WW II vet D.D. Bain displays his Legion d'Honneur medal. Bain was awarded the highest French military honor for his role in liberating France in 1944.
Editor's Note: The Planet originally published this profile of D.D. Bain shortly after a June 2016 interview with Bain, who is possibly Dade's only surviving World War II veteran. (If you know another one, please contact The Planet to say firstname.lastname@example.org.) The Planet herewith republishes a minimally updated version of the 2016 article as part I of a Veterans Day week series.
“Do you think you could make men fight by reasoning? Never,” said Napoleon Bonaparte. “The soldier needs glory, distinctions, rewards.”
The occasion for Napoleon’s speech was his creation in 1802 of what remains France’s highest military decoration, the National Order of the Legion of Honor. On May 31, 2016, at a ceremony in Atlanta, French Consul General Denis Barbet made a speech of his own as he pinned that decoration on Dade County’s own D.D. Bain.
“I couldn’t understand it all, hardly. He couldn’t speak good English,” said Bain, 95. “But he was nice.”
Bain, born in neighboring DeKalb County, Alabama, has lived in Dade for 36 years. And after the ceremony in Atlanta, in which Bain and five other World War II veterans received the high honor in thanks for their contributions toward liberating France from German occupation in 1944, Bain has the distinction of being the county’s only living chevalier, or knight, of the French republic.
As far as The Planet can figure, that entitles Bain to add “Sir” to his name, but the idea didn’t appeal to the retired Church of God minister. “Call me D.D.,” he advised.
And as far as motivations of “glory, distinctions and rewards,” Bain did not seem eager to lay claim to those, either.
“War is horrible,” he said.
As a medic in the U.S. Army’s 83rd Division, Bain landed on the beach of Normandy shortly after D-Day and made the bloody 10-month trek across France, into Germany and ultimately to Berlin. And while he was certainly pleased to receive the Legion of Honor medal for it, what he took away from the war was not so much its glory as its terrible, terrible costs. “It takes so many lives,” he said. “We were replaced as a company I don’t know how many times because we’d lose them, the ones that were killed.”
But let’s back up, and tell Bain’s story in order.
When war was declared in December 1941, Bain was working as a coalminer in West Virginia. He’d started out in the Alabama mines that used to dot Lookout Mountain but had soon moved to where there was more work. Then, in 1942, three big changes happened in his life: He got married—Kentucky-born Della Hunt Bain would be his wife for 71 years until her death in 2013—he got drafted into the U.S. Army, and he came of age. “I spent my 21st birthday putting my uniform on,” said Bain.
His two brothers were also part of the war effort, said Bain, and he accepted it as a duty. “I didn’t fail to go when they said to go,” he said. “I didn’t want to, but I had to.”
Uncle Sam sent Bain first to Indiana for basic training and then to Tennessee and Kentucky, where he spent the early part of the war on deployments in the woods or on maneuvers. He gained the rank of corporal and the designation T5, or Technician Fifth Class, as a division medic. “Then, in April of 1944, they took us to England,” he said.
Bain and his buddies in the 83rd were fated to be part of the big Allied invasion into France. But step one was to England, where they camped in the fields about 20 miles the other side of the Channel.
“All of the American Army was in England at that time,” said Bain. “You couldn’t turn
around hardly, there were so many American soldiers.”
The sheer numbers were what kept the 83rd out of the first wave of D-Day invaders—“Everybody couldn’t go at once”—and Bain and company were held up further by the weather. History buffs will know that sea storms delayed D-Day, originally planned for June 5, to the 6th. Bain was stuck in one of them. “One of our ships broke half in two and just parted in the Channel,” he said. “We had a time getting across that Channel into France.” Bain finally landed on June 12.
By then, the Germans had been pushed a little back from the beach, but fighting was still fierce. “You’ve heard of the hedgerows that we had so much trouble in?” said Brain. “I’d never seen anything like it.”
Hedgerows—elevated banks of earth grown thickly with bushes or trees—had been around since the Middle Ages, an attractive way of separating one farmer’s field from another’s. But they were a nightmare for the American GIs and they delayed the Allied push into the mainland from a projected couple of days to two deadly months. The Germans used them as fortifications, setting up behind them to attack the invaders. “You get out of one into the fields, you’re out in the open where anything can hit you,” said Bain.
(Historical photo of hedgerow fighting)
This was the reality Bain walked into just off the beach. Within the first half-hour, his water canteen was shot off his belt. It was scary, but it didn’t seem like much of a loss when he looked at the soldier next to him, a guy he’d trained with for the past two years. “When they knocked my canteen off my belt, they knocked his chin right off,” said Bain. “It was hanging down with a string of flesh. I never did know the ending, whether it killed him or not.”
As one of the company medics, Bain did not carry a rifle. He was there to give first aid to the soldiers who did. But that meant he had to be right at the front line with them. “It’s not easy because you’ve got to be as much in it as them boys with a gun,” he said.
Bain thinks his share of the hedgerow fighting lasted about 17 days. “Then what they did is they sent about every plane they had over there to Germany, sent them over there and bombed a road through the Germans and the hedgerows where they could get behind the Germans,” he said.
Bain’s experience of the French, as the 83rd fought its way into their country, was mostly of people walking the opposite way, returning to their towns newly liberated from the Germans. But one day he got a closer look. “The Germans were firing into homes, wherever they thought we were,” he said. “A little girl had been shot.” Bain, called in by the family, bandaged her wounds as best he could. He hoped the Army later got her to a hospital, but that’s another story he doesn’t know the end of.
He also did what he could for wounded Germans he’d come across in the fighting. And then there were always his own friends in the 83rd. “It’s so sad when I think about it,” he said. “It wasn’t easy to look at your friends being knocked down.”
One friend who’d marched beside him all the way from Normandy died in the last bit of fighting outside Berlin, said Bain. It was a death that affected him worse than the others, and after the war, he tracked down the young man’s sister in Alabama to discuss it.
In the winter of 1944-’45, Bain was part of another historic struggle, the Battle of the Bulge. This was the last major German offensive, fought in the terrible cold of the French/Belgian Ardennes region. “The Germans were throwing all they had at us,” said Bain.
The Bulge was fought throughout December and January and what Bain mostly remembers from it is the misery—a foot and a half of snow on the ground for a month, getting into his sleeping bag for warmth and behind a tank to keep from getting shot. “It wasn’t much sleep we got,” he said.
It was during that conflict he remembers counting 18 big American tanks burning in the field. Bain was always counting things like that. “I stood in one place and counted 100 great big nice beef cattle, 100 of them killed and laying on the ground,” he said. “That was of course from bombs overhead.”
Sometimes he couldn’t count the dead, such as in air battles. “I saw one four-engine plane go this way, that way—it just broke apart and I didn’t see a parachute,” said Bain. “It was a big plane and you know it had several in it.”
He also saw a small plane dive down to bomb, then bounce back up only to crash into the bottom of a larger plane, exploding both. “It’s so hard to look at the cost of war,” said Bain.
And one thing that contributes to that cost is accidents such as the one described above; war is cluttered with accidental deaths, said Bain. “The bombing, when they started that, they started short, right on our own boys,” he said. “I think they said there was 500 of them killed.”
Then there’s transport, with road accidents and plane crashes and shipwrecks, and then there’s artillery. Bain explained that shelling was done from behind, the big guns firing over the heads of the foot soldiers and riflemen—in theory. In practice, shells frequently fell short, injuring and killing GIs. “It happened in the field even before we left to go overseas,” he said.
It was an accident of another kind—a particularly cruel one—that ended the war for young Cpl. Bain, in a German house just outside Berlin.
The soldiers had stopped for the night to sleep in a private German home, as they often did at this stage of the invasion. Most of the men were in the living room. The sergeant had been outside setting up a guard, and on his way back in someone threw an anti-tank weapon at him. It blew dirt over him but didn’t hurt him.
“So he come back in the house to get the other squad,” said Bain. “One boy in the squad had this old anti-tank gun, they called it a bazooka. It was slung on his shoulder, and in this milling around in that room, some way it knocked that thing on his shoulder, it knocked the trigger and that thing hit the floor right in the middle of that squad. I knew before I left there were eight of them gone, dead, and there might have been another one of them or two.”
Bain wasn’t hurt physically. He had gone through the doorway into the kitchen and was sheltered by the wall.
But even before the term “post-traumatic stress syndrome” was coined—Bain still just calls it “shocked real good”—the doctor Bain saw the next morning could tell his shelf life as a soldier was up. “He asked me if I wanted to go home,” said Bain. “He’d seen I was out. I mean, I wasn’t no count. I’d been so far, 10 straight months with them boys dying across that thing.”
So Bain started back to the States for a rest, and when he was a few days out from France the war in Europe ended. “They were going to send us on to Japan after the furlough,” he said. “But they had started letting people out on the point system and I had one point over what it took to get out. I got out.”
After the war, Bain moved to Rome, Ga., where he learned the heating business in an on-the-job-training G.I. Bill program. He and his Della had four children and scrambled to feed them; Bain remembers going through fields after the harvesters to glean a little corn here or a few potatoes there.
It was during these years that he began to preach, and eventually he was to pastor 12 churches across the United States. “But back then it was all small churches,” said Bain. “I had a family and had to live, so it come handy for me to do a right smart of heating work and preach, too.”
He does not deny that it was what he saw during the war that turned him toward the religious life. “I just know I had the master with me or I’d never have gotten back,” he said. Once a big shell landed right beside him, he remembered, and instead of exploding bounced off across the fields.
Bain was delighted to be awarded the Legion of Honor, but he does not think of war as an occasion for glory. He worries about all the people killed every day in the Middle East, by “fellers who just live to kill,” he says. He hates that, and he doesn’t mind talking about his own war because he thinks people need to hear what it’s like.
“It’s just a place that we don’t want to go, because war is horrible,” he said. “And now it’s got so bad, I don’t know what they’re going to call it now, if they’re going to start using what they’ve got to kill us all.”