In honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday, we are running an edited version of a story featured in The Sentinel-Echo's Local Heroes magazine about Laurel County's World War II veteran Edgar Owen Edwards who was part of the D-Day invasion.
For a country boy from Laurel County, Kentucky, a world Edgar Owen Edwards did not know existed became part of his daily life when he enlisted in the Navy at 17.
World War II veteran Edwards, who turns 94 in July, traveled across the country and oceans as part of his military duty and it also took him to Normandy on D-Day.
It has been 75 years since Edwards maneuvered the sea on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied Europe by means of a beach invasion in northern France, but he still remembers the fear and the knowing that the men he was taking to the beaches were not coming back.
In Normandy, Edwards was responsible with moving soldiers to the island in a boat approximately 36-feet long and carried around 36 men each.
"We took the soldiers into the beach. They didn’t come back off," he said. "No, only the wounded and prisoners. Prisoners came later of course, and we did bring a lot of prisoners back to England.” He added the POWs he did bring back didn’t tell him much about their experiences.
Edwards said he never engaged in direct combat, but he was always under the threat of attack.
“We were in constant air-raids from German planes and in constant danger of submarines torpedoing us. In the Atlantic around England, the German E-boats were small gun boats. They were coming out of the nights and you wouldn’t know they were there.” Edwards explained that radar had only recently been developed, so he and his crew had to always be on alert.
“You knew that they could get you at any time. But you still had this military training that you did your job regardless. You were preoccupied, especially in defense. Our ship was loaded with guns and we shot down some airplanes.”
Edwards said there were many difficult portions during his time in the military, but nothing compared to the invasion of Normandy.
“It’s hard to explain. You were afraid and you were scared, but you knew you had to do it. And you knew you were carrying men and young men into that beach in the face of the enemy that those men were never gonna come back. There were a lot of them that never came back.” After D-Day, Edwards was then tasked with recovering bodies from shores of Normandy.
“You dealt with the stress then because you had to. You did what you had to do and what you were taught to do and what you knew to do automatically," he said. "Now it’s a little different. You look back and remember things that you saw then, some of those things and some of those people that didn’t make it. It still bothers you.”
He never went to therapy after leaving the military. Instead, Edwards’ primary method of coping was keeping his mind away from the war.
While the war left an impact on him, Edwards still remembers the good times he had in the Navy.
“The invasion of Normandy was the most traumatic, but you remember the good times too. Your shipmates, people that you never met before, became your really good friends. They became your brothers so to speak. It was an expansion of your relationship to humanity.” Edwards added, until around a decade ago, he still kept up with the friends he made while in service.
'I knew I as gonna have to go to war'
“I was a country boy having been out of Kentucky twice in my life, never seen the sea,” said Edwards. “I’d just been in school all this time, and then going to boot camp and meeting people from all sections of the United States and seeing the world that I never seen before.”
Edwards was 17 at the time, a graduate from Hazel Green High School. Because of his age, his parents had to sign for him to join the military.
“I knew I was gonna have to go to war,” he said. He enlisted in the Navy because he didn’t want to do the footwork associated with the Army and he wanted to travel.
In the Navy, Edwards traveled to California, Virginia, Indiana, New York, England, France, Scotland, Ireland, the North Sea and the Atlantic.
“It was a revelation of course to know that everybody didn’t live like Kentuckians,” he laughed. “Everything was new to you, and of course you didn’t know what to expect the next day. But you was guided through it.” Edwards said his military training helped him adapt to the new lifestyle.
“You were disciplined,” he said. “The military told you when to get up and when to go to bed, what to eat, where to go, when to go. Your life was governed completely by the military rules and regulations. So you didn’t have a lot to worry about. It aggravated you,” he chuckled, “but it was quite a change.”
While the military regulations were strict, Edwards explained there were times for relaxation.
“We were involved in sports to the extent that we could, especially basketball because most of the ships had spaces where you could have a goal," he said. "You’d play cards in your spare time, that’s where I learned to play hearts and solitaire.”
When near port, the Navy men like Edwards were allowed liberties, which allowed them to get off the ship for the weekend.
“You found the best restaurants, if you could find any, because we were in a war zone all the time,” Edwards said. "Those countries were destitute, you didn’t go looking for big steaks or anything like that. In fact, a couple of us went into Bayeux in France and all we could find to eat was bread and wine. That’s all they had.
"If there was any entertainment, we’d try to find that. I even attended my first concert and knew nothing about the music in the area," he said.
"And at 18-19 years old, you’d go out and look for the girls — and many of them was looking for you too. My wife is deceased, and I wouldn’t tell her that now,” Edwards laughed.
Returning to civilian life
Serving for three years, Edwards retired from the Navy, a Petty Officer Second Class. Edwards was discharged from the military with a letter of commendation for the invasion of France. When he returned to Laurel County, he found the transition difficult.
“Trying to get oriented back to civilian life and especially back to London, a quiet peaceful place... it was really difficult to get acclimated to the situation here.” Edwards went to college after leaving the military. The college environment came with its own challenges.
“I came back here and started as a freshman in college with these freshmen who were three, four and five years younger than I was,” he said. “Like I was before, they had never been out of the country. To try to associate with them, it was just difficult.”
Edwards attended Sue Bennett College and the University of Louisville. He graduated with a certificate in television and communications in 1949. After college, he joined the ministry and started his education again at Cumberland College. Since 1955, Edwards acted as a pastor in California, New York, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
“Basically, the Lord called me,” said Edwards. “That pastoral work in my opinion is a calling of God. It’s not just a profession, which of course you could turn it to, but it’s a calling. As I say many times, there’s three things that I know with certainty: that I was saved, that God called me to preach and that I’m on my way to heaven.”
In 1998, he retired as a full-time pastor, but still preaches occasionally.
Edwards also spends his time writing poetry, a hobby he’s enjoyed since he was a child. Poetry has helped keep Edwards occupied since his World War II.
“Military service changed my life completely, from being placid and laid back and I’d probably have stayed right here in Laurel County," he said. "It’s given me an outlook on life and the world that I did not have before. I found out there were other countries who had people just like we were — people that had the same needs and the same aspirations, desires, families. They were human beings just like we were.”