Barbed Wire and a French Castle: A Soldier’s Account of D-Day

U.S. Army troops administer first aid to the survivors of sunken landing craft, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (Photo from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives)

Former Army Tech Sgt. John Trippon finally told his family how he got those scars on his chest and stomach 70 years after the D-Day invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe on June 6, 1944.

Trippon, a combat engineer, and his unit from the 6th Engineers Special Brigade of the First Army, under the command of Gen. Omar Bradley, were in the second invasion wave that wove its way to Omaha Beach in landing craft, past floating bodies and German obstacles.

They were pinned down by murderous fire coming from the ridgeline above, and machine-gun crossfire from emplacements that the naval bombardment had failed to knock out.

About half of the 550-man unit had already been killed in their first 90 minutes on the beach, Jim Trippon said in an interview Saturday recounting his father’s actions that day. “There was no place to hide,” he said.

They had to find a way to get off that beach, get to the heights to stop the Germans, or the carnage would continue.

Following orders, the 22-year-old Trippon found a way out. He threw his body across the barbed wire blocking their escape. The others ran across his back to get clear. John Trippon untangled himself and raced after them.

They would take a 17th-century French chateau about a quarter-mile from the beach that the Germans had used as their elegant field headquarters.

A cow killed in the bombardments was on the grounds. Trippon and others took back meat for the unit. They only realized later that they had walked without a scratch through a minefield to do it.

Over the years, his father waved off questions on how he got the scars, Jim Trippon said. “I could never figure out how he got those scars across his chest.”

When asked, his father would growl: “You don’t want to know about that.”

John Trippon “always had survivor’s guilt,” the son said.

It was only on a trip back to Normandy for the 70th anniversary that he spoke of it, and other surviving members of his unit confirmed that he had thrown himself on the barbed wire.

“The thing is, none of those guys would talk about it,” Jim Trippon said of the details of what happened in history’s greatest invasion, involving about two million American, British, Canadian and other allied forces.

When they did, it was often to recall the small things that stand out in memory against others too painful to resurrect.

For his father, it was a Timex watch he received as a high school graduation gift back in Aurora, Illinois. He lost it during the landing and, 70 years later, he was still mad about it, Jim Trippon said.

The naval gunfire had created craters at the shoreline. When John Trippon stepped off the ramp, he was in about 14 feet of water, the son said. He had to strip off his heavy engineer’s gear or drown. Somehow, the watch went the way of the rest of the gear.

“He was so proud of that watch,” the son said. For the rest of his life, his father’s one-liner summary of what happened on D-Day usually amounted to — “I lost that damn watch.”

Trippon’s unit remained at the chateau and helped in the construction of the makeshift “Mulberry” port, an artificial harbor, at Normandy. When a storm destroyed the pier, he went to Cherbourg to help rebuild the harbor.

He was also with Army units on the push into Germany and was in Aachen for V-E Day (Victory in Europe) in May 1945.

John Trippon returned to the States and thought he would muster out, but he was held back with many others coming back from Europe for the possible invasion of Japan. The war ended before he was deployed.

He began a career as a civil engineer and raised a family in Oswego, Illinois. He had four kids: Jim, John, Marianne and Jane. Son John was career military and retired as a lieutenant colonel with the 3rd Infantry Division, Jim Trippon said.

His father was proud of son John’s service but was initially opposed to his joining the military, possibly because of his own war experiences, Jim Trippon said.

The family has been back to Normandy numerous times as guests of the Hausermann family, owners of the Chateau Vierville-Sur-Mer, where John Trippon slept in a barn in 1944.

The last trip for John Trippon was in 2014 for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. There were fireworks for the occasion, and his father became unsettled by the booms and red glare of the display, Jim Trippon said.

“He just got super emotional and withdrawn,” the son said. John Trippon died shortly afterward at age 92.

For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, President Donald Trump is expected to join other world leaders at Normandy. Chateau Vierville will serve as a kind of mini-headquarters for the event, with tents on the grounds and displays of vintage World War II vehicles.

Jim Trippon will be there as the guest of Jean-Paul Hausermann, the 92-year-old family patriarch who was 14 when the Germans took over the chateau.

Against Jean-Paul’s advice, Jim Trippon said he will be staying in the barn where his father once slept as a young soldier.

“One night in the barn — that’s where my Dad lived,” Jim Trippon said.

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