‘They couldn’t find sheets enough to cover up the dead’: Local D-Day veteran recalls invasion

96-year-old Herbert Griffin severely wounded on Utah Beach

We are honoring those who fought and continue to fight for our freedom -- like St. Johns County resident Herbert Griffin, 96, who was 18 years old when he stormed Utah Beach.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – With Veterans Day approaching, one local hero reflects on his remarkable service to our country. St. Johns County resident Herbert Griffin, 96, is not only a World War II veteran, but also served during D-Day in 1944.

While many recollections have faded from Griffin’s memory, certain details are still fresh in his mind. Griffin was just 18 years old on June 6, 1944.

“They didn’t tell us nothing about the invasion, not a thing,” Griffin said. “They kept us in the dark.”

For example, he still remembers the waves of the boat crashing as he and his fellow troops approached the day of the invasion.

“Everybody got sick. Everybody,” Griffin said. “We were throwing up on the floor, on everyone, and you couldn’t keep your foot on the ground because it was so slippery.”

Griffin recalls wearing more than 80 pounds of equipment and feeling it weigh down on him as they landed at Utah Beach. During his interview with News4Jax, he shared how he and his fellow soldiers of the 79th Infantry Division could hear the gunfire, knowing they would soon be exposed to the Nazis.

“There in the bunkers, they had machine guns and mortars and all that. So, we had no protection,” Griffin recalled vividly. “The sergeant said, ‘Get off the beach! Get off the beach!’”

Griffin said the enemy fired over their heads.

“They couldn’t find sheets enough to cover up the dead,” Griffin said.

With just the overhanging cliffs blocking them, Griffin said he truly wondered how he’d make it out alive.

“I thought to myself, ‘What’s my mother and dad going to think about me when they read about, getting the telegram?’” Griffin said. “So, I had to worry about that.”

What happened next is especially clear in Griffin’s mind.

“The Germans brought in the 88 mm, and they started bombing us,” Griffin demonstrated. “I laid down with my arm (like that), and the rifle in this hand. That’s when I got hit. I almost passed out. The blood was just gushing out.”

It was a devastating injury, one that nearly cost him his arm. Griffin was in and out of hospitals overseas and in the U.S. for a year before he was discharged from Waco, Texas. Dealing with the injury to his arm was difficult, but what was even worse for the humble veteran was that so many of his fellow soldiers didn’t make it home like he did.

“I have nightmares sometimes about what happened, and I wake up in a real bad sweat,” Griffin said. “I’ve tried to overcome that.”

Griffin earned several medals, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for the severe injury he suffered.

“All of that wasn’t in vain, it was worthwhile,” Griffin said. “I love my country, and I’d go back today if I could.”

In fact, Griffin already has. In 2014, after forming a special bond with him, the St. Johns County Fire Department gave him the trip of a lifetime. They sent him back to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. It was a trip he took with his brother, Ed, who also served in the United States Army. His scrapbooks are now filled with photos from that experience.

RELATED: Veteran to return to Normandy for 70th anniversary of D-Day

“They asked me what song I wanted to sing,” Griffin said. “I said, ‘It had to be you.’ So, they sang that for me.”

Griffin said the chance to revisit history was remarkable. The whole time, his mind never strayed far from his fellow soldiers. Many he trained with never made it home from the invasion.

“I went through the cemeteries, and I looked at the names,” Griffin said. “I never could find anybody.”

Along with his memories, Griffin keeps sand from the beach. And a cross.

“I enjoyed the second time much more than the first time. It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said.

Over the years, Griffin has shared his story of survival publicly several times. He continues to inspire.

Doug Myers is Chief Operating Officer of Home Instead Senior Care in Jacksonville. Myers says he was introduced to Griffin through the VA administration. Home Instead regularly works with veterans who have previous combat experience. For Myers, having the chance to work with an American hero means everything.

“His stories are just amazing, and I love just talking with Mr. Griffin,” Myers said. “It’s a generation like this that won’t be around much longer. I want to learn as much as possible about what he’s given back to this country.”

From his experience serving during World War II, Griffin sends a powerful message to the heroes serving today. And those reflecting on their service this Veterans Day.

“I admire them all. I take my hat off to them,” Griffin said. “I’ll tell you, if you put yourself on the line, you never know if you’re going to come back.”

Remembering his service at Normandy on D-Day. And honoring those who never left.

About the Author:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.