World War II veteran Gravelyn honored by P.I. Elks
Just short of his 97th birthday, a celebration was held at the Pine Island Elks for Capt. Harry Gravelyn. His family and about 30 friends attended the party at the Pine Island Elks Lodge.
Gravelyn was awarded the Silver Star (the second highest military award) as well as two Bronze Stars, a Combat Infantry Badge and a Purple Heart for his service in the European Theater of Operations during World War II.
When then 25-year-old Lt. Gravelyn stood on the deck of the Victory ship Thomas E. Dewey on D-Day plus 11 (June 17, 1944) he wasn’t afraid.
“I really wasn’t, plenty of the guys were but I really wasn’t,” Gravelyn said. “My stomach was churning a bit but we all had a job to do and we were going to do it.”
As the ship approached Omaha Beach, Gravelyn had a clear view of what lay before them.
“We were in a position to observe the tremendous power of the June assault still taking place and we noted many bodies floating in the water,” Gravelyn said.
On June 6, 1944, the Western Allies of World War II launched “Operation Overlord,” the largest amphibious invasion in history. The invasion took place on the northern coast of France at Normandy and made Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha beaches famous. The first day of battle would be known as “D-Day.”
Gravlyn’s experiences facing the Germans are recorded in his book: “World War II: My Experiences as Captain of Company D, 331st Infantry, 83rd ‘Thunderbolt’ Division.”
“These stories of my participation in the struggle in the European Theater of Operations began with stories I told my granddaughter, Brianne Darling Davis,” Gravelyn said. “As she grew older she encouraged me to write my story and she helped me initially with the typing on her computer.”
It took Gravelyn 15 more years to complete his story at the age of 84.
Gravelyn and his men arrived on Omaha Beach eleven days after D-Day.
“We relieved the 101st Airborne Division who would return to England for rest and recreation,” Gravelyn said. “I didn’t know it then but we would spend the next 270 days in combat. Had someone told us at the time that our division would not have these rest period advantages, but would constantly be in the front lines facing the Germans, whether it might be on the offensive or on the defensive, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
Shortly after the landing on Omaha Beach, Gravelyn and his battalion experienced the first taste of war against a German SS Panzer Division.
“Our battalion was successful in their first attack,”he said, “but the gain of a few hundred yards of terrain was achieved at tremendous cost of dead and wounded.”
Gravelyn’s impatience with the lack of progress almost cost him his life when he decided he needed to get to the Operations Center several hundred yards away.
“I decided to cut across the open field at a diagonal using knocked out tanks as a partial shield from enemy fire … I leapt to my feet at a dead run. But before I reached the nearest tank, an 88 shell went by my head with a roar … The shell exploded about 20 yards in front of me, yet I received not a scratch,” he said. ‘I bounced off the ground still running … No longer did my route call to go diagonally. Knowing that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I veered straight towards the hedgerow. The move saved my life since the gunner from across the way must have led me a little bit and the second shell missed me by just inches …”
When the Normandy Campaign ended the Brittany Campaign began. Followed by Northern France Campaign, the German Campaign and finally the Ardennes. Miraculously, Gravelyn’s luck held out a full seven months, until Jan. 13, 1945.
That day started like any other day. Gravelyn was exhausted and gave Company “D’s” executive officer, Lt. Robert Deck, directions how to get a fully loaded supply truck to Petite Langlir and tried to get some sleep. After an hour sleep, Gravelyn was awakened by Deck with a report that the driver of the truck refused to go to Petit Langlir, stating he delivered the supplies and wouldn’t go any further. Gravelyn was exhausted but went looking for the truck driver. Threatening to shoot the driver convinced him to complete the delivery of supplies to Petit Langlir.
Once again, Gravelyn settled down for some desperately needed sleep. Another hour later he was awakened, again by Lt. Deck, stating that the driver couldn’t get across a tiny river because the bridge was blown.
“I turned the atmosphere blue with a personal attack on my friend Bob Deck,” Gravelyn said. “I told him if he couldn’t do it I would have to do it myself. “
Gravelyn found the truck driver and once again threatened to shoot him. He pulled a couple of barn doors off an old barn and laid them across the tiny river and drove the truck across. Then walking in front of the truck as an escort, Gravelyn said, “We could hear the muffled sound of the truck engine … but we heard no other sounds and wondered why it was so quiet. My fantastic luck would run out here with the silent swish of a mortar round which exploded on the other side of the road knocking me off my feet … I had the distinct feeling of steel fragments penetrating my legs, shoulder, hand and arm rendering it out of commission … I could feel blood running down my arm into my glove and also down my leg into my boot…”
After being taken to a field hospital, Gravelyn realized the war for him was over.
“War is a tragedy in itself, without the meaningless accidents that occur on both sides of the opposing forces,” Gravelyn said. “They happen in every war and when men and boys play with death, dealing means they will happen regardless of training and experience. What is amazing is that soldiers carry on as if this is expected and a necessary cost of success to a final end.”
His book is a detailed inside look (it’s amazing the amount of detail Mr. Gravelyn remembers) at the life of the soldier in the European Theater of Operations between June 1944 and January 1945. The book is a first-person’s account from pre-war training to the trip home aboard a hospital ship.
“This isn’t the Hollywood version of war,” Gravelyn wrote. “This is matter-of-fact war from the viewpoint of the ‘grunts,’ the infantrymen, who in every war in every time, slog, crawl, and fight through rain, snow, mud, and dead bodies until they either die or stand on the contested ground and say, ‘OK, this is ours now,’ in order that famous generals can claim victory.”
“World War II: My Experiences as Captain of Company D, 331st Infantry, 83rd ‘Thunderbolt’ Division” is currently available at Amazon.com as an e-book for $6.50. It will soon be available in softcover.