We All Left a Lot of Buddies on Omaha Beach

The following article first appeared in the June 1, 1994 issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Used by permission.)

Trucking Firm Chief Recalls Bodies, Crawl to a Building That Saved Him

By Gary Robertson

On the grisly beaches of Normandy, every man had a story. But not everyone returned to tell it.

For many who did, the memories play in Technicolor. “Something you’d like to forget sometimes,” Robey W. Estes said.

Fifty years after the fact, at the age of 73, Estes can still remember how cold the water was when the landing craft dropped its ramp prematurely and he slipped into water up to his neck. “I never did learn how to swim,” he said. “I threw off my pack to keep afloat ... Made it on in.”

He can still remember wading past the bodies of men who were slain as they made their way toward shore, and stepping over the bodies of the men who made shore and were slain there.

“When that ramp went down, hell broke loose.”

He was a staff sergeant then, leading riflemen of E Company of the 116th Infantry, a Virginia National Guard regiment that was activated early in World War II.

It was a battle of big guns, as the Navy pounded entrenched German positions and the Germans returned with mortars and artillery.

Estes believes it was a fragment from a German mortar round that tore into one of his kidneys before he made it to land. He kept going as waves of pain passed through him.

Finally, he got off of the beach and crawled to the cover of a
three-story building.

“That building saved my life,” he said. “I went back over a few years ago looking for the building, but it was gone. I would’ve kissed it if it had
been there.”

Estes had signed up for the military while he was in high school in Chase City, in 1939. He didn’t see combat until D-Day five years later. In between, it was near-constant training, first in this country and later in England as American troops prepared for invasion.

“It got so you said, ‘Let’s get on and do it.’ I was a naïve country boy back then. I didn’t know what we’d all be in for. If I had known, I guess I would’ve been a lot more scared than I was.”

He’d never seen a man die. In a few hours on Omaha Beach, he saw thousands die. A few were the living dead, men so mortally wounded that all a person could do was to make them comfortable.

“The first day when I was lying there, there were a couple of other wounded men with me. I took my sulfa tablet—they taught you to do that to coagulate your blood if you got hit—and then I gave the other men theirs because they couldn’t do it by themselves ... Too bad hurt. The next morning, they were dead.”

His wound on Omaha Beach earned Estes his first Purple Heart. By war’s end, he would have two more, including one he got when he was shot through the collarbone by a sniper in France.

It would be the spring of 1945 before he returned home, married, had children and began building what became one of the state’s largest and most successful trucking firms.

Estes said he often wondered why God had kept him alive when so many were dying around him.

“I finally thought [that] He saved me to give me a chance to give people good jobs. I used to tell my employees that. I’m not really sure what it was.”

Unlike some veterans, Estes never had bad dreams after the war or had trouble adjusting to civilian life.

But now, he says that when he talks about the war, he cries sometimes.

And he remembers the dead.

“I’ve been back over there ... They’ve got a place where they can show you right where everybody is buried. We all left a lot of buddies on Omaha Beach.”

Estes, a tall, big-boned man, sighed and wiped away the tears.

© Richmond Times-Dispatch; used by permission.