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CENTRAL FALLS â For years when he was working as a driving school instructor in France, Leo Heroux would request to have June 6 off to go to the beach.
But it was no ordinary vacation day.
Heroux's destination was always Omaha Beach â a place that, despite its natural beauty, brings back painful memories of the carnage he witnessed as a young soldier in the aftermath of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Heroux, who lives in Forand Manor, says he thinks he is one of the last remaining veterans in the local area who was there during the tense and bloody battle of World War II. He received several medals for serving in the war and a few commemorative medals years later. He also made peace with the iconic battlefield â perhaps more so than most â because he wound up marrying a woman from Normandy and returned to the area to live shortly after being discharged from the service.
Heroux remembers his D-Day experience well, when as a young soldier with the 348th Engineer Combat Battalion A stationed in South Wales, Mass., his unit received orders to pack up and move out to Europe. Although the soldiers weren't given any information about the location, they received âfrancsâ that pay period. âWhen we got the French money, we knew damn well where we were going,â said Heroux, with a rueful smile.
Carrying heavy equipment, Heroux and his unit boarded an LST boat at Southhampton, England. He was amazed at the number of waiting troops, military trucks, and smaller âduckâ boats that were waiting to be loaded onto the ships. Then, his ship left the dock. âI said, âWe're rolling ... here we go!ââ remembered Heroux, who, like most of the troops, hadn't been on a boat journey before.
At first, it was calm. Heroux said that some of his fellow soldiers were playing cards with dice to pass the time, and he went up on a top deck to take in the view. âI saw all of the boats, following all in a row. It was a beautiful sight,â he recalled. The tranquility didn't last long, however. Heroux, who had gone inside a truck to take a nap, said he was woken up by a huge roar of motors. âI went out and looked up. You couldn't even count the planes, there were so many going overhead. Then I heard the shooting âŠ heard the battleships with guns blazing,â Heroux stated.
Heroux said this all took place very early in the morning on June 6. Bomber planes were releasing their charges on the beaches and there was heavy smoke. He said he could see the land, but his ship was still out at sea. âWe could hear the German guns that were firing at the planes and boats,â he said.
Heroux said that his LST stopped about three miles from the shore, and he recalled seeing the duck boats, loaded up with men and equipment, start to disembark.
High waves made it difficult for the smaller sea vessels, and he saw several of them sink not far from the boat. Then it was on to a motorized barge, which was also under German fire. âThere was debris flying all over the place,â he stated. There were also numerous mines and other obstacles blocking the way to shore. At one point, Heroux went underneath a truck and later looked inside and saw boxes of TNT.
Amazingly, the barge made it to the shore and Heroux and his outfit, the Fifth Special Brigade Amphibious Engineers, got off and clambered over rocks through shallow water. They were ordered to follow in a straight line. âWhat I saw ... bodies were all over the place. But we couldn't do nothing,â Heroux said, noting that it was the job of his company to locate and rid the beach of landmines.
Among the many vivid images that stuck in Heroux's mind from that historic day was seeing a church steeple from the boat and then noticing moments later that it was gone. Intrigued, he inquired about the steeple and was told that it had been purposely blown off by Allied troops so the Germans wouldn't use it as a landmark. Another was seeing a soldier safely pick up a live mine only to have it slip from his grasp and land on the detonator, blowing him up.
The company set up camp in pup tents on the field of a nearby farm, where a French man had been seen milking several cows. Heroux said his captain came up to him and, knowing the Central Falls resident could speak French, told him to tell the farmer that he would have to find another place for his cows.
When low tide occurred that first evening, an extensive minefield was revealed. When the soldiers saw the maze of wooden logs and iron rods rigged with explosives, they realized just how lucky they had been. âIt was incredible that barge had missed all of those obstacles that were in the water, Heroux marveled.
Heroux said that using a mine detector, his company was assigned to clean up the beach and shoreline. They used white ribbons to mark the places they had passed to make a path for tanks, trucks and troops. âOur battalion did no fighting. Our job was to pick up mines, pick up bodies, and clean the beach,â said Heroux.
Heroux, who joined the Army in 1943 at the age of 18, served about 32 months, including two years in the European theatre. It was shortly after D-Day that he met his wife, Anne-Marie, who lived in the nearby village of Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy. He struck up an acquaintance with Anne-Marie's father and was introduced to the attractive young woman, who was working as a school teacher.
After Heroux's outfit moved into northern France and later into Germany, the young couple kept their courtship alive through letter writing. When Heroux returned to Central Falls, Anne-Marie flew to Rhode Island and the couple married in Notre Dame Church. They had to hastily arrange a wedding after being surprised to learn that Anne-Marie could only stay a month in the U.S. with her travel documents.
After about a year of living in Central Falls, where Heroux worked at Sayles Finishing Company, the couple decided to return to France. They settled in the area near Normandy where Anne-Marie's family resided and Heroux worked as an instructor for his father-in-law's driving school. Despite it taking him almost a year to learn âreal French,â Heroux said that he and his wife were happy living there. The couple had a daughter and the family remained in France until Anne-Marie passed away in 1980. Only then did Heroux return to Central Falls, to be near his remaining relatives.
Heroux has been back to Normandy a couple of times, including in 1996 on an excursion with other veterans that was part of a local TV news feature. But during the 32 years he spent living in France, he said he always made sure he had free time every June 6 to visit the American Cemetery and the once again picturesque beach where he landed as a wide-eyed, teenage U.S. soldier.