, he said.
One of the images that have never left him was the vision of the armada of Allied ships which lent a hand to the battle effort.
“There were thousands of boats as far as the eye could see”, recalls Boothe. “All different sizes, all Allies, and they were bombarding the beaches just beyond where we went onto shore.
“The Army’s Corps of Engineers were also present in the invasion. Soldiers mobilizing bulldozers created a path by cutting out trenches in a cliff at a thirty degree angle. The cliff bluff was over one hundred and fifty feet high, and the sight was commendable as wave after wave of men marched in formation behind the trenching machines.”
The entire time that his division advanced up the cliff, they were being bombarded by German cannon fire. The Germans used the protection of their pill boxes to attack the forthcoming troops with ammunition that would fragment and rain down.
The conditions were atrocious, but the men marched on and were able to establish the beachhead in about 14 hours.
Hulan stresses the importance of team effort in the war.
“There’s one thing you have to distinguish between: a battle and a skirmish. A skirmish is when you’re fighting en route when you’re traveling. A battle is when you’re entrenched and your enemy is also entrenched and you’re shooting at each other.
In those kinds of battles, you’ll find planes and the Air Force dropping bombs on them while us men are fighting on the ground. It was a major group effort. Everything that went on was coordinated and every person in the service no matter what he did was just as important as another.”
After the Normandy Invasion, Hulan and his division made their way throughout France en route to Germany. Along the way, Hulan took part in The Battle of the Bulge, The Battle of Bastogne, and the Battle of Cologne. He was also apart of vital missions which captured two major German assets.
“We captured two things that the Germans really needed. Their gold and their gasoline supply! We were traveling near Nancy, France which was on the East Coast. We discovered the German’s gold supply and loaded it onto GI trucks which were sent back to America. The gold was probably French gold which was confiscated by the Germans. It was a large amount, three or four truck loads, and it was all gold bars.”
“Then the gasoline dump was acres and acres of five gallon cans of gasoline and we captured that. That was a big boom to our advance over Germany because we had their gasoline supply. So when their tanks would run out on the side of the road we were using their gasoline to help us pursue them. That was a big twist of fate!”
The entire trek through France was spent chasing the Germans, making pontoon bridges, and liberating towns along the way.
“You see, a lot of these little towns we would pass through were still captured by the Germans. So our goal was to liberate them, and we did – one by one. The Germans were retreating when they realized we were coming into Paris. When we got there they were already gone. I had never seen such happy people in all my life. The people of Paris lined the road.
The people were so elated that the German’s had evacuated because of our oncoming approach, that as we were driving through, the people stood on the side of the road and cheered. We didn’t stop, we kept moving on, chasing the Germans.”
Hulan continued, “We had to build bridges too, because the Germans had bombed them out. They were pontoon bridges, which is a temporary bridge. A pontoon is a big drum, and a bunch of them were linked together so that they would float. Then you have the two runways for the tires. And that’s the bridges we built and crossed on.”
When the troops reached Berlin, the Germans surrendered and it marked the end of World War II. The soldiers remained in Germany for a time, and then back tracked through France.
Boothe returned to the United States via a Liberty Ship in 1945, just in time for Christmas. From the landing port in New Jersey, he traveled by train to Camp Shelby in Mississippi where he then paid a passersby $25 for a ride to New Orleans.
After the war, Hulan met and married his wife, Francis. The couple reared their two kids first in Corpus Christi, Texas and then in St. Tammany Parish near New Orleans. In 1990, after Hulan retired as supervisor of maintenance and engineering at Oschner’s Hospital, the Boothe’s made Kaplan their permanent residence.
According to Hulan, the key differences between the Iraqi War of today and World War II all deal with technology.
Today the weapons have been upgraded as well as the means of transportation. The food has changed as well.
“We didn’t have any MREs. We had K-rations and C-rations. K-rations were rations like crackers and stuff in a box. C-rations were stuff in a can – like potted meat.”
Another thing that has changed is the pay. Hulan made, at most, $35 a month which was barely enough for an individual to survive on.
Overall, he says he was extremely fortunate. He was one of only two men who were not wounded from his infantry. During the war, the public did everything possible to support their active military and still does to this day.
Last October, Louisiana Honor Air sent Hulan and other Louisiana World War II veterans free of charge to the new Monument in Washington, D.C.
In regards to his experiences, Hulan comments, “I look back over World War II and I have to think of one thing: it must have been hard for the ones in the Civil War. Because they didn’t have near as much as we had, and we had it rough. That must have been miserable.
“Thinking of that, I’m not complaining about anything that happened during the war. The public was behind us, and I have no complaints.”