In 2004, we did a section on veterans and their war memories at the Moore County News Press. The stories were short because of space limitations, but I wish I had kept my interview notes so I could have written more later. I’ve been thinking a lot about these men and women since this is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Anyway, this is one of the stories from the 2004 interview with Odelle McAvoy of Dumas, Texas, who served in WWII and was a prisoner of war of the Germans. He was 80 years old when I wrote this story; he is now 91. His wife, Colene, died in 2014. They had been married 67 years.
The passage of six decades hasn’t dimmed Odelle McAvoy’s war memories. The events that have served as fodder for countless WWII movies and books live inside his mind with the clarity of an incident only minutes old.
McAvoy is 80 years old, but the young man who was part of the historical D-Day invasion of Normandy and then survived a German POW camp peeks out of his aged eyes. Young McAvoy is still there, alert and grinning.
When the Allies landed on Utah Beach on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, McAvoy was in charge of driving his jeep off of the landing boats. His sharp memory rolls out the details like a wartime newsreel.
“We started landing about 8 a.m., and I finally got ashore at about 12:30 p.m.,” he said. “We didn’t know exactly where we were going to land in France, but each company commander had a map that showed two square miles of the beach head. We had been under radio silence, but when they turned them on again, the first thing I heard was the voice of a tank commander hollering, ‘Machine gun him, Butcher! Machine gun him!'”
The battle that was the start of the Allied advance into German-occupied territory was already raging when McAvoy heard that voice, but the chaos washed over him like the choppy French waters as he followed orders.
“I had to get my jeep off that LCT,” he said. “We were instructed that if we couldn’t be at our rendezvous point within 45 minutes, we were to destroy our jeeps.”
McAvoy didn’t have to destroy his jeep even though the tank that was towing him off the LCT snapped the rope and left him sinking in the sand. His Texas ingenuity took over, and he rigged up a line, attached it to the tank again and saved the jeep. Thousand of lives later, the beaches were secured, and the Americans continued with their objective.
“We liberated many towns,” McAvoy said. “The ting is, me, the company commander and two more guys were usually the first to get there. We’d pull up to the square, and there wouldn’t be anyone around, and then all of a sudden, everyone would spill out of their houses.”
The French, joyous to see the Americans, didn’t greet the soldiers empty handed.
“They would hand us glasses of cognac, and I tell you, a guy couldn’t stand too much of that,” he joked.
The jubilation didn’t last long, and not everyone greeted the Americans with enthusiasm. When McAvoy crossed the Meuse River, he pulled up to a spot and saw five German soldiers at an outpost.
“I slammed on my brakes and tried to get my sidearm out of the jeep,” he said. “I had hand grenades, and I was getting ready to pull the pin when I saw a German officer with a burp gun. Well, I didn’t pull the pin.”
McAvoy pulled off his helmet to show he was surrendering, the beginning of a trip that took him to Stalag VIIA in Moosberg, Germany.
“There were about 35,000 prisoners there,” he said. “A lot of them were Russians.”
The trip to the stalag would tax the sanity and tenacity of any man. The Germans squeezed their prisoners into closed train cars for the five-day trip. With barely enough room to stand, lying down or sitting was almost an impossibility, and the food was minimal.
“What food?” McAlvoy asked. “They gave us a five-gallon bucket of molasses for all of the cars. The first car got it first, then they passed it back. Each man was given one-fourth loaf of bread, and that’s all we had.”
The men were forced to relieve themselves in a 15-gallon bucket built into the middle of the floor, and it wasn’t emptied during the trip.
“You can imagine what the guys who were near the bucket went through,” he said.
McAvoy finished the war in the stalag, staying there until it was liberated by Allied forces. He has returned to Germany twice since then, and he recalls a scene in a German restaurant.
“The waitress came up to us, and I told her in German that I had been a prisoner of war in Germany. She told me that was a period of history they didn’t care to remember.”
She may not, but he certainly does.