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Memories of D-day

For one who lived it, invasion is still vivid after 70 years

Herbert Colcord, a native of Quincy, visits the Plymouth grave of his squad leader, John Spurr, who died a week after the battle.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Herbert Colcord, a native of Quincy, visits the Plymouth grave of his squad leader, John Spurr, who died a week after the battle.

MILTON — Herbert Colcord belongs to a vanishing breed.

As Americans mark Memorial Day, Colcord is among the few who can recall fighting alongside the troops who fell during World War II.

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The 88-year-old Quincy native is part of an even more exclusive club, one for whom the holiday has added significance this year. Coming up in less than two weeks, on June 6, is the 70th anniversary of D-day, the largest seaborne invasion in history. Colcord was one of the 150,000 Allied troops who stormed Normandy by air and sea in the battle that broke the Nazi grip on Western Europe.

The youngest veterans of D-day are in their late 80s. They are tough to track down, as no one keeps records of their names. In an accompanying story, you will meet four others, found with the help of local veterans groups and retirement homes.

Today, Colcord and his wife, Audrey, live in Fuller Village in Milton. He wrote about D-day in “We Remember When,” a memoir compiled by residents of the senior community. On a recent weekday afternoon, he held a table of family and friends spellbound as he told of his harrowing experiences — and of a fellow soldier who did not come back but continues to remain very much a part of his life.

For Private Colcord, then 18, the invasion began with 36 sleepless hours on a ship’s deck in the choppy waters of the English Channel — surrounded by an armada of battleships and destroyers pounding German fortifications. Originally, his unit was to have landed on Omaha Beach the afternoon of June 6, but the enemy proved more formidable than expected. Recall the opening scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” and you will have an idea of the carnage.

Just before dawn the next morning, Colcord was ordered to clamber down a cargo net into the landing craft.

‘If there was any time I was scared, that was it.’

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“It was dark when we went over,” he said, adding, “They were bringing up the wounded on the other side.”

When the boat dropped its ramp, Colcord and some three dozen others stormed through waist-deep water. Several other landing craft blew up after hitting mines.

Earlier waves of invaders had knocked out most active resistance in the sector, but at a heavy cost.

“There were bodies everywhere,” Colcord said. “The adrenaline was flowing so fast. You look, and I guess you say thank God it’s not me.”

Colcord was carrying a Browning automatic rifle and a partner carried the 40 to 50 pounds of ammunition, but there was nothing to fire at. That first night in France Colcord was too pumped up to get much sleep.

The next morning his squad of 15 moved inland, but they were not sure where they were heading. They passed fruit orchards and vegetable gardens that covered much of the flat countryside, encountering only sporadic sniper fire.

Some of the French greeted them, offering schnapps.

“I didn’t know schnapps from sops,” Colcord said, adding that he took a swig thinking it was water. He soon learned it wasn’t. “I took French at North Quincy High School, but I flunked it in France.”

About 20 miles in, the soldiers faced German resistance in the infamous hedgerow territory: farm fields enclosed by earthen dams topped with tangled trees and bushes, many higher than a man’s head.

Probing for the enemy, Colcord and two others entered one of the fields, only to discover a German machine gun nest at the other end.

“As soon as we opened the gate, they opened fire on us,” he said. “The first guy was killed; the second guy, my squad leader, was wounded.”

The injured man was 24-year-old John Spurr of Plymouth. The fellow Bay Staters had met while training in England just a few months before, but Colcord already revered Spurr as a mentor.

“I said to John, something like, ‘What do I do?’ ” Colcord recalled.

Before he could pull Spurr to safety, the Germans were upon them. As they were marched to a detention area, Spurr leaned on Colcord for support until a German captain agreed to place the wounded man on a horse-drawn cart. That was the last Colcord saw of him.

The German captain, who had lived in New Jersey until 1938, spoke perfect English.

“He was trying to pump me for information, but he knew more than I did,” Colcord said.

That night, he was placed alone inside a tower, where he fell into a deep sleep. It was June 12; his career as a combat soldier was over less than a week after it began.

Colcord spent much of the remainder of the war packed with other POWs in boxcars, shunted from one camp to another by the retreating Germans. Occasionally, he was put to work, clearing debris or salvaging slate from bombed-out roofs.

The Germans generally were not rough, he said, but they kept the prisoners on a starvation diet. All that he and his fellow prisoners talked about was food.

“It suddenly dawned on me that if there was a contest between sex and food, food wins,” he said.

Ironically, the biggest threat Colcord faced was from the Allies. One of the POW camps was next to a buzz-bomb factory. When Allied planes attacked, the prisoners were rushed into a shelter, just before their barracks was demolished.

“If there was any time I was scared, that was it,” Colcord said.

Somehow, the Red Cross managed to keep open lines of communication with the folks back home.

“We got very little mail, but one day they brought a bunch of mail,” Colcord said. “One bag of mail was all mine. I must have had 50 letters, letters from students at North Quincy High School.”

Near the end, the Germans marched Colcord and the other POWs toward the Alps, where apparently they were to be used as hostages. But that plan was foiled when the prison convoy was overtaken by American infantrymen.

“It surprised me that they were black,” said Colcord, reacting to the fact that most African-Americans were relegated to noncombat roles early in the war.

After being discharged from the Army as a sergeant, Colcord returned to Quincy and went on to a career in marketing and advertising. He and Audrey moved to Randolph, where they raised three children. They now have eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Spurr, the squad leader, died of his wounds in captivity. His parents, whom Colcord visited, arranged to have their only son buried at Vine Hill Cemetery in Plymouth.

When they began courting, Herbert and Audrey would tend to Spurr’s grave. They have been doing so ever since.

To their knowledge, Spurr has no other family in the area. Except, the Colcords, that is.

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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