Some of the following is excerpted from Sergeant Nibley PhD, Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle by Hugh Nibley and Alex Nibley.
Though it is estimated that 100,000 Latter-day Saints fought in World War II, and 5,000 lost their lives, it is not known how many of them participated in D-Day, that pivotal moment that changed the course of the war. On this 75th anniversary of the landing on 6 June 1944, we focus on one Latter-day Saint whom we know was there, not only because he left a diary and spoke at length with his son, Alex about his experience, but also because his memories have some surprises in them.
As his son wrote, “Hugh Nibley was an unlikely soldier. His background was in history, and his passion was for languages (he could speak at least sixteen.) In fact, he had already earned his Ph.D. when he enlisted in the army.”
He wrote, “On June 6, 1944, at Utah Beach, he learned more about war than he had gleaned from all the books he’d read combined. General Maxwell Taylor assigned Sergeant Nibley to educate the officers of the 101st Airborne about warfare. But it was the professor himself who received an education while fighting as a member of the most legendary unit of the United States Army.”
Just four days before General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force had written, “Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world…
“I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
“Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Hugh Nibley: “The 101st Airborne Division were to be the first to land in Normandy. Their assignment was to land on either side of the Cotentin Peninsula to prepare an area cleared out so others could come and land on Utah Beach. Because General Pratt had taken my seat as number-two man in number-one glider, I was to take his jeep over and meet up with the division at a farm behind Utah Beach near the village of Ste.-Mère-Èglise. On June second the jeep was on the boat and were ready to go. Then on June third there was a tremendous storm. We hadn’t put out of Bristol Harbor yet, so we waited it out in Wales. The storm delayed our landing by one day, so we had to cross the next morning. One of the natives there in Bristol said, ‘The last time we had a storm like that was the day World War I began.’
“There was quite a flotilla crossing with us. The thing that most impressed me about the war was how much more dramatic, more spectacular, more theatrical it was than you could ever imagine it to be, especially a big invasion. The gigantic scale on which things were happening was amazing. On the night before we went ashore in Normandy, I spent the whole night up on the deck watching the fireworks, and the destructive power I saw was just unbelievable. They say the Normandy invasion was the biggest military operation ever undertaken, and you could see it. I felt the same thing on the mission that I had felt in the training exercises—once again I was observing without participating.
“The whole thing was extremely visible from where I was. The ships were all lined up at anchor waiting for the time to go, and I sat up on deck all night watched as the Germans tried hard to get our ship. Planes bombed us all night. They kept flying over again and again, but they didn’t hit the ship. They must have been very new at it. The planes would come in very slow, very deliberately—they sounded like coffee grinders—and they’d drop their bombs and go on their way. It seemed like the bombs would come within inches of the ship with great plumes of water that would shoot up over us and thoroughly wash the decks and shower us and fill the air with an overpowering sickening smell of cordite. It was brilliant, but they never hit us. I was the only one on the deck at night because I wanted to see the sights. All the other guys were down below, which I thought wasn’t a safe place to be—so I spent the whole night up there.
“Then we came up the Normandy coast in the morning, and we got the jeep ready.
“My fate seems always to have been first in line. Our ship headed the convoy, and as if that were not enough, our party was to be the first ashore when contact was made with the division.”
Journal Entry, June 6, 1944: “Pass Bill of Portland and land across vast masses of flak in the morning. A ship next to us goes down in about 8 minutes.”
Hugh Nibley: “When I was very sick in Claremont I had impressions of the war, those ‘five-o’clock’ dreams. In one I dreamed vividly of a ship going down with black smoke pouring from it. I saw it as plain as anything. And then I saw it again right next to us off the beach there in Normandy. I was on the troop ship waiting to land and a ship right next to us was hit by a shell from the shore. There was a great cloud of black smoke and it sank, just as I had dreamed at Claremont.
“The Germans tried hard to get our ship because it was the one right at the head. They knew it was valuable, so they were showering 88s onto the ship. I don’t know which wave I was in—a lot of infantry had already landed—but the beach wasn’t very well held. I stood at the head of the rope ladder for half an hour talking to a chaplain. After the ship next to us sank, a speedboat went by and a British officer with a bullhorn yelled, ‘You must land at once; your cargo is vital! Your cargo is vital; you must land at once!’ They needed our jeep, so I had to be the first one there to land. So we immediately loaded the jeep into a landing craft.
“I had rehearsed the glider landing many times, but this was the first time I had done a landing from sea, and that Normandy beach, the way it stretches out, it looked like miles and miles to shore.
“I went down to the LCT’s without orders. They had just lowered my jeep into the landing craft, and I was going down the rope ladder into the jeep when I had a thought that troubled me. I thought, ‘Joseph Smith slipped up when he had elephants in the Book of Mormon. The Americas didn’t have any elephants.’ Then it suddenly occurred to me: ‘The elephants are only mentioned in the book of Ether. That’s the archaic period. They could have been around then very well. They’re not mentioned in the Nephite story at all.’ I had this thought as I was coming down the ladder into the landing craft and that suddenly corrected my perspective on the problem, and I said, ‘That’s just the thing! That’s just right! How very happy I feel!’
“There was a big French battleship blazing away right next to us, and the Germans zeroes in on us with their 88s as we put the rope over the side and started to swarm down into the landing craft. As soon as I got down the rope ladder, the very spot where I should have been waiting on the ship was hit by an 88, and half a dozen tankmen were blown up. The chaplain I had been talking to was wounded.
“The landing craft went in as far as it could, and then there were still a couple of hundred yards—quite a way to go yet. I climbed in the jeep and revved her up. I had packed it with sand bags so we could get some hold on the sandy beach, and five or six guys loaded on so we’d get some traction on the bottom. We couldn’t afford to float around; we had to have traction. In we went with water up to our necks, and the pipe going up in the air, and all the guys who jumped on to help weight it down yelling, ‘Go Nibs! Keep going! Keep going!’ All I had to do was press on the gas and it would go straight ahead, and it didn’t stall at all in six, seven feet of water. The jeep did handsomely. It plowed right in and we were making towards the shore—buh, buh, buh, buh, with water up to our necks and the men cheering, ‘Go Nibs, go!’ It must have been quite spectacular.”
“We were the first jeep to come in, so naturally the German 88s on the shore tried hard to stop us, first landing shells in front and then behind, and followed us all the way in, but they didn’t hit us. There was one command car ahead of us driven by a big red-headed Kentuckian, and that disappeared and was never seen again. The 88s were splashing on all sides and jets of water were going up—it was an exciting ride. I wasn’t afraid. I was too busy thinking about whether those wheels on the jeep would make contact and we’d keep going. If you lost your momentum, that would be frightening. But your heart is pounding, your adrenaline’s up, it’s that excitement that nature provides as your protection that keeps you from being paralyzed by fear. As I’d heard it said so many times, in battle you’re too busy or too excited to be frightened. So I was thinking about the jeep and where to find our position and the like. Fear is the unknown, the uncertainty—there’s always that nagging fear when you don’t know what the sore is. If you know what the danger is, that’s not so bad.”
When Nibley arrived on shore “German gunners were popping 88s on us all the way; then we got up to the road and everybody scattered in all four directions. We were given instructions on how to find the headquarters. Everything was to be gauged by a certain windmill, which was to show us where we were. Of course they bombed the daylights out of it before we came, and there was no windmill in sight. Everybody wandered all over the place; I blundered into places. Things were going very bad. Very bad. “
He jumped into a foxhole, and when he popped his head out, “what was growing there? Great big red poppies! Just like the World War I poem: In Flanders Field the poppies grow between the crosses row on row…’ I thought, ‘here we are, no progress at all, back where we started. What’s the use? We stand dead still. What a world we live in!”
Hugh Nibley: “The murderous Horsa gliders were used with disastrous impact. It didn’t break my heart when General Pratt had taken my place in the glider and, as it turned out, he was killed in the landing sitting in my seat. The rest of the crowd in my glider were all banged up and captured. The rest of the division had been scattered all over the place. “
In the next few days, Nibley hid out in a foxhole with several others near by.
Hugh Nibley: “One day I was asleep, all covered up in my foxhole, and Dave came running up and said, ‘Get up! Grab a carbine and come quick! The Germans are in Carentan, and they’re going to attack!’
“And I heaved an enormous sigh of relief and I said, ‘Thank heaven! It was only a dream!’ Because before he woke me I had been dreaming that I had committed a rather serious crime—and I think I committed a murder—and I was terrified by the dream. When I woke in the foxhole with the guns firing and noise and shouting all around and the dense smoke of rifle fire, I was so happy I could sing because I hadn’t committed that crime. When I found it wasn’t true, it was as if I’d found myself in my bed in a palace. ‘How happy I am! Everything is all right! The world is lovely and right because I have not sinned!’
“I had my other dreams too, my five o’clock impressions. There was the one about the ship, and then I had one where I was in a foxhole and two tanks started coming across the field. That’s where the dream stopped. I never knew how it turned out.
“Then near Carentan, I found myself in a foxhole looking out at a field and the scene looked very familiar. I remembered the dream of the two tanks coming, and I realized I was looking at the same field I had seen in my dream. There was a reporter from The Stars and Stripes in the next foxhole, and I called over to him and said, ‘Well, this is the end of it. In a minute you’re going to see two tanks come across that field, and that’s going to decide it for us.” Sure enough, here came the two tanks. I had dreamed about them right up to that minute, but I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Fortunately, they turned out to be our tanks from Omaha Beach. They’d been put on the wrong beach, and they were wandering around lost. As it turned out, they showed up just in time to save us from a bad situation.”
Thanks to the courage of soldiers like Hugh Nibley, so out of his comfort zone, in war, the war turned in our favor and we are still living with the legacy of freedom today.