The Daily TImes, (Blount Co. TN) Thursday, June 2, 1994:
Editor's Note: From a small farm in a rural valley of Blount County two brothers were inducted into the Army during the years of 1941 and 1943. D-Day changed the life of one and ended the life of the other. This is a part of that story and the events leading up to and following June 6, 1944, as written by Christy Stephens Martin, based on interviews with her father, Charles Stephens.
"Three Left, One returned From Normandy---They gathered in a field of a farm and discussed the draft notices they had received that day in the spring of 1941. Among those present were 27-year-old Horace S. Stephens and his best friend, Bernard Keller.
Horace and Bernard spent the next three years attached to the Army's 4th Motorized Artillery Division. In the United States they were able to remain together and were still together after their division was deployed to England in late spring of 1944.
Back home at the farm in Blount County, Horace's younger brother, 19-year-old Charles G. Stephens, received his draft notice in the spring of 1943. He was attached to the 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper. In February of 1944, Charles was in England training in various aspects of combat and parachute jumping. In late May of that year he was chosen to be a part of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Division's Pathfinders. The mission of the Pathfinders was to lead the way for the Allied invasion of France by dropping onto the Normandy Coast before dawn and marking the area with flares for the glider landings and bomber attacks.
By the end of May 1944, Pfc. Charles Stephens and his other 75-100 teammates were locked into a secure area known as the "Bullpen." They were allowed no communication with the outside world. They could receive mail and write back, but it was held by the Army to be mailed after their mission was accomplished. The "Bullpen" was located on the Allied airfield in the town of Newberry, England.
The men continued to train. They were briefed by Army intellegence on the terrain of the Normandy area. They practiced survival French and German, drilled with the few pieces of equipment they would be carrying and wondered what combat would be like. Most were young, inexperienced soldiers like 21-year-old Charles Stephens. They spent off hours playing cards, wondering about the folks back home, talking of girlfriends and bragging about what they would do to the Germans in combat.
On May 31, 1944, Pfc. Horace Stephens wrote home to his mother that he had not heard from his brother, Charles, yet, but hoped to soon. He indicated that he would like to hear from him and find out where he was in England so that they might be able to see each other.
He had earlier asked for a Scout knife to be sent to him. His mother had mailed it to him on May 16. He still had not received it, but was receiving the newspaper from home on a regular basis, a month after it was mailed. Horace assured his mother and father that he was fine, had gained some weight, and asked them not to worry about him. He closed with love to all of the family.
In early June the massive buildup of planes and troops at the Newberry Airfield peaked. On June 4, Gen. Eisenhower made the final decision that June 6, 1944 would be D-Day. There would be a brief 24-hour break in the windy, rainy weather.
By 9 p.m. on June 5, an onslaught of ships began to bear down on the Normandy Coast. The weather was warm but the seas were choppy. Among those on the ships were Horace Stephens and Bernard Keller, still together and attached to the 4th Artillery Division.
Slowly the ships moved across the English Channel on one of the most ambitious was missions ever undertaken. The waiting and the training were over. The war for those men was about to begin. Chaplains led services and spirits remained high. They were all brothers united in their mission to rid France of Hitler's deadly army.
By 10 p.m. on June 5, 1944, Charles Stephens and his other team members of the Pathfinders were told by their Capt, Lillyman, "We are ready. We are going in." The men, dressed in specially designed coats and pants over their regular wool uniforms, reinspected their weapons, checked their ammo, packed their musette bags with two days of food rations, hand grenades, a compass, wire cutters, search lights, cigarettes and chocolate bars.
Charles Stephens' father had sent him a knife of better quality than the military issue and he packed that as well. The men blackened their faces, donned parachutes and armed themselves with M-1's. They were both anxious and eager to begin their mission.
As the men left the building and boarded (13 to a plane) on Dakota airplanes, Eisenhower met with them on the airfield. Eisenhower's message to all involved in this campaign was much the same.
"Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force---you are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world upon you, the hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you."
He is remembered to have wished to these airmen, "Godspeed and good luck." It was about midnight.
The men were told to use speed and stealth to avoid the enemy and kill and fight only if forced to do so.
After Eisenhower's address to the troops Capt. Lillyman yelled, "Let's get this show on the road!"
The Pathfinders loaded on the airplanes for the short flight to the Normandy Coast. Some of the airmen were told, "When you land in Normandy you will have only one friend---God."
The soldiers talked and smoked while on the planes as the pilots dodged anti-aircraft fire and tracers filled the night sky. Some of the pilots were unable to drop the paratroopers in the correct zone because of the fire. Many were thrown off-course. Few of the 100 made it to the correct assigned place. It was approximately 12:30 a.m.
The airmen dropped about one mile inland of Utah Beach. It was dark and lonely as the men attempted to find each other. Their final mission: to set up the flares for the bombers and gliders, destroy any anti-aircraft guns they encountered, and mark the canals and bridges and locks on the Dover River surrounding Carentan. They had 1 1/2 hours to complete the mission.
It was extremely dark and overcast. The men could not visually recognize one another.They were issued "snapbugs." One snap was to be returned with two snaps to identify allies. Stephens almost shot a cow that did not return his "snap." Tension was high and the adrenalin flowed in the young soldiers.
As the night continued German automatic weapons and answering Allied M-1's could be heard. Allied soldiers passed within an arm's distance of German soldiers. Small planes droned overhead. Demolition teams destroyed anti-aircraft guns with explosives.. The flares had been set up to mark the glider and bomber paths. The Pathfinders' mission was almost complete by 2 a.m.
Shortly after this bombardment of the beaches began. The earth shook with the assault for hours. Dust was everywhere and little could be seen. It sounded and felt as if the world was on fire. The Pathfinders had completed their mission and were now told to watch and wait.
About 3 a.m. the paratroopers and gliders had begun to come in. Their air filled with parachutes as thousands landed on the beaches of Utah and Omaha close to the Pathfinders. Gliders came in silently, many crashing into the terrain of Normandy. Weapons and machinery were unloaded. The mass of men and machine, the bombardment and the exchange of weapons fire caused mass chaos and confusion.
About 5 a.m., a Frenchman approached Stephens' team. He pointed to the edge of Carentan and said in French, "The Germans are gone." He hid the young soldier in the straw loaded in his two-wheeled cart and headed for the town. Hidden in the straw Stephens could hear the voices of German soldiers as they sat on the steps of a Carentan shop. The Frenchman realizing that he was wrong and the Germans had not fled Carentan, took Stephens back to his team where he reported what he had heard.
Back at sea the murky, gray light began to dawn. Horace's 4th Artillery Division was scheduled to land early in the attack. Over the loudspeaker came a constant stream of messages, "Get in there, 4th Division, and give 'em hell!" The men were seasick and sodden with the spray from the choppy sea. Chaplains held prayer services. Allied bombers and fighters appeared overhead. They began their bombardment of the coast, further shaking the already rough seas.
Waiting and watching near Carentan, Charles Stephens and his team witnessed the crash of a glider containing the Pathfinder's Assistant Division Commander, Gen. Don Pratt. All on board the glider were killed. The ground continued to shake with constant shelling. The Pathfinders waited and watched as the 101st, 82nd and the British 6th divisions were dropped on the beaches.
As the 4th Artillery Division neared Omaha and Utah Beaches the Germans opened up with guns that few believed could have survived the Allied bombardment. Mortar shells rained down and the Germans pounded the seacraft. The sea was choppy and turbulent. Vessels were blown apart and men picked off with machine guns as they dove into the rough sea. A control boat, confused by the heavy gun smoke and strong cross currents midirected some of the ships and landing craft. Panic, courage and determination to salvage as much as possible of the mission were the emotions of the officers and enlisted men still at sea.
By 8 a.m., the Pathfinders had witnessed the explosion of the French railroads. They later found that the French Underground had been partially responsible for that part of the D-Day action. The Pathfinders and others in the sea had begun to exchange fire with the scattered and surprisingly intact German forces.
By later afternoon, Charles Stephens met a 4th Division infantryman who had stormed the beaches of Utah. Stephens knew his brother, Horace, had been somewhere in the onslaught. He wondered about him and Bernard Keller, as well as other friends. It was obvious that many had not survived. The young as well as the experienced and hardened soldiers were shocked and saddened by the destruction of life they witnessed.
Late afternoon and evening of June 6 saw the Pathfinders absorbed into the mass of Allied soldiers around Utah Beach. The war had begun for these young men.
Tough combat followed the June 6 bombardment of Utah Beach. The 502 Regiment that Pfc. Charles Stephens was attached to spend the next weeks in foxholes, taking one small village after another on the long and bloody march toward St. Lo, France, 18 miles inland. Allied troops, of which Charles Stephens was a member, took St. Lo from the Germans on July 18, 1944. Following St. Lo a speedier entry into the countryside of France by the Allied soldiers in tanks occurred.
Back home in Blount County, the Stephens family recieved a telegram from the Adjutant General:
"THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON, PRIVATE FIRST CLASS HORACE STEPHENS HAS BEEN REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION SINCE SIX JUNE IN FRANCE. IF FURTHER DETAILS OR OTHER INFORMATION ARE RECEIVED YOU WILL BE PROMPTLY NOTIFIED."
The family of Bernard Keller recived a similar telegram.
Charles Stephens regrouped in August with his division in England. He parachuted for the last time in September of 1944 into Holland. Four days after this in a bloody Allied loss, he and many others were taken prisoner by the German Army.
Months passed on the farm in East Tennessee. The family received another telegram on Oct. 24, 1944:
"THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON, PRIVATE FIRST CLASS CHARLES G. STEPHENS HAS BEEN REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION SINCE THIRTY SEPTEMBER IN FRANCE. IF FURTHER DETAILS OR OTHER INFORMATION ARE RECEIVED YOU WILL BE PROMPTLY NOTIFIED."
And another on Nov. 23, 1944:
"REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON, PRIVATE FIRST CLASS CHARLES G. STEPHENS IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT. LETTER OF CONFIRMATION FOLLOWS."
Many more months passed and no word of Horace Stephens or Bernard Keller was heard. Finally a telegram confirming the family's fears was received:
"I AM DEEPLY DISTRESSED TO INFORM YOU. CORRECTED REPORT JUST RECEIVED STATES YOUR SON, PRIVATE FIRST CLASS HORACE S. STEPHENS WAS KILLED IN ACTION SIX JUNE NINETEEN FORTY FOUR. THE SECRETARY OF WAR ASKS THAT I EXPRESS HIS DEEP SYMPATHY IN YOUR LOSS AND HIS REGRET THAT UNAVOIDABLE CIRCUMSTANCES MADE NECESSARY THE UNUSUAL LAPSE OF TIME IN REPORTING YOUR SON'S DEATH TO YOU."
On April 29, 1945, Charles G. Stephens was liberated by American forces from the German prison camp. Stalag 7A, in the small town of Mooseburg, Germany. He returned home on June 6, 1945, exactly one year after D-Day to learn of his brother's death not far from his own position off Utah Beach on June 6, 1944.
Corporal Charles G. Stephens was honorably discharged from the Armed Forces of the United States on Sept. 29, 1945. He was awarded the Purple Heart for a bullet received in action in France. He was also awarded the Bronze Star for valor from action during the campaign.
The body of Pfc. Horace Stephens was never recovered. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. Bernard Keller, his best friend, was also killed on June 6, 1944. Details of their deaths were never known. A memorial marker for Horace Stephens and Bernard Keller lies in the Allied Normandy Cemetery in St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France, and for Horace in the cemetery adjacent to Pleasant Hill Memorial Church in Maryville.
Charles Stephens, now 71 years old, still resides in the same valley in Blount County. He talks of World War II and D-Day often. The memories are vivid. The destruction and loss of life in the "war to end all wars" instilled in him a deep sense of patriotism, respect for human life, and an abhorrence for war.
Everyday he thanks God that his life was spared, and he prays and gives thanks for those who made the ultimate sacrifice."