By Marc Wilson
From the Hola America Archives 2012
As the Allied armada approached Normandy, Roman Catholic priests twice administered last rites to Martin Navarro. The second priest told him that he likely would not survive.
“I proved him wrong, didn’t I?” a smiling 91-year-old Navarro recently told Hola America. (He is now 97)
Navarro, then a 22-year-old Mexican-American from Moline, was one of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops assigned to participate in one of the largest amphibious invasions in history. On June 6, 1944 the Allied Army landed on the beaches of France, aiming to drive the Nazi armies out of France, and ultimately invade the German homeland. Navarro helped his country achieved all those goals.
Navarro’s unit, the 35th Signal and Construction Battalion, was ordered to be among the first to land on Omaha Beach, which proved to be the bloodiest battleground of the Normandy Invasion.
As the huge armada of more than 4,000 Allied ships crossed the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy, Navarro said, “I prayed a lot, and thought about my family back home.”
Navarro was born May 4, 1922, to parents who had fled to the United States in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. His father, Geronimo, was from the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, and his mother, Maria Davila, grew up in the northern state of Coahuila.
Like many Mexican immigrants to the Quad Cities, his father worked on a section gang for the Rock Island Railroad. Martin had an older sister, Antonia, three younger brothers Joe and Hank and Angel, and a younger sister Virginia. They lived in the impoverished “Mexican area” along the train tracks on the west side of Moline.
In the depths of the Great Depression – when his father could find no other work – the entire Navarro family packed up and worked as migrant farm workers in the onion fields of north central Iowa near Belmont during the hottest days of summer. “We did whatever it took to survive,” Navarro said.
After the Japanese attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States declared war on both Japan and Germany. The winds of history would soon change Navarro’s life. At 20 years old, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Soon after his induction on October 31, 1942, he married his long-time girlfriend, Julia Garnica.
After basic training and taking the standard Army aptitude test, Marty was assigned to the 35th Signal Construction Battalion, which was formed at Camp Crowder, Missouri on February 15, 1943.
“There were no other men there from Moline or Rock Island … and there weren’t many other Mexican-Americans. There were a lot of southern boys at the base,’ Navarro said. “It was pretty lonesome.”
In May 1943, just days after Navarro’s 21st birthday, his unit began a circuitous deployment to the European theater of combat. The battalion went from Camp Crowder to Camp Ellis in west central Illinois, then on to Camp Patrick Henry near Hampton Roads, Virginia.
On Aug. 20, 1943, Navarro’s battalion boarded the U.S.S. Argentina, originally a passenger liner that the U.S. military had converted to an Army transport ship. After enduring the long voyage in cramped, poor conditions, they landed on Sept. 3 at blacked-out Liverpool, England. Navarro and his unit then traveled south through green countryside in small trains known as goods-wagons. After about a week, the 35th was stationed at the historic town of Maidenhead, around 30 miles west of London.
Members of Navarro’s unit participated in secret training exercises off the coast of England, under the name of Exercise Tiger or Operation Tiger. On April 28, 1944, nine German E-Boats attacked the training exercises. Enemy torpedoes hit three transports, and one Allied transport was hit by friendly fire. Classified reports unsealed many years after the war ended said 946 American servicemen were killed.
Navarro has kept a file for over 60 years with items about Operation Tiger, including issues of a newsletter dedicated to honoring the victims of the secret operation. “I lost some friends,” Navarro said. All survivors, including Navarro, were sworn to secrecy about Operation Tiger for fear news of the debacle would alert the Germans about the impending invasion.
After the incident, Eisenhower even considered postponing the invasion based on fears of breached security and poor weather, but he decided to stay the course. June 6 was picked because there would be a full moon and a high tide, and barely tolerable weather.
On June 1, Navarro and hundreds of thousands of Allied troops began boarding thousands of landing craft assigned to cross the channel from the Cornish coast of England. They waited for the final order to sail, given on June 5.
“A priest came by, looking for Catholics,” Marty said. “He asked me how long it had been since I’d been to confession. I kneeled down and he asked me if I had anything to confess. He prayed for me, got me ready in case I died. He said ‘God bless you, son, and good luck.’”
The trip across the English Channel was horrid. The seas were high, and the flat-bottomed landing craft struggled in the high tides and winds. Most of the men were seasick. Fear, high waves, and vomit flooded the ships.
At midnight on June 6, 1944, the first bombers took off from England to attack the fortifications at Normandy. At 3 a.m., gliders filled with troopers started crossing the English Channel. Bad weather limited the Allied bombing on the German fortifications on Omaha Beach, the destination of Navarro’s unit.
Another Roman Catholic priest aboard his landing craft began giving last rites as the Allied armada approached Normandy. “I kneeled down again, and he prayed for me. He said ‘there’s a good chance you won’t come back.’”
Very little went as planned at Omaha Beach. Navigation difficulties sent landing craft off course, and German artillery and airplane attacks inflicted heavy casualties. Engineers struggled to clear beach obstacles erected by the Germans. German airplanes constantly strafed the landing craft, and shelling from the Nazi artillery was non-stop.
Navarro said he doesn’t remember how long it took to finally reach the beach, but he remembers many men killed and wounded, and bodies in the water. “There were dive bombers all around us, and shells exploding, and dead men in the water,” he said.
He declined to discuss the landing in detail, and his son, David, said Navarro has never told his children any details of the landing. The U.S. military reported that of 43,250 infantry men sent to Omaha Beach, some 3,000 G.I.s were killed, wounded or missing in action the first day of the battle.
By day’s end, the Americans had established two strongholds on the beach. Navarro says he does not remember for sure, but he likely worked at one of these strongholds, helping establish communications.
In the next month, backed by hundreds of thousands of reinforcements, the Allies took control of Normandy and began the difficult task of driving the Nazi armies from France. Navarro said his battalion of signal corps men was split up among units throughout the Allied front.
Instead of fences, farmers in Normandy used hedges to mark fields and control livestock. Allied soldiers had to battle their way through the hedgerows, never knowing when they would next face German soldiers and tanks.
Navarro and other signal corps members were tasked with establishing and keeping communications open along the advancing Allied front. The cables they hung needed to be off the ground, so they erected poles, and they climbed on the top of farm houses, barns and churches.
“I remember I’d be high up in the air running cable and I’d look down and see the G.I.s crawling on the ground beneath me,” Navarro said. They stayed low to avoid German fire, while Navarro and other signalmen climbed high.
The Lone Sentry military publication said, “It was … the 35th Signal Construction Battalion that supplied most of the wire communications for the First Army across France, Belgium and into Germany. From D-Day to the end of June, 1945, First Army used more than 5,000 miles of a single type of field wire. Many miles of German military and French civil communications were rehabilitated and hundreds of miles of new cable were installed as well.”
“We were like a fire department,” Navarro said. “We wait and wait, then we’d get orders that there was something that we had to do, and we’d rush out and go wherever they sent us.”
Navarro said he faced little discrimination during the war, except for the time he was busted from corporal to private after an argument with a sergeant “who was a good old boy. We got into an argument over why some equipment wasn’t available,” Navarro said. “I used some names I shouldn’t have, and the sergeant used some names he shouldn’t have. He reported me to an officer, who busted me. The officer never asked for my side of the story.”
About three months after the 35th Signal Construction Battalion moved it’s headquarters to Spa, Belgium, the Germans launched a surprise on Dec. 16, 1944. Two days later Navarro and his unit fled Spa just in front of advancing German forces.
“During the German breakthrough, (signal) construction battalions continually were pressed to re-establish communications,” reported the Lone Sentry. “Men suffered from the extreme cold and the pressure of fighting through snow and ice … the (Allied) armies never lost communications, and the eventual turning point of the Nazi drive was due, in part, to the excellent communications which enabled the command to keep in constant contact with the field units.”
“It was cold, and the snow was deep, up to your hips,” Navarro said.
The Allied and German forces repeatedly advanced and retreated, and nearly every night the G.I.s slept in different buildings or fox holes.
“One time I jumped into a fox hole, and there was a man in a German uniform in it,” Navarro said. “I grabbed his pistol and wrestled it from him, but then I realized he was dead. I jumped up and ran until I found a chicken coop. I chased the chickens out, and slept the night there. I had bug bites that itched for a month.”
Navarro still has the Lugar pistol.
During the battle, Navarro and a small team were assigned to repair damaged wires. Once, when they finished, they took a wrong turn and ended up meeting an oncoming German convoy.
“We raced as fast as we could and left the convoy behind, but when we got to the American checkpoint they wouldn’t believe at first we were Americans. The Germans had all kinds of soldiers dressed in American uniforms and were sneaking behind our lines, so everyone was really jumpy,” Navarro said. “We had to answer all kinds of questions about America before the guys at the checkpoint would believe we were Americans. We were lucky we weren’t shot by the Germans – and the Americans!”
After the Germans were defeated at the Battle of the Bulge, Navarro’s unit advanced into Germany. On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe.
Navarro and his unit boarded the U.S.S. Monticello at Le Havre, France, for a return trip to the United States. On June 26, Navarro and his fellow signalmen arrived at Pier 16 at Staten Island, New York. The ship was met by cheering crowds and a band playing One O’Clock Jump.
At home in Moline, Navarro and his wife had seven children, Monica, Gloria, Ramon, David, Daniel, Rico and Patricia. He worked for 35 years as a machinist for John Deere Co.
Julia, his is wife of more than 65 years, died three years ago after a long battle with cancer. He still lives in his own home in East Moline, not far from the Ybarra Gomez VFW Post 8890, which he help found many years ago after the Silvis VFW post barred Mexicans from membership.
After his wife died, Navarro made regular solitary walks to visit her grave at the St. Mary Cemetery, about a mile away.
“He loves to walk,” said his son, David. “But he recently fell and bit through his lip. He’s not walking much now.”
He turned 97 in May 2019, and he says his memory is fading, including the details of his World War II experience.
“But I do remember I never got shot, and I never shot anyone. I’m glad of that.”
(Marc Wilson of Hampton, Illinois, is author of Hero Street U.S.A., which has been published by the University of Oklahoma Press in both English and Spanish)