Softly spoken... loudly heard
Each year Max Finley takes his annual trek to the now defunct town of Mohrland to see if a rose bush his grandmother planted is still living.
"She moved to Mohrland with my grandfather from Beloit, Wis. early in the last century," says Finley as he sits in his comfortable living room." A few years later she went back to Wisconsin for a trip and when she returned she brought that rose bush with her and planted it by their house. Everything else is gone, but that rose bush lives on."
Its a legacy that Finley remembers and salutes each year. He, in turn, is also leaving a legacy, one that everyone can look up to, because he is veteran of one of the most famous battles in history.
In 1944, Finley was a common soldier, amongst thousands that invaded France on the largest amphibious operation ever undertaken. D-Day.
Today, he is one of only a few people who remain that can tell us about that June day on Utah Beach. Most of those that were involved are gone, either killed during World War II or having passed away in the ensuing 60 years.
At six foot five inches, Finley is an imposing man even though he is now in his eighties. And he always was. In the photos he displays as he talks about his experience as part of the 549th Field Artillery Battalion, he generally stands head and shoulders above everyone around him.
He also stood head and shoulders above them in survival. In his squad of 10 men, only he and one other of the original members survived the war.
In fact the first death in war he ever saw was that of his Lieutenant, Ray Peterson, who stepped off the landing craft that morning and almost immediately took a piece of shrapnel to the stomach, wounded in a way that end his life only a few minutes later right under the gaze of a young Finley.
Almost right after that another man in the squad stepped on a mine and was killed.
"Needless to say, we were overcome by a moment of terror as the rest of the fire direction team and I tried to find cover where we could behind the seawall," he says. "Being shot at is no fun and I never got used to it."
And he would face a lot more of it. For the next 11 months he would be working to stay alive as the allies left the beach and pushed through Europe and into Germany. One by one, each of his original pals would die. So would many of their replacements.
Finley, an Eastern Utah boy from the start, had grown up in Emery and Carbon Counties. He had graduated from North Emery High School and had gone on to the University of Utah where he was on the track team and played basketball. Then came the war, and the draft and he was in.
|Max Finley is proud of his service and says he would never trade those days for anything, yet they were also terrible times.|
After reporting for duty at Fort Douglas, he was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma originally where he feared he would become part of the "mule skinners' or the Mountain Artillery. The reason for the name is that the Army had invented the mountain units to fight with big guns in rough terrain and had developed special weapons that could be disassembled and hauled into areas where vehicles couldn't go. But the way they got there was by loading the weapons pieces on the back of mules.
"Men assigned to those units spent most of their time cleaning up after the mules and the mules spent most of their time messing up," states Finley.
He ended up instead going into a field artillery unit called the 549th Field Artillery Battalion after 16 weeks of basic training and artillery school. He was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas for advanced training. That included a lot of classroom to begin with (trigonometry and geometry) but then field operations began and the men were introduced to their big guns, 155 millimeter rifles, or as they were affectionately known "Long Toms."
In late November the unit shipped out and ended up in New York being loaded on a ship for a long trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The convoy the ship joined took a "slow boat to China" route to escape German submarines. Down the East coast of the United States, into the Caribbean, then straight across the Atlantic to the coast of Africa, then north past Spain and onto England. The ship tied up at Southampton docks on December 24, 1943.
"Late that night the battalion disembarked and there on the dock was a very welcome sight, a Red Cross Clubmobile, with coffee and donuts," he explains. "For the chow hounds of the organization there were seconds and thirds this Christmas Eve. The coffee tasted particularly good after the mysterious beverage that was made and called coffee on the ship."
They were then put on a train and sent to Northwich, Cheshire, England. Right away a number of them were called to guard duty, to guard the equipment that they had packed up in Texas and that had beat them to the island nation.
That was on Christmas Day and everyone had expected a wonderful Christmas dinner but instead ended up eating k-rations. Little did Finley or his cohorts know that for most of them there would never be another Christmas dinner and for those that would survive the push into Europe it would be two years before they enjoyed a true celebration on that holy day.
As training continued, the next March Finley and some of his unit were sent north to Scotland to train with the British "Queens Own Guards Regiment."
"The training there was beautiful to the eye but unpleasant to the skin, states Finley about the lovely but cold Scottish highlands. "The training was hard, the weather miserable and the food half-rations."
In May he found himself back with the main unit and then within a month they found themselves in France fighting their way through Normandy and the hedgerows of that part of the country.
"The farmers in France raise a bank of earth around each of their fields, about six feet in height," he explains. "It has oaks and chestnut trees growing on top. The long branches of the trees overhanging the narrow roads make sort of an arbor overhead."
|Finley says when it came to uniforms, one size fit all.|
The battles among these ridges became some of the most well know of the European war as allied troops tried to dislodge the dug in German army row by row.
"In every fire fight I experienced throughout Europe I recollect that things were noisy and confusing with the crack of weapons, grenades, artillery and screaming men," he says. "A battlefield is also very dirty with dust and all types of broken debris covering the earth, along with dead animals and humans. My clothing and gear were often ripped or torn. The simplest of tasks were difficult and I felt like I was moving in slow motion."
As the days and battles wore on, with few hot meals and fewer showers and clean clothes in between he watched the war progress from his front seat but narrow viewpoint. He watched people killed left and right and at one point saw a lieutenant who he was driving in a jeep lose both his legs when he encountered a field full of "Bouncing Betties" or mines that would be set off by someone flexing a trip wire sending the mine about a foot into the air before it exploded.
By October the unit had made it into Germany and it looked like the war was nearing it's end, but Finley could see the more they moved into the Germans mother country the harder their troops fought.
Winter set in and now the cold and the ice, along with frostbite and trenchfoot became almost as big of enemies as the forces opposing the Americans.
Finley's unit was soon attached to a different combat unit, a familiar one; the Queens Own Guards Regiment. The British needed help with artillery because they were getting low on manpower after so many years at war. He saw some old friends he had met in Scotland.
It was during this time. supporting those troops in Belgium that he saw a Captain named Edward Hary he had admired come into camp on a stretcher, but he wasn't there for medical help. He was received by the grave registers.
"Some of the men that knew him just stood around and gradually worked their way close to the body," says Finley. "Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to themselves. I stood close and I could hear, despite the sounds of the battle. One soldier came and looked down and said out loud, "G-- damn it." That's all he said and then walked away."
The procession for the dead captain went on with numerous officers and men coming to see the well liked man.
"The first man there squatted down and reached down to take the captains hand. He sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead man's hand in his own and looking intently into the captains face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. Finally he put the hand down, reached over and gently straightened the uniform around the wound and then got up and walked away, back up the ridge, all alone."
Despite the death and destruction of allied forces Finley saw all around him, nothing prepared him for the day his unit went into a German town called Gadegen.
The retreating Germans did not want to herd the forced labor they had there in front of them and they did not want to leave them behind alive so they herded them about 1,000 people into a cement block building that had big steel doors that could be secured on the front, but no windows except skylights. The Germans then poured gasoline through the skylights and lit it on fire.
"The bodies were still burning when we came across the barbaric atrocity," stated Finley. "In their effort to escape the inferno, some had been able to squeeze through the small opening under the doors the then were immediately shot. Even though brutal death had become a constant companion these past several months, the sight and smell of the still burning bodies caused many of us to become ill."
|Utah Beach as it apears today is quiet and tranquil, but it wasn't that way 60 years ago.|
Along with many soldiers, Finley also toured one concentration camp after it was liberated. The one he happened to go to was Buchenwald. The American senior officers decided that it would be good for as many American troops as possible to visit the camps. There they found bodies piled in heaps, living skeletons due to abuse and malnutrition and of course the ovens and the gas chambers.
"In some warehouses were bales of women's hair, clothing, and piles of spectacles and dentures," says Finley. "A sight that was especially infuriating was a bin with hundreds and hundreds of baby shoes."
As the war with Germany ended, Finley and his unit knew they might go to the Pacific Theater to help fight Japan. But first they were sent to Bavaria where the guarded Eichstatt Castle, where many records the Nazis had kept were housed. The troops there were protecting the records because officials expected to use them to prosecute various German leaders for war crimes.
"Although the actual fighting had ended in May the results of the war continued to claim many innocent victims," explained Finley. "Land mines, artillery shells, bombs and grenades were scattered throughout the war torn countries and continued to take their toll."
Finley actually helped a family whose little boy had picked up a "potato masher" ( a German grenade that had a wooden handle on it) and it had exploded. He helped get the children to a doctor.
"I'm not sure whether the children lived or died, but I imagine that tragedies like that have occurred many times since."
His unit was then sent to England where they mostly drove trucks with supplies around the country, directed by an Irish lorry driver named Paddie who kept them from killing anyone by directing them around sharp corners while having to drive on the "wrong side of the road." "Paddie" introduced Finley and the only original member of the squad left to his family and on Christmas he invited the two Americans to his house for dinner. The two took as many American supplies as they could with them and the family was overjoyed at what they carried into the home.
"I've never seen people who were so overjoyed for such small favors," Finley says of the small amount of candy and goods they brought into the house that evening. "But better than that the mess sergeant had given permission for any who wanted to bring friends to Christmas dinner. He had prepared a traditional American Christmas dinner with turkey, pies, pudding, and all the other goodies that go with it. Paddies family was overcome with the variety and amount of food that was served, probably the likes of which they had never seen."
Just before his unit was ready to be loaded on a ship to head to the Pacific, the war with Japan ended and finally Finley could go home. The arrival in New York harbor was sweet with bands playing and people cheering, but Finley says that his "elation was never greater than when I could hear the train wheels carrying me back to beautiful Utah."
Finley has written a book about his war experiences called Softly Spoken which added greatly to this article and in the last year has also appeared in a video produced about D-Day called "Lest The Be Forgotten." In it over 20 veterans tell about what they saw and experienced on that date.
"I wrote the book for my kids," said Finley who spent years as an electrical contractor after the war and until he retired. "I wanted them to know about what happened."
In the days since the war not a day goes by that he doesn't think of the places and events he saw and the people he cared about. Especially those who died.
"When You remember your friends that are buried there, you know who the heroes are," he says, looking off into the distance. "The rest of us just were lucky to come home."