Scars of war

D-Day vet recalls invasion of Normandy

Earl Chellis of Beacon Falls, 90, was in the first wave of men to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. –RA ARCHIVE

Earl Chellis of Beacon Falls, 90, was in the first wave of men to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. –RA ARCHIVE

As he lay in a field above France’s Omaha Beach, a piece of shrapnel in his left shoulder, a battle-dazed Earl W. Chellis Jr. oddly imagined the scene as his early 20th birthday party — if he lived to see his birthday. He watched the shore from which he had just escaped; a mass of burning ships and vehicles.

Blood tainted the water red.

It was June, 6, 1944, World War II’s D-Day, also called the Normandy landings. With its allies, it was America’s largest military overseas operation in its time. It came with a high cost — nearly 10,000 casualties, including 2,500 killed in a day — but the invasion allowed troops to march into Germany and ultimately win the war in Europe.

Chellis was one day shy of 20, too young to die but old enough to heed the words of Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the first Allied general to land on D-Day: “If you stay where you are, you’re going to die.”

Seventy years later, Chellis shared his recollections of that day, and of his service. He’s 90 now, battling leukemia, and the Beacon Falls resident gets along with help from his son, Gary Chellis of Terryville.

Chellis said he still gets a “good feeling” when he puts on his ball cap identifying him as a Purple Heart recipient. He dismissively waves off his Silver Star, saying there were many men that fateful day who did as much or more in the battle.

“It shows you did something for your country,” Chellis said of his hat. “What else could I be more proud of, than to say I served in the Army?”

A Seymour native who was just beginning a career at the New Haven Copper Company, Chellis’ life took an unexpected turn when he was drafted in 1943.

Reporting for the draft, he said he was an avid hunter and fisherman. The fact that he was an active outdoorsman, his son Gary Chellis said, was what landed him in the Army. Chellis became a solider of the 1st Division, 16th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company E.

He was in the first wave to arrive on Omaha Beach at 6 a.m. June 6, 1944. His landing craft vehicle, known in military jargon as an LCVP, or landing craft vehicle personnel, got stuck. The coxswain had tried everything to free it, rocking the boat to the point of making the troops seasick. The craft reeked of diesel fuel.

“To this day, he can’t stand the smell of diesel engines,” Gary Chellis said of his father. “It reminds him of that time.”

By the time his group neared the shore, it was 7:30 a.m., Earl Chellis recalled. A ramp dropped for men to run into the water and make their way to the beach.

“The first six guys to get off the boat got shot,” Chellis said.

Chellis jumped in and his head submerged underwater. The water was about 10 feet deep, and he had 90 pounds of equipment including a Browning automatic rifle and a long trench knife strapped to his back. He propelled himself from the ocean floor to the surface and gasped for air.

“My life preserver inflated, scaring the hell out of me,” Chellis wrote in a memoir of the day’s events. “I thought something was grabbing me.”

Chellis and his fellow soldiers staggered up the beach under incessant enemy fire, a hum Chellis likens to buzzing bees.

Men dropped. His friend, a teenager named Freddy he hadn’t known long enough to remember his last name, went down. Chellis couldn’t stop to see if Freddy was dead or alive.

Within minutes, Chellis was hit, too — shrapnel struck the knife on his back, which sliced his left shoulder. A medic intervened and told Chellis to get back to the landing craft and return to England for treatment.

He refused. “I just made it off that beach,” he told the medic. “I’m not about to go back down there.”

For being wounded, and staying to fight, Chellis later was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. His real reward was more immediate: He had survived to see his 20th birthday.

Chellis returned to Connecticut to start over. He tried to shut out memories of the war. He didn’t share his story with friends or family. He barely kept in touch with colleagues from the Army.

It was long after Normandy that he learned his friend Freddy had died on the beach.

“They always told me, ‘If you’re in the 1st Infantry, don’t make many friends,’” Chellis said.

While dating his future wife, Edith Potter, whom he married in 1948, the two were walking along a street when a noisy bus drove by. Chellis instinctively dropped to the ground to take cover. What made for a comical story showed the emotional toll of the war, Gary Chellis said.

“He never said he was scared, but he never said he was not scared,” his son said.

The fighting did not end on D-Day. After Normandy, Chellis traveled 20 to 30 miles a day with tanks until he reached Germany. Along the way, the Americans would run into pockets of Germans. Firefights would ensue.

Chellis chuckled as he remembers the enemy. They were tough, he said, but sometimes they got tired of fighting. One morning, as Chellis was en route to invade a German town, he heard the “click, click” of a loading gun. Two German soldiers leapt onto the path before his squad and begged for the Americans not to shoot.

The march proceeded into the town where Chellis’ orders were to invade a house. He arrived in the yard to find a man in an overcoat. Overcoats, Chellis said, signified a German — the Americans didn’t wear overcoats. Chellis fired.

He was wounded again in the fall of 1944 during the battle of Hurtgen Forest. Chellis, who had been promoted to sergeant, and about 10 other men were stationed near the city of Aachen, Germany.

“There were pine trees so thick you couldn’t see three feet on either side of you,” Chellis said. “But we just kept going and going, even though it was getting dark.”

Shots rang through the forest as the Germans fired into trees, blasting them to pieces. Chellis said he was digging a hole when something struck his back.

“It just completely knocked me down. I felt something warm running down my back and realized it was blood.”

Shrapnel had pierced his upper back and there were slivers in his leg. From his vantage point on the forest floor, Chellis heard soldiers rushing to get medics. About 20 Americans had been hit.

Despite his injured leg, Chellis walked 1.5 miles before catching a ride on a Jeep. It was early morning before he reached a hospital in Belgium. There, Chellis underwent surgery to remove the shrapnel from his upper back.

He remembers not responding well to anesthesia.

“They hit me with everything but the kitchen sink to wake up. You never knew how you were going to come out of it,” Chellis said. “When I woke up, the nurse told me to say my name, but I could only get the first letter. Then she started slapping my face and hollering, just to try to get me to say something. But I didn’t say anything until the next day.”

Chellis was later transported to a hospital in England where he stayed for three months to recover. That’s when the war ended. A scar the size of a half-dollar marks the wound for which he was awarded his second Purple Heart.

These days, Chellis’ battles are from within. He has biweekly blood tests and transfusions to fight the leukemia he’s battled for two years. He’s already beaten prostate cancer and undergone a quadruple bypass, his son said.

Edith Chellis, with whom Chellis raised sons, Gary and William, died 14 years ago.

But Chellis perseveres, still independent — a study of unbreakable inner strength. He won’t talk about his struggles, just as he never talked about the war.

What he wants people to know is his pride in the American troops who fought that war, particularly those of his 1st Infantry Division.

“It’s amazing,” Chellis said. “They stand out.”

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