• France's news in English

D-Day Anniversary: 'We had a funeral every day'

Joshua Melvin · 5 Jun 2014, 18:10

Published: 05 Jun 2014 18:10 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

It was deceptively calm when 22-year-old James F. Sansom drove ashore in Normandy on June 11th,1944.

He was on Omaha Beach, which just five days prior had seen some of the heaviest fighting and biggest losses of the allied invasion of France. By his arrival it was a logistical hive of men, machines and supplies.

“There was still tank traps and pill boxes,” Sansom, 92, told The Local in an interview. “But things were reasonably quiet.”

Sansom’s luck would hold until that winter, when a massive surprise offensive from the Germans showed him another side of the war. At one of the lowest points during his captivity he would attend a funeral every day for a month.

The trouble started around dawn on the morning of December 17th, 1944 in Luxembourg when Sansom, a medic, and some six other soldiers woke in the hayloft of a barn they’d spent the night in. A day prior a colossal German attack had begun and it made such a dent in the allied lines that it came to be called the Battle of the Bulge.

Mortar fire had knocked out his unit's communications: “In those days all it was was just a telephone. We lost communication. And we had no idea what was going on elsewhere,” Sansom said.

The morning of December 17th a group of German soldiers with flashlights and machine guns ordered Sansom and his unit out of the barn and lined them up against the building.

“We thought that we were going to be shot,” Sansom said, remembering the German soldiers pilfering wrist watches, candy bars and cigarettes from his comrades.  “It was scary, you know, they aimed those pistols at us. You just don’t make a false move.”

Sansom didn’t realize the magnitude of what was happening until the Germans marched him away from the farm and out onto a muddy road. There he saw some 500 Americans, prisoners of war, just like him, marching with their hands in the air.

SEE ALSO: D-Day Anniversary: 'I was unarmed'

Because he was a medic the Germans sent him to work in one of their field hospitals, where he was treated and fed well. There was also interaction with the German soldiers, who were fascinated by him.  

“'Why the war?', they asked. They didn’t understand why Americans were on that side of the ocean,” Sansom said. “Why were we in the war? We tried to explain, but I don’t know whether I got anything across.”

From there he was shuttled to a barracks in Germany where he slept on a stone floor and lived on rations of a “half can of horse meat and bread” per day. Then he was taken into the mountains where he spent a month in another camp and saw the damage done by malnutrition and illness.

“We had a funeral every day. They just died left and right. We had 35-40 die during my time there,” he said. “It was malnutrition, some of them had been there for a couple of years. And dysentery, probably typhus, because the lice were real terrible.”

There was little the prisoners could do to keep themselves clean: “The only way you could control (the lice) was to take off your clothes and go through them and try to kill them by hand.”

Story continues below…

But by March he and the other prisoners could hear the gunfire of the advancing allies. And on April 2nd, General George S. Patton’s troops rolled into his camp and liberated it.

Weeks later Sansom was whisked back to the United States and the war was over for him. Despite it's sudden end he has an almost crystalline understanding of what it means to him.

“I’m proud of my service. I wasn’t the best and I know that. I didn’t win the war,” he said. “I did the best I could and I was pleased that I had the good training that I had.”

Tomorrow The Local's series remembering the 70th anniversary of D-Day concludes with the story of a soldier who bore witness to the brutal killing of the first wave of the invasion.

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available