Nearly 100,000 Americans are expected to turn 100 or older this year. But only a handful can tell you about landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, weathering the Battle of the Bulge, and meeting up with the Soviets on the Elbe River near the end of World War II.
Rarer yet are veterans like Cornelius Francis Healy, who can recall all those events with details such as the type of German fighter (an Me-109) that strafed a gravel road in France and nearly ended his life. He turned 100 on Feb. 20.
Healy – whose lively manner, ready laugh, and dapper gray hair belie his age – talked via Zoom from The Gables at Winchester.
The Cambridge native almost did not make it out of England, thanks to a little-known fiasco five weeks before D-Day. Healy was among 25,000 soldiers rehearsing for the invasion in Exercise Tiger. British gunners fired just over their heads as they landed at Slapton Sands in Devon.
“I hoped that they would stop before we hit the shore,” Healy said. “They did in our area, but down the line a bit they kept firing and killed 200 men.” Meanwhile, German torpedo boats, attracted by unusually active radio traffic, sank two landing vessels, killing 749 more US troops.
Healy spent two sleepless days before the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, the first waiting to board a transport ship and the next zigzagging across the English Channel. “The weather was very bad,” he recalled, the rough seas roiled even more by battleships pummeling the Normandy defenses.
By the time Healy landed, the German pillboxes that had mowed down the first waves of soldiers had been silenced. “I walked through the grass on the beach and saw my first German, lying face up,” he said. Allied fighters zoomed overhead, and machine guns exchanged fire inland.
Healy could have been shipping barrels of chemicals at a plant back home instead of braving bullets. He was entitled to an exemption as the principal breadwinner of his Cambridge family. He helped support his widowed mother and younger sisters. In 1942, he had his draft status changed to 1A.
Attached to the Army’s 29th Infantry Division, Healy was part of an artillery crew. But the half-tracks pulling the heavy guns arrived weeks after the initial landing.
Healy spent his first night on French soil 500 yards inland. “Nobody knew where the front line really was,” he said.
Healy’s initial destination was the strategic crossroads town of Saint-Lô. The 20-mile trek took six weeks, “the worst part of the war” for Healy. Despite the meticulous planning for D-Day, the troops were surprised by a centuries-old obstacle course: hedgerow country. To partition their fields, French farmers built earthen mounds. Topped with branches and prickly shrubs, the hedgerows concealed the German defenders.
“We were only moving two or three hedgerows a day,” Healy said. At night, they dug shallow shelters and, if lucky, snatched a few hours of sleep.
Most terrifying was the relentless pounding of German 88 mm artillery guns. One shell exploded between Healy and another soldier. Healy escaped injury, but shrapnel shredded his companion’s side from foot to hip.
“I half dragged him, half carried him, half walked him until I got across this field” to a road where he had spotted a convoy, said Healy, who at 5-foot-8 was by far the smaller of the pair. “Those 88s were dropping all around me.”
At last, just one hill stood between his outfit and St. Lô when Healy made a courageous decision. He volunteered to join a patrol to warn an American regiment in the valley below of an impending artillery barrage.
Under the cover of darkness, the patrol negotiated the woody, sloping terrain. But dawn broke as the soldiers made the return trip. “We were ducking in and out of the hedgerows, but [the Germans] saw us,” Healy said.
A year later, then Corporal Healy was awarded a Bronze Star. “Despite intense machine gun and small arms fire, this soldier, with utter disregard for his own personal safety, did successfully complete the mission,” wrote the officer who recommended the medal.
Little remained of St. Lô by the time Healy entered the town. Once clear of the hedgerow country, his unit rapidly pursued the retreating Germans.
Healy was in Versailles in late August when Paris was liberated. Over the next four months, his unit pushed into Belgium.
On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans surprised the Allies with the last-gasp offensive that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Healy spent the next few weeks slogging through knee-deep snow, positioned “wherever there was a bulge” in the front lines. Providing artillery support from behind the front lines, his outfit did not encounter direct German fire.
When skies cleared after Christmas, Healy witnessed dogfights overhead. “We saw a German plane that didn’t have a propellor,” he said, later learning it was a Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first jet fighter.
After the German counterattack was crushed, Healy advanced into Germany.
In April, Healy’s unit reached the Elbe, where it halted as the Big Powers decided how to divide post-war Germany. “When the war ended, the Russians came across the Elbe River, riding horses and motorcycles,” Healy said.
Healy’s last assignment was tallying the points soldiers accumulated toward discharge. He became eligible in September 1945. “When we landed in New York, it was great to see the Statue of Liberty,” he said. “I think I shed a few tears.”
His last leg of the war came after he hitched a ride from Fort Devens to North Cambridge. “I took my knapsack and my duffle bag and walked down Mass Ave to my house.” It was near St. John’s Church, where Healy was class president at its now closed high school.
Adjusting to postwar life was not easy. “I couldn’t sleep in a bed. I had to sleep on the floor,” he said. “I felt like a stranger.”
Looking for help job hunting, he arranged to see his state representative, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr., the future US Speaker of the House. But Healy never made it to O’Neill’s Beacon Hill office.
“I got on the subway at Harvard Square, but when I got to Central Square I had to get off,” he said. The noise and jostling had overwhelmed his war-shattered nerves. “I walked around Central Square for hours before I could get back in a train to go home.”
Eventually, Healy became a licensed civil engineer for the state. He married Peg, a friend from Hampton Beach with whom he had corresponded during the war. They moved to Stoneham, where they raised three sons, Paul, Don, and Kevin. Peg died in 1986, and Healy never remarried.
The man who took six weeks to travel 20 miles in France went on to build highways where cars travel 20 miles in 20 minutes. First as a surveyor and then as a construction supervisor, he worked on Routes 128 and 495, and the mid-Cape Highway.
Healy’s son Don said his dad did not talk much about the war until he was in his 80s. Even now, he has to be prodded to talk about his Bronze Star. “I was able to have a normal life and a long life,” Healy said. “The heroes never came home.”
Steve Maas can be reached at email@example.com.