Just trying to stay alive: Harold McMurran recalls D-Day

BY RICK WATSON
DORA – It’s easy to tell Harold McMurran was once a soldier by the way he stands. He is 94 years old and moves better than many people half his age.

His life story is a remarkable one. There are not many people who can say they were part of the World War II D-Day invasion, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and later worked on components for the Apollo 11 spacecraft moon landing, but Harold McMurran can. And in June of this year, McMurran returned to France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

McMurran was born in Dora in 1924. He attended Dora Elementary School and Dora High School, graduating in 1942 during the war.

After high school, McMurran was with his family visiting one of his aunts in Birmingham when they got word the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “Well, we’ll be at war soon,” he remembered saying.

He thought at the time that the U.S. was ahead of the Japanese in armaments and technology. “I thought the war would only last a couple of years, but boy was I wrong,” McMurran.

The Japanese had modeled their aircraft after the U.S. planes and made improvements, according to McMurran. It was the Americans who were behind.

McMurran had always been interested in aircraft. He made model planes when he was young. Once out of school, he contacted a family friend who was superintendent at Tyndall Field in Panama City, Florida. McMurran asked for a job. Soon he was in school learning about aircraft maintenance.

After training, he returned to Tyndall and worked on Army Air Corp planes. He wanted to join the Air Force, but then he received his Army draft notice. That was in 1943.

“That’s when the story changes tremendously,” he said.

After basic training, he was transferred to Camp Miles Standish, which was north of Boston. “We knew we were going overseas,” he said. The day before he left, the Army issued uniforms.

“We knew that if you got khakis, you were going to the Pacific and if you got an O.D. (olive drab) uniform you were going to the European fight.” McMurran’s uniform was O.D.

The next day, McMurran boarded a ship and spent 12 sea-sick days crossing the frigid waters of the North Atlantic and disembarked in Liverpool, England.

“All along the coast we trained in LSTs (Landing Ships) like we were gonna be landing in enemy territory,” he said. After a period of time, they moved their units to staging areas.

“You knew when you went to a staging area, you were going to be somewhere near the front line, and you’d be the first ones over,” he said. “The only way you get out of one of those staging areas was when they hauled you out on a stretcher – dead.”

His unit went in on three LSTs maintenance vehicles. They were with the Fourth Infantry Division on Utah Beach. “They were hoping that the Fourth Infantry would push further in on Utah Beach than what they did,” he said. “We had the 82 and the 101 Airborne drop behind us, but that was a catastrophe on its own.”

When McMurran’s maintenance unit hit the beach, they had to fight for their lives too. It took six weeks for the troops to get off the beach because of all the hedgerows. The Germans had the upper hand during this time, according to McMurran.

The battle strategy called for coordination between Gen. George Patton and British Gen. Bernard Montgomery, but political maneuvering allowed two-thirds (200,000) of the Germans to escape, according to McMurran. “If we’d gotten all 300,000, I think the war would have ended a couple of months sooner,” he said.

The American forces were in pursuit of the retreating Germans until Patton was ordered to the Battle of the Bulge.

“Everything that Patton had went to the Battle of the Bulge,” he said. “That was the coldest winter I have ever suffered through in my life,” he said. “I like to froze to death.”

Finally, the weather cleared and allowed the Allied fighters to bomb the German tanks.

The troops were near Bastogne during Christmas. McMurran doesn’t remember much about Bastogne, and he does not remember Christmas of that year, but Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had promised that every G.I. would have turkey for Christmas, according to McMurran.

“I know that I had turkey for Christmas because I still have the letter I wrote to my mother telling her I’d had turkey on Christmas,” he said.

McMurran feels that the reason he doesn’t remember much about his time there is that they were so focused on staying alive that they focused on little else.

In the spring of that year, he received word that his unit would depart for the Pacific to fight there, too. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to World War II and McMurran headed back home to Alabama. He earned medals for the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

Once home he began dating Mary Ruth Laird, whose family lived in Praco, which is a community near Dora. He married Ruth, who also attended Dora High School in 1947. McMurran moved in 1955 to New Market, which is in the Huntsville area and where he lives today.

He had an opportunity to return to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing, thanks to Chris Batte, the director of the Huntsville chapter of the Forever Young Veterans organization. McMurran became involved and was selected to go to France for the anniversary, but he was unsure if he wanted to go. The group told him he needed a passport.

McMurran replied, “Why do I have to have one now? They didn’t ask for one the first time I was over there.”

Once there, McMurran had mixed feelings, and with emotion in his voice, he said, “You know, you go to a place and people are trying to kill you, and you go back the next time, and people love you.”

“The beach was nice, smooth, and calm, not a lot of wreckage, noise, and bombing going on around you,” he said.

He spent most of his life working on aircraft. Even today, he works five days a week doing aircraft maintenance and certifying that aircraft are airworthy.

McMurran and his wife Ruth celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary this month.

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