To the Men of that Era
Helmet insignia of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade.
On an early June evening 70 years ago, many thousands of young men waited in trepidation for a decision to be made. On stormy seas, in the depths of rolling cargo ships, they waited. Most were unable to sleep despite the exhaustion that comes from preparing for military operations, what with the incessant nausea inducing movement of the ship, the gagging smell of gasoline, sweat and vomit, and the interminable delay. They fitfully stirred in their cramped quarters both in exasperation and dread for the word to be sent.
A 33-year old Captain waited with them. If the order was given, he was to command a Higgins boat full of veteran combat engineers in the second wave of the landing. While he and many of his men had done this before, they never had faced such a determined and prepared defense nor the sea and weather conditions expected during the proposed landing. Besides, extensive combat experience often serves more to heighten than relieve anxiety. Having already conducted opposed amphibious landings like this before merely provided a precise reminder of the true dangers ahead. They knew their enemy, and were fully aware of what was in store for them at the water’s edge.
Late in the evening the order came. D-Day would be tomorrow, June 6, 1944.
The Captain would later say a newspaper clipping sent to him, written by his former history professor, helped him through that wait and what followed. He said he was entranced listening to the old man’s descriptions of past civilizations both as a student in the classroom and after graduation when he was hired as an assistant coach by the same school. They would often discuss world events in casual conversations on the wide porch of the professor’s home, just across from Samford Hall. A fond memory of a time before the war.
Now he was participating in one of those great events, and as a keen student of history this fact was not lost on him. However small in the grand scheme of things, his role was absolutely vital to the soldiers around him. He was a proven combat leader and those younger men would look to him first and foremost for both direction and inspiration, especially in the most extreme situations they would face on the morrow.
The clipping sent was cut from his Alma Mater’s student newspaper, a contribution written by his mentor and friend, that he had received some months before. By now it was creased and worn, having been read time and again before being folded and put away in a uniform pocket, to be returned to later when he again sought inspiration or solace.
He unfolded it once more to read the faded text in the dim lighting below decks.
“I believe that this is a practical world and that I can only count on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work….”
Cross Section of Erwin Rommel’s “Atlantic Wall” beach defenses
Ralph “Shug” Jordan kept a copy of George Petrie’s Auburn Creed on his person throughout D-Day. Fifteen minutes after landing on Utah Beach, he was wounded in his arm and shoulder by shrapnel from a German 88 millimeter shell that landed nearby. Despite the painful wound that rendered his left arm useless, he bravely led his men on their mission, blowing holes through the beach defenses to allow follow on waves access to the heights overlooking the landing zone.
Later, he would say that both coaching and playing football helped him complete his mission that day and the three painful days that followed before the shrapnel was finally removed by an Army doctor. The sense of ‘giving your all’ to the cause, the mission or the task at hand pervaded his actions on the beach and the battlefields beyond, for which he was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Later, he was transferred to the Pacific Theater, conducting a fourth amphibious landing and fighting on Okinawa while soldiers in Europe celebrated VE Day.
Like many men who served in that war, he would often refer to that experience years later, not in bravado or self glory, but as life lessons for his children and the countless young men whom he coached, instilling in them the importance of devotion, loyalty, personal effort and teamwork. He communicated these messages in both word and deed in everything he did, and his student athletes revered him for it. So did the rest of the Auburn family, who put his name on the stadium while he was still leading his team, the first active coach in all of college football to be so honored.
I remember those lessons as well, and heeded much of the same advice from my own father, who was also a wounded veteran of the war and an excellent coach, both in sports and life. I have also read that same creed many times, and it still resonates deeply, all these years later.
THE AUBURN CREED
I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work.
I believe in education, which gives me the knowledge to work wisely and trains my mind and my hands to work skillfully.
I believe in honesty and truthfulness, without which I cannot win the respect and confidence of my fellow men.
I believe in a sound mind, in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid, and in clean sports that develop these qualities.
I believe in obedience to law because it protects the rights of all.
I believe in the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow men and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness for all.
I believe in my Country, because it is a land of freedom and because it is my own home, and that I can best serve that country by “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God.”
And because Auburn men and women believe in these things, I believe in Auburn and love it.
-George Petrie (1944)
And for the men of that era, our simple gratitude may not convey enough of what we truly owe them, but it is the very least that we can do to honor their achievement, their courage and their sacrifice. For Shug Jordan and all his comrades who came ashore that day or who were in uniform around the globe 70 years ago, from a very grateful nation,…