“You cannot see the scars of man, That you can see by day. But you can see the moon and stars, In God’s great Milky Way. For when darkness enfolds you, Have no fear, For the loving hand of God is always near” - an excerpt from a poem by Joe Meiners
The memories have not left.
In the early morning of June 6, 1944, Joe Meiners could hear little above the low rumble of the landing craft as it crossed the English Channel. Soldiers huddled in the craft were vomiting as the waves jostled the craft. Some were crying. The high walls prevented him from seeing out, and the smell of gunpowder intensified as they approached the Normandy coast.
He prayed before the ramp dropped onto Utah Beach.
Then gunfire ripped through the landing craft. Many of the 200 men accompanying Meiners were killed before they could rush off the vessel. Others failed to make it to shore.
Meiners, who was 21, had orders to drive his Dodge Power Wagon across the beach to the front line. He and his partner drove through a “thick” layer of bodies covering the beach to the seawall.
“I had to run right over many bodies because you couldn’t dodge around them, and not knowing whether they were alive or dead,” said Meiners, now 95. “It was a feeling that I hope I never have again.”
His initial task complete, Meiners was given new directions. “You’re a medic now,” Meiners recalled an officer told him. “Only pick up those you’re sure can survive.”
For eight days, he dragged bodies two at a time from the water. He learned what total exhaustion meant while working under constant enemy fire and collapsing onto the beach with each body recovered.
But he couldn’t save everybody. One soldier lay with his chest cavity exposed, his heart visibly beating in his chest. He was crying and begged to be saved but there was nothing to be done. “I knew he’d just be a minute or two and he’d be gone.”
“It’s a very helpless feeling. The only thing I could do was just turn and pray for them, then walk away,” Meiners said.
He cried that day.
“So much of that is still embedded in my mind. I have terrible nightmares from that.”
Meiners and many of his friends from his hometown in Nezperce, Idaho, received draft notices in 1942. He enlisted in the Army in January 1943 at Fort George Wright in Spokane, according to a government archive. An aptitude test at Fort Douglas, Utah, allowed him to become an emergency repair mechanic with the 962nd Engineer Combat Battalion.
During basic training at Camp Swift, Texas, he was granted emergency leave to return home to help his father with the summer harvest. While home he married his wife, Lucy, also of Nezperce.
Two weeks after D-Day, on June 23, 1944, Meiners’ son, Dale, was born. The pain of being separated from his wife and child was constant during the war, he said.
“I constantly missed family and the way of life here,” Meiners said. “Sometimes it would just be almost unbearable, and other times you just live through it.”
Meiners fought in some of the most significant battles in the European Theater, from northern France to the Ardennes to the Rhineland. In the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive of World War II, Meiners was wounded when a mortar round landed near his foxhole. The concussion from the blast left him temporarily deaf and blind, he said.
“When I came to, I wish I hadn’t because I hurt so bad,” he said. “Most people don’t know what real hurt is.”
He thought of his family and did not want to return home as a burden. It was the lowest point of the war for him, he said.
After the war, Meiners worked as a farmer and a mechanic in Nezperce. Nine months after returning, he and Lucy had a daughter, Peggy.
“I didn’t waste any time,” he said with a laugh.
But Meiners struggled to acclimate to society following the war. Lucy knew the war had changed him, and she helped him cope and manage bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, something he still fights to this day.
Intense shaking and dizziness were the only symptoms before losing consciousness, he said of a recent episode. He’d woken up on the living room floor and found his bed flipped over and torn apart. He had a lump on his forehead.
“I try not to lose it totally because I don’t want to end up in the asylum or something,” Meiners said.
Meiner’s granddaughter, Karen Long, who lives in Nezperce, said Meiners occasionally calls her in the night for emotional support. She holds him as he shakes and cries and has visions of close friends who were killed in front of him, she said.
Coping became especially difficult after Lucy died of breast cancer in 1983. He was mad at her for leaving and mad at God for allowing it to happen, he said.
“I felt so alone,” Meiners said. “I depended on her for so much stuff.”
He wrote his first poem immediately following her funeral.
He’s continued to write poetry, and it’s something that has allowed him to cope in a noticeable way, Long said.
“The strength that he had to go through that and come out and be the man he is is amazing,” she said of his experience in the war. “I don’t know a lot of people that can be that strong.”
In addition to poetry, Meiners writes children’s stories and a religious column for a local newspaper.
Though some of his work has made it into books, publication is not what motivates him – only healing.
He often rides his four-wheeler to The Store in Nezperce for a cup of coffee in the morning. He enjoys visiting with people at church on Sundays. He still acts as the town greeter and makes fruit baskets for the newcomers.
But mostly he spends time writing, setting spiritual goals, and looking toward the future.
“I don’t really dwell heavy on the past,” he said.
“All of us that came back, we served our country as well as we could.”
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