We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is Jessie Cleveland. But everybody calls me “Henson.” I was the seventh of 12 children and was born and raised east of Ennis near the Trinity River. When I was just a young kid, I got my right hand mangled in an accident and lost my index finger and part of my middle finger.
My dad was a farmer and he also worked at the cottonseed mill. I attended the Liberty School at Peeltown. After dad retired from farming, he did some commercial fishing on the river. I helped him every time I could.
I grew up in the country. We had to do everything the old-school way, you know, build our own stuff, grow your own food, shoot your own meat, catch your own fish and fix our own problems.
After my schooling, I worked in construction jobs and became a fairly good carpenter. Then I met this girl from the Chatfield area; her name is Julia Ray. After a while, we got married and started our life together. Life was good, even if it was during a depression.
I landed a good construction job in Houston, so we made the big move south. We had a baby, but it died in childbirth. That was a really tough thing for us to go through, but hopefully, we will have another baby someday, but only time will tell.
After the war started, our company got a big contract to build modular homes. We were hauling them in sections up to the new Red River Army Depot and putting them together on site.
Working that job, I sometimes lived temporarily in an apartment in Hooks, Texas, near to Texarkana. That is when I received my draft notice. I reported to the draft board and they questioned me about my hand. Being right-handed, they asked me if my crippled fingers gave me any problems. I told them no, I can shoot just fine with my middle finger.
In January of 1943, I was inducted into the Army in Houston and spent the next several months in West Texas in training. I had never seen such dry countryside as that was.
I am glad it’s the Army they put me in instead of the Navy because I‘ve never been a good swimmer. Having a background in construction, they put me with the Engineers. After all, I guess the Army can use some good carpenters.
We shipped out for England as part of the big buildup for the invasion of Europe. After arriving at the southern tip of England in Cornwall, we settled into a life of forced marches and PT. When not working, we played a lot of softball.
We expected to stay here in Cornwall for a time after D-Day and then be given a routine assignment somewhere in France, but this all changed! New orders came down that we were to start training immediately in the art of demolition. We were to become explosives experts and go in on the first waves of the invasion!
You can imagine the surprise and shock that we felt. Yesterday, I was a construction soldier and now I am an explosive expert that can’t swim, going in with the first wave. I had to sit down for a while and reconsider my prospects of ever seeing my wife again.
In mid-April of ’44, we were teamed up with a naval combat demolition unit and given intensive training with C-2 plastic explosives, fuses, blasting caps and Primacord. Were now part of a gap assault team and our mission was to take down the beach obstacles at our landing site.
In the beginning, my team was made up of us five Army engineers, five Navy demolitions men and three Navy seamen to help out with the boats and our gear. I actually got to where I enjoyed the work, but I didn’t care for training in the deep surf.
We learned how to waterproof all our fuses and other gear with a thick, sticky grease. You could say that we learned to waterproof ourselves as we took a saltwater bath twice a day as we practiced jumping from our landing craft into the cold rolling surf. My uniform spent a lot of time hanging on the clothesline.
One day while we were practicing blowing up steel obstacles, there was an unfortunate accident. A soldier that had been sleeping in the sand dunes over 100 yards away was killed by flying steel fragments. He wasn’t supposed to be there. This was a sobering demonstration of the lethality of what we were working on.
The day before we were to pack up and leave for the marshaling area, one of the fellows had a quarter-pound block of TNT go off in his hand. It was a gut-wrenching disaster for us. Melvin died four hours later. He was well liked by everyone and what made it seem even worse was because he was such a talented guitar player. I started to really wonder about my chances of surviving this invasion.
Once inside the marshaling area near the Isle of Portland, we were kept inside a perimeter fence and armed guards for about 10 days. That time was spent getting our explosive packages ready and squared away in a large rubber raft.
Our outer fatigue coveralls to be worn over our wool uniform was impregnated with a smelly dope designed to protect us from chemical or poison gas. A large black number 8 was painted on the back of our coveralls so we could be recognized by our tank dozer and the infantry that was to follow us in. We were Gap Assault Team Number 8.
On June 1, we moved to Portland Harbor and were introduced to our 112-foot-long landing craft tank (LCT). It was towing the 50-foot landing craft mechanized (LCM) that would take us into the beach.
There were three Sherman tanks already on board and one of them was the tank dozer that would follow us on to the beach. Our 500 pounds of C-2 explosives in our rubber raft were placed in the center of our LCM. In addition, there were our fuses, blasting caps and rolls of Primacord. We also had several Bangalore torpedoes for the final push through the barbed wire at the seawall.
Our C.O. called us together and gave us the lowdown on our mission. He said, “You have been given the most vital mission and perhaps the most deadly job on Omaha Beach. Our team will land at H-Hour plus three minutes and clear a 50-foot path through the wooden and steel obstacles on the Easy Green Sector, right in the middle of Omaha Beach so the men and equipment following us can drive through the obstacles right up on to the beach. We have to get into Normandy and rescue our paratroopers or they will all be murdered. The German defenses where are we landing are probably more concentrated than at any other place along the entire beach-head. The entire plan, the outcome of this war depends on you men taking Omaha Beach!”
No one spoke. There was a very loud silence. It was at this moment that I felt the cold fingers of fear grip on to my heart. I had not been afraid, not until now. But the responsibility bore down on me like a ton of lead. We just looked around at each other and nobody said a word… And me, I’m just a carpenter.