Seventy-five years ago today, Brownsville resident U.S. Army Private First-class Ramon Perez Saldana was part of the D-Day invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Aboard a ship being tossed in waves, Saldana was thrown against the metal shell of his transport and hit his head just minutes before his unit was to take the beach.
“Back in that time, you just followed orders without question,” said Saldana, 98. “So I just put the helmet back on my head and gripped the barrel of my rifle a bit harder and readied myself for the beach.”
As part of Battery C of the 927th Field Artillery Battalion, Saldana was part of the third wave of a force of over 150,000 Allied soldiers pouring onto the beaches along the northwest coast of France as part of “Operation Overlord.”
Although the D-Day invasion had been planned for months, it was almost cancelled on June 6, 1944 due to bad weather.
Although the weather affected the Allies’ ability to attack, it also caused the Germans to think no attack was coming that day — and the enemy was less prepared as a result.
The U.S. soldiers had all trained for their different roles in the assault.
Saldana had trained in artillery during boot camp in Fort Benning, Georgia, and would serve as a loader for the Army’s mid-size 105mm guns.
“There was a crew of nine guys, each with a very specific job to do,” he said. “I was one the last two of the guys who would load the shell into the chamber, and then another soldier would put in the powder behind it.
“Still another soldier would be in charge of the fuse.”
The gun’s firing range was about four or five miles.
Coming ashore, Saldana had to wade through the bodies of fallen soldiers that drifted in the water, and he had to step over soldiers’ remains on the sandy beach.
“I just kept looking forward, and moving,” Saldana said softly.
Saldana, then in his early 20s, had survived the invasion. D-Day cost the lives of an estimated more than 4,000 Allied troops, but was a turning point of World War II that ultimately led to the defeat of Germany.
But for Saldana, the beach was only his first brush with combat.
In the wake of D-Day, his unit wended its way east and toward the front, and Saldana, now 98, can recall a skirmish along the southern end of the Seine river. An explosion from a grenade that landed nearby was so intense, he landed in the river.
“I guess for a moment or two, I was safer from the rifle fire in the water,” Saldana said.
His unit had encountered a small German squad in retreat.
Fortunately, the farther east Saldana’s unit moved, the fewer encounters they had with any German infantry soldiers lagging behind.
Soon, the Allies were able to use the rail lines to advance. Germany’s military air force, the Luftwaffe, were still scouring the skies.
“We were in the eastern part of France, and my sergeant instructed me that if we saw a German bomber, we were to immediately jump off the train and keep running,” he said.
He didn’t think it would happen, but it did—and followed his orders, grabbed his gun and jumped from the train.
After the encounter, hours passed before Saldana rejoined his unit, and his commanding officer asked him where he had been.
He replied, “Well, you told me if that happened to jump off the train and keep running, so I did.”
After the war, Saldana returned home to Brownsville, and married Adelina, his wife of 73 years. Together, the couple raised five sons. His eldest, Ramon, is a veteran who served in Vietnam.
In recent weeks, Saldana had been having nightmares, his family said. The war has never been something he’s spoken easily about, and with the approach of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, his family was concerned that the nightmares might be worse if he shared his story.
“All his friends at the old VA in Brownsville that he used to sit and drink with, all his buddies (from World War II) are gone,” his eldest son said. “He’s the only remaining.”
Wednesday, at the family’s Brownsville home, an American flag hung near the front door, and Adelina proudly took Saldana’s four campaign medals out of protective sleeves and smiled at the thought of her husband’s accomplishments.
“I shall always remain honored that I served,” he said.