Northfield resident recalls WWII service
Harold Williams, center, poses in front of a German Panzer his unit disabled by bazooka in Herzogenrath, Germany, in 1945.
Harold William of Northfield is given the French Legion of Honor medal by French Consul General Fabien Fieschi Friday in Northfield Town Hall. The award recognizes Williams' U.S. Army service in occupied France during World War II. Williams' wife of 66 years, Viola, is at right.
NORTHFIELD — “We were told we had only one direction to go and that was forward. If we turned, our own men would shoot us.”
Harold Williams was told in no uncertain terms that retreat was not an option before his unit was shipped to Omaha Beach, after the first waves of the World War II D-Day invasion punched a hole in Axis defenses in France.
Back then, Williams never dreamed that his actions on that battlefield would earn him the Legion of Honor from the French government, and certainly not at age 91.
When he fought his way across German-occupied France at 22, he was never sure he’d live to see the next morning. He did, though, and this past Friday, this veteran was awarded the Legion of Honor medal, before a large crowd in the Northfield Town Hall.
“This is the greatest honor of my life,” said Williams, after French Consul General Fabien Fieschi pinned the medal to his lapel ahead of today’s Veterans Day.
It’s the newest addition to Williams’ memorabilia, a collection that includes his old Army coat, canteen and mess kit, a bayonet and swastika armband taken from a dead German officer, photos from the battlefield, his European Theater of Operations driver’s license and more.
He doesn’t need the mementos to remind him of his time in the Army, though. Sharp as a tack, Williams remembers even the smallest details of his service like they happened last night.
He was drafted into the Army National Guard in the summer of 1942, at the age of 20. He was assigned to the 30th Infantry Division, 105th Combat Engineers.
He spent his first two years of service on American soil. In February of 1944, the 30th was shipped across the Atlantic.
“One rainy night, we boarded trucks and were taken to South Boston, and were loaded onto ships that were waiting for us.”
Williams and the rest of the division were shipped to the Irish coast of England, where they boarded a train to cross the country.
The train was stopped outside London.
“Nobody was allowed off the train. German planes were bombing the city.” Eventually, the “all-clear” was given, and the train continued on to Chichester.
After being issued a jeep, Williams was sent to machine gun training for a month. He learned every inch of the Browning .50-caliber machine gun as he spent the first 10 days taking them apart and putting them back together. Then, it was time for live fire training.
“About every half-hour during daylight hours, a plane would come by pulling a target — a long sleeve,” he said. “We got a few complaints.”
They weren’t from residents, though, they came from the pilots.
“You don’t fire at a moving target; you give it a lead” and aim ahead of the target, he explained. “Sometimes, you lead a little too much, and put a hole or two in the fuselage of the plane.”
By the time he finished training and returned to his jeep, it had some new equipment — a Browning machine gun mounted to the top of the vehicle. It would come in handy in France.
Soon after, the Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, better known as D-Day. Williams and the 30th would set sail that night, though it took them several days to cross the English Channel.
“We rendezvoused with God knows how many vessels, and diagonally crossed the channel,” he recalled.
“There was a loud explosion. To our right, up ahead of us, one of the landing craft had hit a mine. The nose of the vessel came right up out of the water, and the ship slid back in, out of sight.”
“Nobody broke stride. You couldn’t.”
Williams had seen his first casualty of the war. It would not be his last.
Hitting the beach
He landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France at 11:40 p.m., June 10.
“Unless you were there, you never can imagine the battleships, the destroyers, and our planes overhead, the artillery incoming and outgoing. Mass confusion.”
He drove his jeep through 3 feet of water, and up the slope of the beach. They crested the hill and found themselves in the hedgerows. The fighting was fierce and Williams admitted that he broke down and was briefly unable to do anything.
“It’s not like you read about in books. No amount of practice can prepare you for war.”
The battalion had three bulldozers, used to punch through the rows. The bulldozer driver nearest Williams was shot dead, and a friend tried to take his place.
“A buddy of mine, Robert Lyle, jumped on the dozer, and he was dead before he hit the seat hardly.”
There was no time to mourn. The 30th was bound for nearby Saint Lo, to help the 29th Infantry break through the German lines.
“Outside Saint Lo, part of our division, including myself, was cut off by a German Panzer division.”
Panzers were fierce German tanks, and the 30th faced three divisions of the armored attack vehicles at different points in the war.
Outside Saint Lo, Gen. George Patton and the Third Army swooped in with Sherman tanks, and rescued Williams and his brothers in arms.
“Later, at the Battle of the Bulge, we came up against that same Panzer division. We defeated it; it never returned to combat.”
From Saint Lo, it was on to Pont Hebert, where death rained from the enemy above.
“We hadn’t been there but a few minutes, and two German fighter planes come over, oh, I’d say 1,000, 1,200 feet up. They released by parachute what we called personnel cluster bombs. When they were down about 300 feet (over us), they burst like Chinese firecrackers. Shrapnel. Everybody dives for cover the best they could find.”
Several soldiers were killed in the attack and many more were wounded. Williams sprang into action. He jumped into his jeep, stood on the passenger seat, and grabbed his machine gun.
“I had the sneaking suspicion they’d come back. Sure enough, 3 to 5 minutes later, they did. They were about tree-top level, strafing.”
“I had a perfect opportunity. I knocked down the one nearest me. It went maybe a half-mile, and went down in a ball of black smoke and fire. If I’d had a ground-mount (gun), I never could’ve done it.”
“It was satisfying to see that plane go down.”
The 30th had no time to rest. The next day, behind Allied bombers, they pressed east. They’d drive until they were low on fuel, dig in, set up defenses, and repeat the process once supply lines caught up to them. They paved the way for others.
“We were the first Allied troops to enter Holland, and the first to enter Belgium.”
Though he saw no shortage of battle, Williams had perhaps his closest brush with death during a trip to fetch a truckload of water.
“When I came back, my jeep had a gaping hole in the hood, you could fit a milk pail through it.”
Artillery burst all around his jeep, and a chunk of shrapnel blasted a hole through its hood, feet from his face. Still, Williams and his partner weren’t put off.
“We got back, and laughed like a couple idiots. I don’t know if it was nerves, or the fact that we’d beat death.”
By this time, Williams was battle-hardened. There would be no more breaking down.
“As time goes on, you get to be a zombie. You’ve had no sleep, you’re tired, and things don’t worry you as much as they did at the start.”
The ferocity and dedication of the 30th earned them the nickname “Roosevelt’s SS Troops,” given to them by the Axis forces. The real SS were Hitler’s elite soldiers. The nickname was used by “Axis Sally” in her English-language Nazi broadcasts meant to demoralize soldiers within radio range.
It didn’t work on the 30th, who repeatedly came up against Hitler’s SS, and came out on top.
“We rather fancied that nickname,” said Williams.
Though the Allies eventually saw victory in WWII, Williams, the 30th, and countless others also saw things no one should see.
Williams watched as Allied paratroopers were shot in midair, dead before they hit the ground. At another point, he had to help move the bodies of 22 soldiers, Allies and Axis alike.
“We stacked them like cordwood in the snow.”
He also saw the horrors of the Holocaust.
“We liberated two or three concentration camps. You would not believe the bodies in the trenches. At Buchenwald, you couldn’t imagine the sunken eyes and bloated stomachs of the survivors.”
At another point, the 30th came upon a stopped train packed with human cargo headed to their deaths. The Nazi guards saw they were outnumbered, and ran off, and their Jewish prisoners were liberated.
Though he may have seen things that still keep him up at night, Williams believed in the Allied effort to end the Holocaust and keep the Germans and Japanese from taking over the world.
He could have stayed home and never gone to war if he had felt differently.
When he was drafted, he was working at Tenney Farms in Northfield, and qualified for an agricultural deferment.
“I wanted no part of that deferment, being young and patriotic. I’m glad I went to war. I’m proud of my unit, and the things we accomplished.”
Back from the war
He’s proud of his post-war accomplishments, too.
He went back to Tenney Farms, then worked at Tenney Dairy in Greenfield, and eventually found his calling as a carpenter.
He married his wife, Viola, and the two will celebrate their 66th anniversary Nov. 29.
He worked for the Northfield Mount Hermon School for more than 20 years. He built cabinets for the school, designed and made a portable dance floor for the Northfield Chateau, and refitted the campus chapel to fit a large replacement pipe organ.
Besides on-campus carpentry, Williams has fixed features of several historic homes in downtown Northfield, while working alongside his son, Greg. He’s proud to be able to point out the dormers, sills, and other things he’s repaired that are still standing.
He still enjoys working with his hands, and his grandson-in-law said Williams is always fixing one thing or another.
Though he tries to keep busy, Williams can relax these days. That wasn’t the case in the war.
From the moment his jeep touched French soil, to the day his unit was pulled from the front lines, Williams remained ready for battle.
“I never once put my rifle’s safety on; my M1 was always at the ready,” he said. “Maybe it was foolish, but everything about war is foolish.”
David Rainville can be reached at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279