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June 6, 2014

Local veteran: 'I didn’t know whether I’d make it or not' during D-Day, which passes 70th anniversary

Andrew Mattis was on a boat sailing through the English Channel when he heard the announcement on June 6, 1944 — American troops landed on the shores of German-occupied France.

Bound for the beaches of Normandy at the time, the then Army combat medic in early 20s landed on the shore one day after a regiment of his 29th Infantry Division, teamed with the 1st Infantry Division, led the initial assault to Omaha Beach.

Looking back, the 94-year-old Meadville resident believes those 24 hours may have meant the difference between life and death.

“When we landed, there were still snipers shooting at us and mortars landing on the beach,” Mattis said on Wednesday, two days prior to today’s 70th anniversary of D-Day. “It was probably worse for the guys who had guns.”

The days following the beach invasion marked the beginning of the 11 months where Mattis would serve as a designated surgical technician, treating wounded men on the field of combat, helping transport many of them into ambulances and aid stations and giving them blood plasma.

“That was my first experience with combat,” he said. “I didn’t know whether I’d make it or not. I think of all the buddies I lost and all those guys who went on the beaches first. It must’ve been terrible.”

And things didn’t get any easier on the road to Germany.

Mattis spent the months between D-Day and Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, traveling through France, Belgium and Holland.

“I only (spent) about four or five hours on the actual beach,” he said. “Our first objective was St. Leu and we weren’t too far off the beach by nightfall. There were some other units ahead of us.”

His division traveled with General S. Patton’s outfit for a while, he said.

“It wasn’t a picnic,” Mattis said. “Our medic group got bombed when we were with Patton’s men.”

He recalled one particular part of the journey, during which his company had split in half to take turns advancing through combat zones, that he aided in the support and treatment of 250 patients in a single day.

Over the course of his term, he claimed to have worked for at least 27 different doctors.

“They used to teach us classes, the same classes that nurses got,” he said. “Same training.”

Mattis’ wife, Katherine, said her husband has always maintained a humble reserve regarding his days in the service but has no doubt of how he feels about what he accomplished overseas.

“He was quite proud of being a medic, he just won’t admit it,” she said on Wednesday with a smile. “Up until the 50th anniversary he never said much, but he’s opened up a bit.”

Born and raised in Guys Mills, Mattis had spent about a year and a half in England prior to crossing the channel. Prior to his station there, he was part of the second draft in Crawford County in 1941.

“His letter said, ‘Your friends and neighbors selected you,’ and he said, “What did I do to them?’” said his son, Tom Mattis, who chuckled at his father’s response.

Andrew Mattis was sent to England aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the largest vessels used as a troopship at the time, along with more than 3,000 other service members, crammed by the dozen into rooms meant only for two, he said.

He recalled the space being so tight, he’d hit his head on a porthole from a top bunk every time the boat rocked.

“Columbus discovered America in 1492 and we discovered Scotland in 1942,” he said, referring to his brief station in Glasgow before reporting to Tidworth Barracks in England for training and combat preparation.

Mattis spent about three years overseas during and after World War II, he said. He was transferred to at least one other division with the promise that he would return home after V-E Day, but he didn’t end up returning to American soil until October 1945.

“As soon as I got home I was discharged,” he said. “Of course, it took us a while to get home.”

The remainder of his time overseas was spent in an occupational capacity.

“We were just kind of policing the place,” he said. “Medics didn’t have much to do, just taking care of the aid stations.”

When he finally landed in Florida after a roundabout trip through Africa and part of South America in October, the one thing he found most striking were his surroundings.

“It was really wonderful to fly into Miami at about 5 a.m. with all the lights on,” he said. “It was a blackout there in Europe during the war. It was good to see lights.”

Upon returning to Crawford County, Mattis resumed working at  Talon Inc., the Meadville-based zipper manufacturing company, and eventually started a family with Katherine, to whom he’s been married for more than 66 years.

He’s shared very little about his experiences overseas, according to his family members, who are nonetheless honored by his service and thankful for his safe return.

“I’m very proud that he did it,” Tom said. “I’m sorry that anybody had to do it. It was a crazy time, like all wars are.”

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