George Champagne recalled heading to Le Havre, France, on a trip that stretched out many days longer than usual.
It was 1943 and they were dodging German submarines.“We had to keep zigzagging in the Atlantic Ocean,” the Des Allemands resident recalled of the perilous voyage.
Champagne had just left Boston, Mass.,with the 20th Armored Division in the U.S. Army. His basic training was at Fort Campbell astride the Kentucky – Tennessee border and he was heading straight into World War II.
Upon reaching Le Havre, he immediately experienced war in shocking detail.
“The harbor there was completely devastated with sunken ships,” Champagne recalled. “We had to get on a duck (a six-wheel drive amphibious truck that can travel on land sea) that dodged the bombed out stuff in the harbor.”
For this 19-year-old soldier at the time, it was a feat of just moving ahead with what had to be done.
“You had no thoughts whatsoever of what was going to happen,” Champagne said. “It was just an experience of what is going to happen next. You never knew exactly what you were going to run into.”
Along with his fellow infantry men, Champagne spent two days in a French chateau.
“We started rolling down the road,” he said. “We headed to Belgium first and we were more or less the backup outfit in the second army. We went from Belgium to Salzburg, Austria, and made one stop in Munich [Germany] where we ran into some trouble.”
Germans were shooting mortars at them, but that quickly changed with they surrendered.
Champagne recalled sitting on the roadside watching them walking side by side as prisoners of war.
“And that was the end for us in Germany,” he said.But there were bigger plans in store for the 20th Armored Division, which Champagne said had been trained and scheduled to invade Japan.
A week or so later, the division was loaded onto a train and traveled all the way back to the coast to board a ship.
“I’m going to tell you another lucky story,” he said.In route there, Champagne’s train had a head-on collision with another train while still in Germany.
“The first three engines and following cars were all destroyed,” he said. “Luckily, I was in about 10 cars back so I didn’t get any injury. I tell you I had a lot of luck.”
Soon after the wreck, Champagne was on the road again and loaded on another ship headed for New York that took them right past the Statue of Liberty. It was there he learned the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and the country had surrendered.
“So lucky me, I didn’t have to go,” he said. “My orders were still to go to the West Coast after a slight leave at home and, this time, go to Camp Cook in California because we were going to the war in Japan.”
Champagne returned to Camp Cook and then sent back to Camp Shelby in Mississippi where he was discharged in 1946.But this Army infantryman’s fortune was actually just beginning.
“We were glad, of course, that we were able to finish it,” a now 92-year-old Champagne recalled. “When I was home on that leave I was telling you about, I got married. So what was I thinking about you think.”
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