The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 11, 2013

World War II veteran makes return trip to Normandy

BECKLEY — He just wanted to fight for his country. He says he gave it his best and that’s all he ever wanted to do for America.

Paul McGraw is a 91-year-old World War II veteran from Beckley. His daughter took him back to Normandy this summer as a way to really understand a part of his life.

“I guess in many ways this has shaped his whole life,” Tammy McGraw said. “It’s about understanding what he went through.”

Paul was 22 when he hit the beach at Normandy.

“The one advantage I saw was that we were in a war that we had to be in,” he said. “All of the rest of these wars have been for political things. In World War II, we had to fight or let Hitler take us over.”

“I was in combat for 300 days. I went in at Normandy on the first of July. They had a little beachhead established when I went in, but they had very little. From there, I went from Normandy, all the way and linked up with the Russian Army in May of 1945. It was 11 months until the end of the war. We whipped the Germans in 11 months time.”

Paul said he spent a good bit of his time in Normandy in foxholes or taking heavy fire.

“I was equipped with an equipment truck that had a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on it and I was the machine gun man,” he said. “Every time we would move, I was put on that machine gun and about every time we’d move, we’d either be hit by planes strafing or snipers. I’ll have to say I was fighting down several snipers. I shot the tops off of old barns and houses and so forth with my .50-caliber machine gun.

“The worst part of my whole combat was when we went into Hürtgen Forest, Germany, in November. That’s where I met my brother that I hadn’t seen in over two years. It was cold and rainy and we dug a little foxhole. It was muddy and nasty so we took pine needles and tried to make a bed so we could sleep. We didn’t sleep much that night. Every time a bomb would go off, my brother would be punching me in the ribs and saying, ‘Paul, listen. Listen!’

I was in the Hürtgen Forest from Nov. 19 and slept in foxholes. We hit zero-degree weather all the way up until March when we finally got a break. They took us back and got us a clean set of clothes and got to take a cold shower.”

Paul says he had the best job in the Army during peace-time, but his job was the worst in war-time.

“I was in charge of making sure that 200 men got something to eat,” he said. “That was a big responsibility. Sometimes I’d had have to travel 10 or 15 miles to feed my company in a jeep with no top, no windshield, and nothing in that zero degree weather. It froze my ears.

“I guess it was on Easter Sunday that we had a battalion of men that got surrounded and cut off. We had to carry rations and ammunition to them. I took my six men and our lieutenant, and we carried rations up the hill that evening under pretty heavy machine gun fire. The next morning I got up early and headed to an old farm that had a few oxen in the barn. I made the farmer hook up that team of oxen to a sled and loaded it down with ammunition and rations and went through the German line with it under heavy machine gun fire.”

While taking that heavy fire, there was no way for Paul to know if he would make it.

“I never would wear my dog-tags,” he said. “I would keep them in my pocket. That one time I reached into my pocket and put my dog-tags around my neck. After I got up there, I unloaded rations and ammunition and we loaded up German wounded soldiers and American wounded soldiers and went back down the hill. The lieutenant that was in charge of all of them was awarded a Silver Star for the job that we had done. I actually did the job for that lieutenant.

“After that things begin to break and we crossed the Rhine River and went on into Cologne. That must have been 68 years ago. Things began to ease up from then on. We ended up with 250,000 prisoners at the end of the war. At the end of the war the captain came in at the edge of dark and told me to get ready because I was going back to the States. I left my company over there and went back to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. My outfit, when they arrived 30 days later, we trained them for the invasion of the mainland of Japan. I’m glad to be back home.”

After Paul made it home, he said he did the only thing that made sense to him. He went back to work.

“When I was discharged from the Army, they told me I was entitled to $20 a week for 52 weeks,” he said. “I never collected the first check. I went straight to work. The quickest way to get old is to sit down. Before I went into the service, I was working at the company store at Glen Rogers. We had 1,550 men on the payroll when I went off to war. As soon as I got out of the service, the store manager came back and talked me into coming back and working at the company store. I was making $80 a month for working seven days a week and 10 hour work days. I said to myself, ‘Man, I can beat that.’

“I grabbed a hand saw and a hammer and started construction work. I was in the contracting business from 1946 to almost now. I closed my company out when I built Beckley Automall. That was in 1986. I built Eastern Associated Coal, Beckley Auto Mall, and Chase Bank. I got married in 1949 and raised two daughters and one son.”

While most of us might read or watch TV with our free time, Paul says he had bigger goals.

“I spent 38 years on what we called the Soil Conservation District,” he said. “I worked with that organization and with my free time I built the channel that crossed Cranberry Creek. If it wasn’t for me, then that shopping center there wouldn’t have been built. All of that area flooded and it had to be done.

“We had a meeting on Cranberry Creek. Sen. Byrd had already given us $25 million to do the project. We had a meeting on Ragland Road. The county commissioner refused to get the road built and the city of Beckley refused to get the road built. They said, ‘Send the money back.’ I told them we’re not sending that money back. We’re building that channel and we built that channel with the help of Mr. John Wooton. He was my lawyer. He kept me out of jail. That’s about the truth.”

Paul said Cranberry Creek used to flood the area that Logan’s Steakhouse and its surrounding businesses set in. Without the channel to keep the area from flooding, that area couldn’t develop.

He said he didn’t give up on the project because that’s just the kind of person he is.

“I always say it’s a lot better to give than to receive,” Paul said. “I think everyone should believe the old saying of ‘If you don’t love this country, leave it.’ This is our country. It’s been good to me. I try to be good to it.”

For his service to the United States, Paul was awarded the Combat Infantry Medal, Expert Rifleman Medal, and four Bronze Stars, one for each of the battles he was in. Paul fought in Normandy, Northern France, Rhine and the Battle of the Bulge.”

Paul said his trip back to Normandy brought back a lot of old memories.

“I guess the worst part was the cemetery,” he said. “There were about 10,000 white crosses in a line. The bad part was that there were so many of them that had no name on them. That brought back some memories. I can almost see myself back then.

“I didn’t go in on one of the big landing barges. We went in on a big ship and had to climb off of it with a rope ladder. You had to carry your field pack, horseshoe roll, all the ammunition you could carry, your gas mask and your rifle. I had more weight on me than I weighed myself, then I went into 5-feet-deep water and couldn’t even swim. I never did learn to swim.

“What bothered me more than anything was getting into that water. When I got into battle, I can’t say I was ever afraid. I always thought I was a better soldier than the Germans were.”

Paul says he fired enough guns in the war to fill a lifetime.

“I haven’t fired a gun since the war,” he said. “I didn’t have any use for them. I don’t even own a gun in my house.

“It’s something that bothers me. I won’t sleep tonight from talking about it. It’ll bother me all night. If I do any talking about it during the day, then it bothers me during the night. When we went into the Hürtgen Forest, there were bodies laying everywhere. We couldn’t get in to pick them up.”

Paul says he served his country well and appreciates all it did for him, he just wishes veterans could get a little peace from the past.

“When were in Normandy at the cemetery there, I don’t know how many people would come up and want to take my picture so they could have it to take to school with them,” he said. “A lot of them would say they had family who were World War II veterans so they wanted to take my picture. There were probably 5,000 people there and I was the only World War II veteran in the crowd. Probably 35 to 40 people took my picture.

“In the other way, us World War II veterans, 90 percent of them are proud that they are a World War II veteran,” he said. “I’d hate to be my age and someone ask me if I was in the war, I’d hate to tell them ‘no,’ because practically every man that age was in World War II. The women made the products and the men did the fighting.”

“They didn’t call us ‘The Greatest Generation’ for nothing.”

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com

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