A hero's story: Joe Dickerson

Published July 31, 2019

By Gary Pearce

“I crawled along with my bayonet in my hand, sticking it in the ground ahead of me trying to find mines.”

Joe Dickerson, describing the terrible 400 yards between the water and the seawall on Omaha Beach, D-Day, June 6, 1944.

My stepfather Joe Dickerson, who died Monday at age 96, was a veteran of D-Day and four months of combat across France, Holland, Belgium and into Germany. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Silver Star for valor in combat. He received four Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in battle. 

Joe and my father Jim were good friends in Murfreesboro in Hertford County, NC. Joe was best man at my parents’ wedding. Before my father died in 2005, he prevailed on the ever-reticent Joe to recount his war experiences. My father privately published Joe’s recollections in a book titled “Visitor to Hell.”

This is Joe’s story, in his words.

D-Day on the troopship:

“I remember that last morning on the Thomas Jefferson when we got up at 2 am for breakfast, and breakfast was meatloaf and ketchup. I hate ketchup. I never could get to like it. But that morning I ate it.”

On the LCVP landing boat, Omaha Beach, 6:30 am on D-Day:

“When we were probably 200 or 300 yards offshore, the coxswain apparently became scared and wouldn’t carry us any further. He stopped and dropped the ramp.

“A lot of boys started going off the front ramp, and a lot of them started getting killed. We could see what was happening from our spot about three-quarters of the way back in the boat, and several of us made a quick decision to go over the side.

“When we jumped over the side, we found we were in water a lot deeper than we thought. I was only about 5 feet 6 and a half, and with that heavy pack, my rifle and my clothing, I went straight to the bottom. If there had not been taller guys on each side of me, I would have drowned.

“Of the 30 of us on our landing craft, there were 14 who didn’t make it.”

He made it to the beach.

“After we felt the ground under our feet, we struggled to get out of the water. We had to lie flat on the beach. If you stood upright, you were killed.

“The Germans were throwing everything at us: 88s, mortar fire, artillery fire, machine guns, small arms. You just knew that you were going to be the next person shot.

“We saw a lot of men lying in the water who had been hit and couldn’t move. Some were dead, but some were still living. We couldn’t see them lying there and not try to help. We helped one man out of the water and onto the beach. And then another, and another, and another.

“How long this went on, I don’t know. It seemed to me to be forever.”

They had to get off the beach.

“Our commanding officer hollered at us to get the hell off the beach. He said it would be better to die somewhere else rather than on the beach. So we started crawling toward the hill.

“I crawled along with my bayonet in my hand, sticking it in the ground ahead of me trying to find mines. We found two. We marked them and the engineers later took care of them.

“We still had a long stretch of flat beach to cross, and we took off running, trying to ignore the shells falling around us and the spurts of sand where small-arms fire was getting close.

“We finally reached some steep, slippery stones and boulders and immediately took cover. It had taken all day, from 6:30 that morning until night, to reach the hills where German guns couldn’t shoot at us.”

Joe was with Easy Company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division.

“We had 250 men in E Company. We lost 75 percent of them. Our company commander was shot and killed right there on the edge of the beach.

“I remember that the 116th Infantry, our regiment, took the heaviest casualties of all the Allied regiments on D-Day.

“Our life expectancy that morning was about zero.”

The next morning, Joe’s unit went on the attack.

“Our heavy-weapons platoon started up the hill, using their bangalore torpedoes to blow holes in the barbed wire so we could crawl nearer the German pillboxes and artillery.

“There were a lot of Germans dug into trenches. We had to get them out of the trenches, and we had a little hand-to-hand fighting there and that was where I got my first Purple Heart. I got a little cut on the hand. It wasn’t much, and I got a patch put over it and went back to the fighting.

“I remember, and I’ll never forget, the look on the face of my first dying enemy soldier. He had been fighting for his country, and I was fighting for mine. But I knew that he was defending a country that was doing evil, and I know that what we were doing had to be done.”

Joe and his buddies advanced into the hedgerows of Normandy.

“Lots of times we’d get up to a hedgerow that the Germans hadn’t left, and they’d throw hand grenades at us and of course we’d throw ours at them. We learned that their grenades didn’t go off as quickly as ours, and lots of times we’d pick theirs up and throw them back to the other side, killing them with their own grenades.”

They fought for weeks to liberate the port city of Cherbourg and the town of St. Lo, “another living hell.” At St. Lo one night, they heard German tanks. Joe and another solder set up around a curve on the road.

“We went, just the two of us, with the bazooka. It took both of us to operate it. One had to aim it and the other had to load it and say when it was ready to fire.

“Fortunately, we got all three tanks. We knocked the tracks off the No. 1 tank so it couldn’t move and then we knocked off the other two. We also got a few of the men coming out of the tanks.”

That action won Joe his Silver Star. The Bronze Star was for hauling wounded men out of the hedgerows to medics while under heavy enemy fire.

“On one of these streets (in St. Lo), I almost took a bayonet in my back. If it hadn’t been for a buddy who shot and killed the German who was making an advance on me, I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about this.

“St. Lo was where I got my third Purple Heart. In hand-to-hand combat.”

That’s all Joe said about the wound. He had received his second Purple Heart in Cherbourg. Of that, Joe said only, “It was a slight wound.”

In October, E Company was put on a crowded train for a long trip across France to Holland near the German border. Joe’s war ended near Aachen, Germany on Friday, October 13 at 3:30 in the afternoon. 

“Along with a buddy, I was crawling through a fence. Just as we got through, this German 88 exploded not too far from us.

“It killed him and knocked me out. I was hit in the arm and the body quite a bit and a little bit in the head. I was in a coma for about a week.”

Joe woke up in a field hospital. He was sent to a hospital in Paris for the first in a long series of surgeries, then to a hospital in England, then on a hospital ship for the week-plus voyage home.

A doctor told Joe the names of several hospitals in the States, and Joe said he’d like Asheville or Richmond, so he could be near his wife Eyssel. They had married after Joe was drafted in 1943. The Army promptly shipped him by hospital train to Modesto, California, “almost as far from my home and my wife as I had been in Europe.”

There were more operations and a long recovery. Joe was discharged in 1945 as a tech sergeant. He returned to Murfreesboro, where he raised his family and had a long career as a businessman (he owned a Western Auto store), community leader and much-beloved citizen.

For years, Joe organized reunions of his Easy Company buddies. Not long ago, he became the last surviving veteran of that company. He lived long enough to enjoy the 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day last June 6.

He and my mother Becky, both widowed, married in 2009. They enjoyed 10 happy years together, traveling widely and enjoying good times with friends and family. 

For making my mother happy those 10 years, I am thankful for Joe. For what he did 75 years ago, we all owe him our thanks.

A final thought

We live in a time when some people lose faith in our country. But America has always been great because America produces great heroes like Joe Dickerson who are willing to work, fight and even die so we can have the freedom to speak, worship and vote as we choose.

We honor them best by being just as willing to protect and preserve our freedoms for the generations that come after us.