When D-Day rolls around every sixth of June, I remember Andy Andrews.
I first met Andy in 2006 when he spoke at my high school about his harrowing experiences as a 20-year-old machine gunner in World War II. I am now quite a bit older than he was when he stormed the Normandy beach, but I will never be old enough to imagine some of the things he went through when he was just a boy.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the largest amphibious invasion in history, The Daily Caller obtained an interview that 91-year-old Andy gave with the Witness to War Foundation in September 2014, a year-and-a-half before he died. He lucidly recalls the most memorable aspects of his wartime ordeal, making good to the end on a promise he made as a young man.
“If God gives me the strength,” he vowed as his ship returned from Europe, “I’m going to tell the story of how He took care of me for 10 months in combat.” (RELATED: Snatching Coals From The Furnace: A Millennial’s Perspective On Billy Graham)
Seven Minutes To Live
Ernest Albert “Andy” Andrews Jr. was born July 27, 1923, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in nearby Signal Mountain, the fourth of six children. His childhood was typical of a Tennessee mountain boy. “I spent most of my young life as a Boy Scout — camping, fishing, hunting,” he said. “We had a good church experience. I became a Christian at 16 years old and we all lived real close to the church.” His boyhood community of faith provided Andy with the strength that would sustain him through the war.
All 250 boys in Andy’s graduating high school class were drafted in June 1943. At Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, he was inducted into the “Big Red One,” the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. From there, he traveled to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for 13 weeks of basic training, where he learned he would become a machine gunner. (EXCLUSIVE: Andrew Brunson’s American Pastor Describes Harrowing Turkish Courtroom Experience)
Andy carried the gun’s 50-pound tripod on his back throughout the war. When they hit trouble, Andy would flip the tripod over his shoulders while a second soldier came up from behind to latch the gun barrel; a third then followed with the ammunition, followed by a fourth with the water can to cool it.
The critical position was especially dangerous, and Andy often claimed that the average machine gunner in combat was dead within seven minutes. The tentative title of his extensive memoirs, which are still being edited, is “Seven Minutes To Live: A Machine Gunner’s Story.”
The SS Île de France carried Andy and 10,000 other troops across the Atlantic to England, where they prepared several more months for the D-Day invasion. “We thought they were joking,” Andy said of when their commanders told them they would see combat.
“There we were, in almost total darkness,” Andy described the four-hour ride across the English Channel to France. “Nobody talking, nobody laughing, nobody shooting craps. Everybody quiet. Most of us praying.” By the dim lights inside the hull of USS Henrico, some of the soldiers were reading tiny New Testaments that the Army had given them. The man next to Andy repeated the Lord’s Prayer about 30 times, he remembered in a 2003 interview obtained by the Caller. “That’s all he could say. I figured that was all the prayer he knew.”
“And at that point, I remembered what my pastor said: ‘God will not send you into uncharted territory without giving you the grace to sustain you there.’ And I thought, ‘Boy, oh boy, I really believe that. I believe God’s going to help me.'”
Andy was among the third wave of soldiers to strike Omaha Beach, sparing him the barrage of machine gunfire that had decimated the two before. Climbing down the rope ladder and landing in one of the Higgins boats that circled the troopships, he rolled into a thick layer of vomit — the miserable expression of seasickness and fear that gripped them all. (RELATED: Here’s The Story Behind The Allied Weather Forecast That Saved D-Day)
Hearing an explosion on the way to shore, Andy peered over the lip of his Higgins boat to see the one beside him blown apart by an artillery shell, sending men into the air before they sank into the sea.
“You had a feeling of fear and the feeling of adrenaline — of excitement and, of course, the fear of the unknown,” Andy said in 2003. “You got to where you believed that courage doesn’t replace fear, but it’s the mastery of fear.”
Andy remembered vividly, across 70 years, that as he viewed the blood-soaked tide lapping at the many dead and wounded on the shore, he was overcome with grief at the “tremendous waste.”
“The American dead would break your heart, but you’d run into German dead all around and you didn’t think much about that. But they were human beings, too. But we didn’t think about them that way.”
‘I Christian, Too’
Andy’s unit pressed across northern France during the summer of 1944, at last breaking through into Germany by September. “Most of my worst battles were in Germany,” Andy said.
Perhaps the most poignant episode Andy ever recounted took place on the early morning of Nov. 19, 1944, outside Hamich, Germany. During the grisly battle for “Hill 232,” which he described as his most harrowing, the Germans attempted to regain the high ground by attacking an American force of about 35, all but five of whom were killed.
It was during this skirmish that Andy’s good friend, Jesse Beaver, was shot through the head and died in his lap, gasping for air as blood spilled out of his nose and ears.
Andy was ordered to take over the machine gun after the four gunners before him had been shot in the face. During a furious and bloody fight, he swept snipers in the trees and mowed down the enemy as they crested the bluff. The violence subsiding, Andy shot at a German soldier who had lobbed a grenade at him. The shrapnel struck Andy in the shoulder.
After 30 minutes of silence, during which time Andy thought the soldier was dead, a white handkerchief emerged from the darkness and a frightened voice said, in broken English, “Please, may I surrender?” The soldier crawled over to him, covered in blood and badly wounded by Andy’s bullets.
“I reached down and picked him up,” Andy said, asking in broken German what his name was.
“Heinz,” the boy answered.
“Heinz, that’s a good German name,” Andy replied.
“Are you going to kill me?” Andy remembered Heinz asking as he tossed a look over to Andy’s pistol. Andy said he could never do such a thing because that would be murder, and he was a Christian. “I Christian, too,” Heinz said. They also told each other they had both been drafted.
“He was 17 years old,” Andy remembered sadly. “And that’s when I thought, ‘My goodness! 17! Why couldn’t we be sitting around the campfire talking, sharing our fishing and hunting stories, instead of trying to kill each other?’ I didn’t have anything against him and he didn’t have anything against me, but we were trying to kill each other. Our countries put us together to kill each other.”
Andy and Heinz limped together to the aid station to receive care for the wounds they had inflicted on each other. Andy always expressed regret for never finding out what happened to him, but he kept the small golden cross Heinz gave to him for the rest of his life. He showed it to every group he ever spoke to.
‘This War Was Necessary’
The 1st Infantry Division at length found itself in the Battle of the Bulge, trying to contain the southern German flank in the cold darkness of the Hürtgen Forest. Here, Andy suffered a frozen hand after having lost one of his combat gloves, which earned him his third Purple Heart. He managed to thaw it out after six days in the hospital.
For three days after the German surrender, Andy battled the lingering remnants of a depleted German military in Czechoslovakia. Barely failing to qualify for a return home, he was chosen to be among the occupation forces in Germany.
Several days following its liberation in April 1945, Andy’s unit entered the concentration camp at Dachau. Any mention of what was one of his last experiences during the war remains conspicuously absent in both of the video interviews obtained by the Caller. “He didn’t talk about [Dachau] much, only to say that it was horrific,” Andy’s son told the Caller.
In a short personal statement written for UNC Asheville in 2003, Andy characterized the camp as “a somber and unbelievable spectacle.” He recalled “the shack-like barracks; the concrete whipping post over which prisoners were tied and whipped on the back; the blood ditch where prisoners were made to kneel, shot in the neck and kicked over into the ditch to bleed; the gas chamber where prisoners were herded to take a ‘shower’ and watched in horror as the huge iron doors closed and the gas came hissing from the ceiling.”
“Next to the gas chambers were the brick ovens with sliding iron baskets or grates, on which bodies were placed for burning,” he continued. “And under the grates, iron trays for receiving the ashes and the gold from teeth or other jewelry, which some prisoners swallowed to keep from having to give it up to their captors and tormentors.” (RELATED: Rashida Tlaib Uses Historical Inaccuracy To Explain Why ‘The Tragedy Of The Holocaust’ Gives Her ‘A Calming Feeling’)
He remembered the grim barracks, in which bunks of rough wood planks forced prisoners so close together that even sleeping on one’s side was difficult. Outside, there were “fearsome fences topped with barbed wire with rolls of barbed wire all along the base, next to a moat-like ditch. [On them] hung three prisoners, whose desperation made them believe they could make it over the top before being machine-gunned.”
They “were left hanging there as a lesson to other inmates.”
When Andy arrived, he said that “bulldozers were already at work on large and long open pits in which to bury the dead that littered the ground and lay scattered over the floors of boxcars. Looking down the railroad tracks leading into the camp, one had but to imagine the loaded cars coming from all parts of Europe — humans treated worse than cattle, crammed into a horror worse than death.” The camp guards he encountered were “idiots,” he once said.
“I never did hate the Germans,” Andy said in a 2012 interview. “I just thought it was a pathetic situation. But with the Nazi regime, I got the feeling that this war was necessary. And when we ran into the concentration camps, we knew it was necessary to get rid of this evil.”
The ship carrying Andy to Japan veered toward New York upon the explosion of the atomic bombs. He often claimed they were truly convinced they had just fought the last war.
A Man Of Peace
“I am sure he had some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, though they wouldn’t have called it that back then,” Andy’s son, Al Andrews, reflected to the Caller, explaining how his father struggled to adjust to civilian life after the war. “He failed out of college — or was asked to leave — because he just couldn’t focus. He was only 19 years old when he was drafted.”
People often told Andy that he didn’t seem like much of a killer, to which he would always respond, “I’m not!” Al believes his father struggled for much of his life with the guilt of having had to kill so many other young men, often in gruesome ways. In one battle that Andy recounted unforgettably — presumably the infamous one at Hill 232 — he had to stand at the edge of a ridge and shoot Germans point-blank in the face with his pistol as they climbed up over it.
“He hated the war,” Al said. “He was a man of peace.”
Al accompanied his father and a group of other D-Day veterans to Normandy in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the invasion. In a 2006 article he penned for The Tennessean on Father’s Day, he recounted the touching experience of witnessing Andy return to the battlefields for the first time.
“I thought that my father’s return [to Omaha Beach] would be an emotional catharsis,” Al wrote. “Instead, he was almost giddy. ‘It’s great to be back!’ he exclaimed, looking wide-eyed into the ocean. It was as if he saw the vast armada, the plane-filled sky and the great guns shelling the coast. ‘It’s wonderful to be here again,’ he said, obviously cherishing the realities he did not know 50 years earlier when the war began: that victory had been won and he had survived.”
Al was admittedly “confused” by his father’s reaction. “Why didn’t he weep? I wondered if there was a key to the grief I suspected he had, the sorrows he carried inside.”
When the tour bus stopped later that day at a German cemetery, many of the Americans refused to get off. Andy, however, was “first at the door when it opened,” and moved briskly to the graves of those who were once his enemies.
“It was a stark contrast to the American cemetery, with its pristine grounds, gleaming white crosses and holy quiet,” Al described. “Instead, there were black crosses, with at least two young German soldiers buried in each grave. Located near the woods with no vista, it seemed purposely hidden, some shameful secret. But it, too, was as quiet as a whisper.”
Making his way intently to one of the black crosses, Al said his father “knelt down beside it, wrapping one arm around it as if he were embracing an old friend. Lifting his other hand to cover his face, he began to sob. It wasn’t a gentle weeping. It was the heaving grief of a young man whose finger had pulled the trigger of a machine gun countless times and, through its crosshairs, watched many young German men slump over in death.”
“‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,’ he said through his tears, pleading to the boys buried beneath him. ‘I’ve prayed for your mothers. I’ve prayed for your fathers, your brothers and sisters. I took you from them. Please forgive me. Forgive me.’ And lingering among the graves, he silently addressed each cross with the same confession, standing in a quiet vigil, remembering those who had died at his hand.”
Al maintains that following that episode, “a heavy burden began to lift” from his dad, and that “from the grave of a former enemy came a gentle pardon, and he embraced the forgiveness he had sought.” Andy would then begin to speak more openly and vividly about his wartime experiences, which before had been “sanitized,” if mentioned at all. Andy returned to Normandy twice more after that, and Al believes that “each time he went back, he was able to release more of the guilt that he had, more of the trauma.”
By the end of Andy’s life, Al said, “The war [had] come full circle. His fallen enemies and comrades are now at peace. And so is he.” Outliving his seven-minute life expectancy by quite some time, Andy died April 22, 2016, at 92.
Always A Happy Christian
Andy’s daughter, Sarah, told the Caller that she thinks her father “was able to turn that tragic experience [of war] into a life of thankfulness. He woke up every morning thankful, thanking God for the day.” She remembered how he was thankful every time the lights turned on; he told me once that he thanked God every time he had a warm shower. Such simple things were luxuries in a time of war, and Sarah said her father claimed to have thought about the war “every day and every night.”
“Even when things went bad in life, he thought it was still such a blessing to live in peace,” Sarah said. Remembering her childhood, she recalled that “every morning, we would have a prayer and thank God for our freedom and peace.”
Andy devoted his life after the war to Christian education and ministry, especially to young men. Each time he returned to Normandy, he was accompanied by more and more young men he had invested in and who looked up to him. When I was 17 years old — the same age as Heinz, the German soldier who surrendered to him — I wrote to Andy to ask him more about his life and what advice he had for mine. Always quick to disciple those within his influence, he shot a letter right back and invited me to lunch.
I was honored to have had the opportunity to discuss God, faith and the nation with someone who seemed to me like someone from a different world. He told me what life was like when he grew up, when people were closer and communities were stronger. I asked him if it grieved him to see the country he fought for being led so poorly by those in power. “Of course,” he said, but he cared much less about what was happening in Washington than he did about the young guy in front of him. He asked about me and prayed for me. (RELATED: I Was A Daily Caller Intern During The Kavanaugh Hearings — I Will Never Forget What I Saw)
Most memorably, I asked him if the carnage he had seen ever tempted him to depression or despair. I had been given the rare opportunity to find the source of hope of someone who had seen the world collapse around him and the jaws of death open up. As if he had been anticipating the question, he smiled at me through his thick glasses and said very deliberately, “No. I have always been a happy Christian.” The simplicity of his answer disappointed me then, but I have since learned that he had given me enough to think about for the rest of my life.