It was July 1944, and the smell of death surrounded private Hugh Pedersen as he wandered the fields near Omaha Beach after the Allied invasion of German-controlled Normandy. Narrowly escaping death from an assault by a German Tank, Pedersen's first experience in a World War II battle was one of his worst.
"One German tank picked off 19 of our tanks in one sitting," he remembered. "We we trapped. There were guys running around, their bodies burnt, half their clothes missing. Can you imagine seeing that kind of thing?"
Pedersen's battalion faced Hitler's famed Das Reich Division, comprised of elite S.S. soldiers who had years of specialized training. "They tore us to pieces," he said.
But the war quickly turned, and Pedersen's recollection of his personal experience rivals any Hollywood production. When he and his friends heard that the atomic bomb had been dropped in Japan, they looked at each other, bemused. "What the ---- is that?" he said, admitting that he and his buddies had not been aware of the existence of atomic weaponry.
In addition to brutal violence, Pedersen also experienced his fair share of hygienic torture. "I had five showers in 270 days," he recalled. "We wore the same thing for months. We slept in the dirt. We did get a lot of fresh air, though."
The longtime Easton resident was 29 when he joined. "I basically volunteered, but it doesn't look that way on paper."
He was drafted at the start of the war, but his work with Remington Arms allowed his draft to be deferred. But he knew it was more important to serve his country than to earn a profit selling the weapons U.S. soldiers were using abroad. To him, the idea of getting rich while others suffered was too much to live with.
Months later he took his seat in a convoy of 59 ships within a circling fleet of Navy destroyers heading for Europe. In one day of battle, more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives, roughly equal to the number of soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003.
After several weeks on the front lines and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Pedersen spent the rest of his nine months in the European theater writing commendations for soldiers who earned medals or who had died.
During his service, he earned a number of medals himself, including the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Presidential Citation for being in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the Battle of Normandy, which took place during the German counteroffensive in August 1944.
On Veterans Day, Pedersen will speak at Samuel L. Staples Elementary School about his war experiences. He has also self-published a 100-page memoir that he has given to his family, recalling the events of his life in the military.
"Veterans Day is a day when I think of all the guys that I fought with who never came home or who came home with parts of their body missing."
When asked if he would change anything about his experience, he shook his head, and proudly affirmed that "It was the greatest experience of my life. I will never forget it."
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