REXBURG — During World War II, a red-cross armband worn by U.S. Army medics offered a degree of protection on the battlefield.
But that couldn’t quell the dread felt by
Pfc. Darrell Neville, of Hibbard, as the medic was lowered from a troop transport boat onto the beach during the June 1944 landing in Normandy — the boom of artillery and mortar fire echoing above him.
The advance toward their mission — the port at Cherbourg, France, was a dangerous one.
“I was talking with my sergeant and all the sudden we heard a thud and a mortar — about 16- to 18-inches long — come right between us and stuck in the hedge, we turned and seen the swastikas on the fins,” Neville said. “After some colorful military language, the sergeant suggested we not stay there any longer — and we didn’t.”
The mortar round was a dud. It didn’t explode.
The Normandy landing was Neville’s first major campaign. A year earlier, the 19-year-old was drafted only a month after marrying his high school sweetheart, Theda Cook.
Cook traveled with him through basic training, but Neville unexpectedly was deployed to Europe on Christmas Eve 1943. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
Neville was among the second wave of troops to land on Normandy beach. He was part of the U.S. Army’s 99th Infantry Battalion — a highly mobile, special front-line force tasked with quickly advancing on enemy lines.
The short, dark-haired Idaho farm kid was unique among the men of his battalion. His unit largely was made up of Norwegian-speaking American citizens, as well as newly naturalized Norwegians exiled from their homeland after the Nazi invasion. Neville was one of the unit’s first three members not of Norwegian descent.
“(The first time) I entered the barracks … I came face-to-face with a tall blond fellow and he started talking to me and I couldn’t understand him,” Neville, now 90, said. “But it sounded like German, and for a minute I thought I had the wrong outfit.”
The 99th Infantry spent significant time on the front lines, serving for a time under Gen. George Patton at the end of the war. The unit participated in five major European campaigns, including the Battle of Aachen and Battle of the Bulge in 1945.
“There was a few times when I thought these guys were crazy, because they didn’t hold (position); we advanced,” Neville said. “These Norwegian soldiers didn’t back down for nothing. They didn’t like the Germans … and they had a lot more to fight for than I did because their homeland had been invaded.”
Neville had some close calls. Once, while hitching a ride on a tank, Neville felt a jerk on his sleeve just before a nearby soldier screamed. A bullet had passed through his sleeve and embedded itself into the leg of the other soldier.
Neville fought in Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Germany. He recalls Germany as a beautiful place, except for the wreckage of war and the holes in the ground left behind by Allied bombing runs and artillery.
The European Campaign ended in May 1945, but not Neville’s service. The 99th Infantry was shipped to Norway to liberate the country from former occupying forces. It wasn’t a combat mission. The battalion was in charge of gathering German soldiers and shipping them back to Allied-held Germany.
“We found out in a hurry that we didn’t want to tell them (what part) of Germany they were going to… because if they found out they were going to the Russian side, they’d run away or jump over the side of the boat,” he said.
Neville explained many German soldiers were afraid of how they’d be treated by their Soviet captors.
The Norwegian liberation was an emotional experience for Neville. He remembers marching in a parade after the country’s rightful government was restored.
“The 99th put on a pretty good show and it was a big thing for the Norwegian people,” he said.
Last week, Lt. Col. Tom Schroder, a representative from the Norwegian government visited Rexburg to present Neville with the Deltagermedaljen or Defense Medal for his service during the Allied liberation of Norway.
Rexburg Mayor Richard Woodland also presented Neville with a key to the city.
“It was a very emotional experience for us to give the award,” Schroder said. “In Norway, more and more veterans are being recognized as heroes as they are here … this recognizes the solider’s lost friends and comrades and all that was sacrificed for the freedom of all of us. What would the world have looked like without them?”
World War II was the last military conflict in which Neville served. Following his discharge in November 1945, Neville returned to eastern Idaho. He bought a farm in Hibbard, where he and his wife raised six children.
“We are proud dad served in the 99th Battalion in World War II,” son Scott Neville said in a written statement. “There was a strong bond with the men he served with — he earned their trust and respect. He brought honor to his country, his family and himself for his service … We, as his children, think of him as our hero.”