Lawrence Brannan of Morristown, Tenn., holds a photograph of himself as a young soldier. Brannan, 94, who was part of the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, is planning to return to Normandy, France, for the anniversary this year. (Photo by Chuck Hale/Citizen Tribune)
MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — In a few weeks, Lawrence L. Brannan, of Morristown, will embark on a long journey he's taken twice before. The last time was in 1994. The first time was 70 years ago, on June 6, 1944.
His destination will be a strip of land along the coast of Normandy, France. The place has long had a French name, although almost no one remembers what it is. It's better known by the name that appears in hundreds of history books: Omaha Beach.
When Allied forces went ashore in Normandy on June 6, 1944, troops landed on five beaches, and thousands of paratroopers landed inland. There were casualties among all of them, but Omaha Beach was the bad one, the one where the German Army almost beat back the American soldiers.
Brannan was one of those American soldiers. He waded through thigh-deep water from a landing craft in the third wave and arrived on the beach about 7:20 a.m. He was supposed to be there sooner, but few things went as planned on Omaha Beach that day.
"They held us up for 40 minutes," he recalls. "I heard later that the general in charge was calling, 'Send the boats back. It isn't going to work.'"
It did work, but not before about 5,000 Americans out of the 34,250 who went ashore were killed or wounded.
Brannon, who turned 94 on April 15, was born in Jefferson County in 1920.
"I was born right in front of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City," he said.
When jobs were scarce during the Great Depression, he went to West Virginia to work in coal mines. After Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, he could have waited to be drafted but didn't. He joined the Army on Nov. 6, 1942. After preliminary training, he was sent overseas, arriving at Crown Hill, England, on June 6, 1943, one year to the day before he landed on Omaha Beach.
He spent that year in training and ended up in I Company, 116th regiment of the 29th Infantry Division.
When the troops left England, the English Channel was rough and many got seasick. Brannan was one of them.
"Everybody got sick," he said. 'The swells in the water were at least 20 feet high. Not waves, but swells. The boat (landing craft) was only 30 feet long and we had 31 or 32 men on it. I got off in a corner where nobody could vomit on me."
Once on dry land, Brannan said he had made it about a half mile inland by noon. It had not been easy going.
"I don't know if I did any damage or not. I fired into a bunker. I fired into an 88 gun emplacement," he said
He also saw his first American soldier killed, someone he could have saved if he had been armed differently.
"I saw a German raise up and shoot the kid. I was a sniper" with a light weight rifle with a scope. "I couldn't find him (the German) in the scope. If I'd had an M1 rifle, I could have saved that boy."
From his vantage point, he also saw a boat loaded with troops catch fire. Only one man managed to dive off the back.
Sometime around noon, Brannan had his left hand mostly blown off by a hand grenade. That didn't mean he was away from the action, however. He said a German 88 gun kept firing nearby and every time it did, the shock wave would raise him up off the ground. He lay on the bluff above the beach until about 8 p.m., when he finally began to crawl back toward shore and safety. A sergeant was nearby who was seriously wounded and blinded.
"I brought the sergeant with me. He had his face shot off," Brannan said. The blinded man was hanging onto Brannan's leg, being dragged along.
Back on the beach, Brannan was put on a vessel for return to England. It was not a hospital ship.
"They had brought tanks across in it," he said.
His hand bled for about 48 hours after he was hurt. A medic tied his arm up overhead to finally stop the bleeding. They then set out for England.
It was one of 10 vessels that were carrying wounded out of the combat zone, but the combat zone went with them. Three of the boats were sunk by German submarines and the other seven returned to France with the wounded soldiers. They tried again on Friday and that time they made it.
He remembers they were on bunks stacked five high on the ship. In a bunk above him, a soldier kept pulling the pin from a grenade, then putting it back in. He was sure the man was going to kill both of them until the medics took the soldier away.
He got seasick again, a situation made worse by a can of corned beef hash he'd eaten.
Brannan had landed on Omaha Beach on a Tuesday. It was Saturday morning before he finally got to a hospital in England, where doctors amputated what was left of three fingers and the thumb of his left hand. All he has left is a stiff index finger.
He was sent back to the United States and arrived at a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 16, 1944. He stayed there until he was discharged on January 17, 1945.
After the war, Brannan returned to West Virginia, where he ran a dry cleaning route for about five years. He then made his way back to the Lakeway Area, doing some farming until 1953, when he went to work at the Ford dealership in Morristown. He started delivering parts and eventually worked his way up to parts and service manager. When the turned 65, he retired in 1985. Twice married, he had eight children, one of whom, a boy, died as an infant.
He gets annual checkups from the Veterans Hospital, and they say he is doing remarkably well.
"They check me for 30 different things. I am in good health. I've only got a few little things wrong with me," he said.
Brannan said he can't really explain why he wants to go back to Omaha Beach.
"Just curiosity, I guess. I've been thinking about this 70th anniversary for about two years," he said.
Part of his reason for another trip is he didn't get to see nearly as much of the area as he wanted to during his visit in 1994. This time he will be there longer, leaving Morristown on June 2 and coming home on June 10. One place he wants to see that he didn't in 1994 is the military cemetery above the beach. He'd walked around it in 1994, but didn't go inside the boundary.
"I want to walk through the cemetery this time. I didn't do that last time. I know a couple of guys who are there," he said.
He also plans to get a much closer look around the entire beach, including a museum that is there.
He will be accompanied by two of his daughters, Gerry Cantwell and Jackie Brannan. They have reservations made to stay at a place about five miles from the beach.
"We're really excited about it," Cantwell said. She did much of the organizing for the journey.
Brannan said this trip is not going to be his last to Omaha Beach.
"I'm planning on going back for the 80th anniversary in 10 years. I'll only be 104 then," he said.