Reuben--”R.C.”-- Downer was among my favorites of the WWII vets I interviewed in 2008. He stormed the beaches. He rolled into Germany. And he sauntered down the streets of England with a pretty girl on each arm. He was eventually knighted by the French. He is also the uncle of my crazy-gardening-lady friend Eloise Gass, who helped me retrieve this long-ago photo.
Scene: June 6, 1944, 6:30 a.m.: A U.S. landing craft in the English Channel just off Normandy, France.
An officer stands before 35 American GIs. They are holding rifles, and each carries a 90-pound pack stuffed with ammunition and a three-day supply of food.
“This is going to be just like a dry run,” the officer assures them. Then: “Get down!”
Because no sooner are the comforting words out of his mouth than they are contradicted by a German artillery shell exploding in the water beside them.
The 35 young soldiers plunge chest deep into the water.
Or most of them do. The Germans, entrenched on a ridge above the beach, barrage the landing craft with mortar, artillery and small-arms fire, and some GIs die before they can get out of the boat.
Most of the others die in the water. The Germans have placed obstacles in the Channel to sink Allied boats, but the worst obstacles are the high waves that the GIs, burdened with their heavy packs, must struggle against for a foothold. Some are killed by bullets; most drown.
Five of the 35 make it to the beach. Three of the five make it across the sand to the relative safety of the ridge.
And one of the three remains today to tell the story of Omaha Beach. He is Reuben Coolidge Downer, then of the U.S. Army 29th Infantry, now of New Home.
“I had one thing in mind: I’ve got to get out of this water and get off of this beach,” he said of that day. “That was just as plain as if somebody had spoke to me and told me that.”
It was D-Day, the beginning of the Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe. The attack was expected by the Germans – the Channel was crammed with Allied gunboats – and the coast was heavily fortified and defended savagely. Downer, hunkered against the ridge as German artillery boomed over his head, witnessed what he describes as hell on earth.
GIs kept wading to shore and Germans kept killing them. “They blowed up a bunch of them, killed hundreds, 5- or 600 men in an hour or two, but it didn’t stop them from coming. They just kept coming,” he said.
Trucks, too, kept coming off the ships. They had been fitted to drive through the water, but few made it to dry land. “About all of it was being blown up,” said Downer. “I lay there at the bottom of that ridge and watched truckloads of ammunition blow up down there, truckloads of gasoline blow up down there. You talk about a fire.”
He was 19.
Reuben Downer grew up in Ider, Ala., and was working at a woolen mill in Rossville when his draft papers arrived on Nov. 23, 1942. His birthday was Nov. 22. “I turned 18 one day and the next day I got my orders to report for a physical,” he said.
After basic training, PFC Downer was shipped to England, where GIs were being amassed for the coming invasion. England had been at war since 1939 and badly needed the help, but not everybody was happy to see the reinforcements. “They’re overpaid, they’re oversexed, and they’re over here” was the famous complaint of the weary British soldiers. Downer smiled wickedly as he admitted the complaint was not unfounded.
“Them poor old English soldiers, they didn’t make half the money we did. Their clothes didn’t fit or nothing,” he said. “It was nothing to see an American soldier walking down the street with an English girl on each arm, and an English soldier walking along by theirself, you know, with no girl. You can imagine how that went over.”
When they were not chatting up English girls, the GIs were training for the invasion, carrying heavy packs through marshland. This was no fun, and soldiers commonly tried to duck it by playing sick. That was assumed to be the case when Downer fell ill, and his appendix had burst before anyone took him seriously. He was in and out of consciousness for a month, and his parents were warned by telegram that he might not make it.
But he survived that and then he survived D-Day, and he began to feel indestructible, taking crazy risks for the rest of the war. “If I got this far,” he figured, “I’ll go the rest of the way.”
It was a long way. For the over 6600 Americans who died that day at Normandy, D-Day was the end of the war, but for Downer it was just the beginning. Though he was shot in the shoulder near St. Lo a month into the fighting, after five weeks in an English hospital he was shipped back to the front line of combat, and on the front he remained all the way through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and ultimately Germany itself.
At this time, the Allies were taking Europe back from the Nazis one village at a time. Downer and his fellow infantrymen were the ones fighting for every inch. The Germans would retreat so far, then attack from behind hedgerows, said Downer. “They really had the advantage of us as far as that goes, but the American soldiers, they just got a willpower and they’ll just go no matter what,” he said. “You can’t stop them, hardly.”
Downer didn’t stop. Men dropped beside him and he knew he had to walk on. He saw a horse-drawn cartload of fleeing civilians hit a land mine, reducing all to scattered bits of wood and flesh. He saw, but refuses to talk about, what was left of the men, women and children in the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. “That, I wish I hadn’t ever seen,” he said.
One night, dead-tired, he and his division unknowingly slept within 300 yards of a group of German soldiers. In the morning, both groups saw each other at the same time and, as Downer later wrote, all hell broke loose. At the end of a minute, the Germans had fled, but a U.S. lieutenant lay lifeless.
Still Downer went on, and was within 20 miles of Berlin when the order came to stop; the Russians were to occupy the capital. “I said, Lordy, let them have it. I don’t want no part of it,” he said.
That was the end of the war for Downer. He remained in Germany for some months with the American occupation, but in a much more pleasant capacity, driving around in a smart new Jeep and, by his own admission, fraternizing grievously with the local population, or at least the female half. “The German girls, they had a thing for the American soldiers, too,” he said.
Downer had a sweetie waiting at home, though, and after discharge he forsook the Teutonic maidens to marry her. Reuben and Madeline Downer had two children. They divorced some 20 years ago, and Downer now lives with his second wife, Charlotte.
Downer went into the construction trade, building houses from Chattanooga to Fort Payne, Ala., and it never occurred to him to return to Europe until, in 2004, the French sent a cordial letter inviting him to Normandy for the 60th D-Day anniversary.
He was leery about going – as he recalled, he’d left the place a mess – but it was on their dime so he got on the plane.
This time, the welcome was a bit warmer. “In fact,” wrote Downer, “they treated me like a king.” Effusive Frenchmen kept thanking Downer for liberating their country until he started feeling like some kind of hero or something.
Indeed, Downer epitomizes what we think of as the American World War II hero. He is the cocky Yank who strolled whistling down an English lane with a pretty girl on each arm, seriously irritating the British male. He is the young GI who stormed the beach at Normandy in the face of German bullets. He is the liberator who ended the horrors of the concentration camps, the American soldier who plowed toward Berlin and couldn’t be stopped.
And who, lest we forget, saved civilization as we know it.