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Gone, but not forgotten: Whatcom County veterans recall D-Day’s horror and heroics

Bellingham resident tells her father’s story on D-Day anniversary

Bellingham resident Margaret Myles shares her father's stories and photographs he collected from his time in World War II and D-Day. Her father, John Malcolm Myles, retired to Bellingham, Wash., until his death in 1991.
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Bellingham resident Margaret Myles shares her father's stories and photographs he collected from his time in World War II and D-Day. Her father, John Malcolm Myles, retired to Bellingham, Wash., until his death in 1991.

This story by Kira Millage first appeared in The Bellingham Herald on June 6, 2004. We share these stories today in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of Allied forces landing in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.

Fred Hull died July 23, 2008, at age 85. Bill Wegley died March 13, 2018. at age 92.

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Many people were exposed to the graphic nature of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in the opening scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Some viewers hide their eyes, trying to erase the tragedy from their memories. For Whatcom County resident William “Bill” Wegley, that is impossible — he was on a Navy destroyer just off Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

“You never forget,” Wegley, 79, said, choking back tears. “I start crying, but I can’t help it.”

Today marks the 60th anniversary of D-Day, codenamed Operation Overlord, and not many veterans are around to remember the largest air, sea and land invasion in history. No special events have been planned in Whatcom County for the anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces landed in Nazi-occupied Europe.

“I saw a lot of people die that day,” Wegley said.

On June 6, 1944, the 19-year-old petty officer second class was a member of Repair Party 1 on the SS Baldwin, the last American ship in the American sector during the first wave of the invasion. Wegley vividly remembers the German shells that were fired at his destroyer from the town of Port-en-Bessin.

WWII D-DAY VETERAN Bill Wegley.jpg
Bill Wegley, 79 in 2004, was a ship’s cook on the destroyer USS Baldwin, off Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

“They hit the ship twice, but we got ‘em,” Wegley said, recalling the two rounds that damaged a gun turret and a whaling boat on his ship. “It sounded like a rattler hitting the ship when the German shells hit us.”

Wegley was just below the deck where the second round hit, but he knew it wasn’t his time to die yet because none of the bullets had “his number” on them.

“If it ain’t got your number on it, it ain’t gonna get ya,” he said.

Wegley lost 70 percent of his hearing from standing next to the 5-inch guns. They fired 990 rounds during the three-day attack.

Estimates indicate about 9,000 Allied forces died during the invasion. No one on the Baldwin was seriously injured, even though Wegley says “we got the hell bombed out of us,” and there were 49 holes in the port side of his destroyer.

“We were lucky, Christ we were lucky,” he said.

Wickersham resident Fred Hull was nearby on D-Day. Hull was a medic in the 3rd Army, Battalion C. While Wegley’s destroyer was firing at targets on shore, Hull’s unit sat on their small transportation boat, waiting for a spot to open up on the beach so that they could land.

Hull’s unit had to wait six hours before there was an opening between all the other boats and gunfire for them to reach Omaha Beach, one of the main landing points for American troops.

“Once we walked on, we could see why (we had to wait),” Hull said. “There were a lot of dead people.” Hull’s “good crew” only had one casualty during the invasion.

WWII D-DAY VETERAN Fred Hull.jpg
Fred Hull, a Wickersham resident in 2004, was a medic in the Army during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

“We got out lucky for all the time we were there,” he said. Drafted in 1943 at the age of 18, the Bellingham native spent a little over 2® years in the Army, reaching the rank of private first class. Even though Hull was a medic, he also helped out with guarding bridges and air bases. The quiet man saw more horror than many others during the war.

“It was a job; you just had to keep track of yourself,” Hull said. “But there are some things I won’t repeat because it’s not going to help anyone anyway.”

Wegley’s buddy, Anthony “Dudley” Jefferson, was also on Omaha Beach that day. The 80-year-old Lummi Reservation resident was trying to clear the beach of obstacles so that more troops could storm the Germans. Jefferson’s unit, the 299th Combat Engineers, came under heavy fire, and, as he was trying to find cover, a Nazi sniper’s bullet hit him in the hand.

As a medic was wrapping Jefferson’s wounded hand, another shot ricocheted off his helmet. Jefferson scrambled out of the line of fire and waited under a cliff with stacks of bodies. It was three days before he reached a hospital ship.

Jefferson’s injury didn’t stop him long. By July 23, 1944, Jefferson was back in France, fighting the Germans as the Allies pushed inland.

It's been 74 years since the U.S. and Allied Nation troops invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, on an operation that ultimately freed a continent from Totalitarian and Nazi rule. Here's a look back at the mission now more commonly known as "D-Day."

Wegley made another D-Day veteran friend several years after returning to the Northwest. He was visiting his son at the boat shop when an elderly Lummi man named Jimmy Adams came over and started talking to him. After a lengthy conversation, they discovered that both men had been part of D-Day in the same sector. Adams and the 29th Infantry Division were under fire on Omaha Beach when Wegley’s destroyer came and destroyed the church the Germans were firing from.

“He asked if I was on the ship that ‘blew the church all to hell,’” Wegley said. “He came over and said, ‘I wanted to say thank you; you saved my life.’”

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