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Stoystown man witnessed bombing’s aftermath at Le Havre

January 5, 2019

(This is part of an ongoing series about World War II veterans from Somerset County. Close to 500 veterans from that war die daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The newspaper will tell the stories of those who remain and of those who have died as they and their families come forward. It’s the Daily American’s effort to document an important part of the nation’s history.)

Robert Mitchell met French people who were hostile to the American forces when he was a sailor in the Navy during World War II. Unlike the soldiers who were met with flowers and kisses in Paris, he walked into Le Havre, a town that had been destroyed by Allied bombers. “See what happened, where we were, the French liked the Germans,” Mitchell said.

“What happened, they kept telling the people that they needed the Germans to leave because they would bomb them. They refused. They killed a lot of people. When we went ashore later, we went into the church and the priest was the only one who was saved alive.

“He climbed under a heavy oak podium. He was gathering up the bones of the people because the cats, the dogs and the rats ate the people. He was a little bit . . . I won’t say crazy, but he was a little funny. That was a bad experience for him. He asked us for some cigarettes. and of course we weren’t allowed to eat anything around there.”

Mitchell, 91, grew up in Hooversville. His dad was a coal miner until 1936 when he was killed. His mom was a housewife. Mitchell was the oldest of five kids. He enlisted in the Navy in August 1944 when he was 17 years old. During his time in the service, he saw both the European and Asian theaters of the war.

At the beginning of September 1944, the port city of Le Havre was destroyed. Paris was liberated in August, and D-Day took place on the beaches of Normandy a few kilometers away on the other side of the Seine, but Le Havre had not been liberated, according to a website for the town that tells the bombing’s history.

In August, the Germans ordered the evacuation of civilians, but to no avail. The people of Le Havre did not obey and a great majority remained. On Sept. 3, the Allied Forces suggested surrender, but the Germans rejected it. The first corps of the British Army then surrounded the city.

On Sept. 5, a deluge of bombs crashed down on the city. Nearly 350 British bombers dropped 1,820 explosive bombs and 30,000 fire bombs on Le Havre. The city center was flattened, and only the 1914-1918 War Memorial remained standing. The next day, six waves of Allied bombs were dropped on the eastern part of the city.

“To a kid of 17 years old . . . I can still see it,” Mitchell said. “I can still see the city. It was completely destroyed.”

Later in the war, his crew sailed near the Rock of Gibraltar, yards from a mine field. He screamed to warn the captain.

“I don’t know how many mines we dodged getting out of there,” Mitchell said. “But we called a minesweeper out of there. I wish we would have gotten the chart. It was right where Jonah was taken over in the Bible. That’s the only place in the world where there are mountains in the water. I don’t remember much about going ashore.”

After Mitchell’s service in the Atlantic, he sailed through the Panama Canal up to the South Pacific, where the Marines were fighting the Japanese empire. First, he hit Pearl Harbor, which was still a mess. From there he went to Guam. The Japanese were still on the island.

“I volunteered to be a lifeguard for the ocean where the guys would swim because of the sharks and the (Japanese),” Mitchell said. “And I was one of the lucky ones, I guess. I didn’t lay down in the sand. I just sat down. I got jungle rot. It was from the rain that would wash the blood and dead body stuff down in the ocean. and of course we didn’t know that back then.”

He was in Seattle when he heard news that the war had ended. The military honorably discharged Mitchell in 1946. Mitchell had three children by his first wife, Delores Christner. She died 12 years ago. He was remarried to Elsie Fieg about 11 years ago. He still has an album showing all his memories of the war at his home in Stoystown.

“Just looking back, everything was senseless, stupid, and most wars are like that,” he said. “They don’t solve a problem. How they let certain people take over and rule the world is beyond me.”

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