Seventy-five years ago this week, Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy to begin the attack that eventually ended the war with Nazi Germany.
Twenty-five years ago, Patterson native Ken Carlson, then the news editor of the Irrigator and now on the news staff of the Modesto Bee, wrote a poignant story about one of those combatants who came home and became a prominent Patterson-area farmer.
That soldier was the late Warren Hicks. Much of Carlson’s article written 25 years ago is reprinted here, along with an historic photo that ran with it.
IT IS THE quintessential photograph of invasion eve.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower is encouraging paratroopers at a British airfield; some have already blackened their faces for the airborne landings in Normandy planned later that night.
In the background, holding one of the prayer books Eisenhower has distributed to the men is Warren Hicks of Patterson.
Hicks, then 22, had gone to Moorhead State University in Lexington, Ky., on a football scholarship. He left college to join the Army and volunteered for the elite paratroopers.
For years after the war, Warren, his wife Irene, and children would spot the picture in magazines and war books. It gave them a sense of pride, and Irene is now told the image will form the backdrop of a new Eisenhower postage stamp.
Six days before the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Irene takes out a nostalgia magazine and gazes at the photo again. Warren stands behind the four-star general and seems to look directly at the photographer, a slight grin lighting his face.
Hicks, who died last year (1993), occasionally shared his D-Day experiences with friends and family, though his greatest interests were athletics and coaching.
He gave his medals and the mechanical cricket, the device paratroopers used to identify each other in the dark, to his grandson who bears his name.
In a copy of the book “Night Drop” by S.L.A. Marshall, he kept a portrait of his closest Army friend, who was killed in battle. Marshall’s book tells of Hicks’ actions on the afternoon of D-Day.
Hicks, a private in the 101st Airborne Division, was part of the night drops just inland from Utah Beach. The objective was to secure four causeways or beach exits, before infantry landing in the morning to begin their sweep toward Cherbourg on the peninsula.
While many of the 13,000 paratroopers who descended over the foggy Normandy coast landed offshore, in marshes or far inland, the landings in this area were fairly accurate.
Scattered over the level farm land, men from different units were quickly able to assemble fighting bands and pursue objectives.
Landing not far away was William Young, also of Patterson, with elements of the 82nd Airborne that captured St. Mere Eglise, the first French town to fall to the allies.
Shortly after landing, Hicks was pinned down by two soldiers who were exchanging fire in the darkness, bullets whizzing right over his head. He never learned whether the combatants were really enemies or were training “friendly fire.”
According to Marshall’s book, Hicks was with Lt. Bernard C. Bucior’s patrol that afternoon, moving along a sunken road concealed by a hedge. It was one of three patrols trying to capture the village of Haut Fornel, whose defenders were reinforced by remnants of an ambushed German artillery convoy.
The patrol approached an orchard and a stone wall when a sharpshooter’s bullet tore a hole in Bucior’s shoulder. The men silenced the sharpshooter with grenades. Though bleeding heavily, the lieutenant refused evacuation.
The patrol – six members of the 101st Division and one from the 82nd who’d picked up a German weapon – continued on the road and reached an intersection. There they spotted two squads of Germans advancing across a field directly toward them.
“Standing erect, they let the crowd have it with machine gun and Schmeisser,’ Marshall writes. “When Matthews’s gun ran dry, Hicks took his place. Two squads of Germans were cut down and did not move after they fell.”
The patrol remained at the spot for 10 minutes, when their location was discovered and mortar shells rained down on the road. Hicks caught a machine-gun slug in the leg. Bucior and four others were wounded by bullets and fragments; only one man was left uninjured.
The soldiers resolved to retreat, but Hicks lay on the road and said he couldn’t move his leg. “You better damn well move it, or you never will again,” Pvt. Bernard Ormsbee is quoted as saying.
Ormsbee pulled Hicks to his feet and shoved him forward, an act that probably saved his life. Without the aid of medics, they limped to a nearby farm where Hicks, unable to go on, crawled underneath a house. One soldier stayed with him and they were evacuated when allied troops secured the area.
The others, described as a ghastly sight, made their way to a hospital on the beach. The lieutenant, wound in seven places, vanished along the way and was never found.
Hicks spent six weeks in the hospital, and recovered to take part in the airborne operations in Holland, where he was again wounded.
Despite being involved in harrowing combat, Hicks remained patriotic and never questioned the allied course, Irene says. A friend adds, “Those guys had to be tough. He took the positive points of his experience and it showed in the way he lived the rest of his life. He came back to Patterson and married his sweetheart and became a successful farmer. He had a lot of gumption and a lot of dedication to his wife and his family.”
Carlson’s story also noted that two other Pattersonites, Gracian Iturreria and John V. Azevedo, also took part in the Normandy invasion.