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LEGACIES OF WORLD WAR II — Eugene Cogan’s recount of D-Day

Eugene Cogan of Avilla was leading troops through an orchard on a steep bluff in the Normandy region of France on June 6, 1944, when a bullet hit him in the back, knocking him out. When he awoke, he was dismayed to see bodies of fallen comrades strewn around him. Cogan tried crawling up a bluff to get to an aid station, but a German sniper felled him with a second shot, this time in the leg. Cogan rolled back down the hill where he lay unconscious.

The sun was high when Cogan re-awakened. Excruciating pain caused him to wrap his belt around his legs to hold them together and again attempt to climb the hill. However, his energy was depleted so that all he could manage was to retrieve a raincoat from his pack and wrap it around himself before falling into an exhausted sleep.

Hours later – he had no way of knowing how long — Cogan was startled awake. He looked up, fearful of seeing faces that were foreign to him. Thankfully, the faces belonged to men from his unit. “They had returned to retrieve dog tags from dead soldiers,” he said. “They were surprised to find me alive.”

Born in 1922 in Kendallville, Cogan graduated from Avilla High School in 1941 and worked at a machine shop in Mishawaka at 50 cents an hour before being drafted in February 1943.

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After completing 11 weeks of basic training at Camp Wolters in Texas, Cogan was assigned to B Company, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division.

In spring 1944 he and approximately 16,000 other troops boarded the prestigious Queen Elizabeth, converted to a troop ship, at New York City.

After landing at Plymouth, England, the troops began training for an invasion, though they were given no idea when or where it would take place. For months they completed 25-mile hikes and practiced landing on Britain’s Slapton Sands. “The coast there was similar to France’s,” he said.

They trained at night, using rope ladders to transfer from large ships to Higgins boats. “The only things that were different,” he said, “is that we had no opposition and no live ammunition.”

On June 5, the troops moved to Portsmouth where they were told they would hit France’s Normandy beaches the next day.

Early on the morning of June 6 at 8:30 a.m., Cogan and his unit traveled from England to Omaha Beach. As first scout, Cogan was chosen to lead the group down the gangplank, a position that left him vulnerable to enemy fire from Germans on the shore. But Cogan, 21, felt confident carrying his 1903 Springfield scope rifle. “I was a good shooter and didn’t think about dying,” he said.

Later, crossing the mine-ridden, quarter-mile stretch of beach, filled with dead and wounded bodies under enemy fire became a blur in his memory as Cogan and thousands of other Allied troops struggled to survive the continuing onslaught.

The night before the invasion, the Allied troops had been ordered to write letters to their families. None, including Cogan’s wife Joann whom he had married in 1943, would suspect anything about the assault from the missives. “Mail censors deleted any mention of our location and the subsequent battle,” he said.

The goal was to advance three miles the first day. However, German aggression and hedgerows made of stone, grass, and shrubs held them to half a mile. It took several weeks for Allied troops to secure the region. “We GIs shared food with the residents of the village of Carentan who were hungry,” he said.

After his unit dressed his wounds in the orchard, Cogan was placed on a stretcher on the hood of a jeep and taken to a field hospital where he received care before being flown to an Allied hospital near Liverpool, England. Luckily, the bullet to his back had only grazed him. His left leg was broken and would need attention at an American hospital. Pfc. Cogan was being sent home.

Cogan spent several months at a hospital at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis before being discharged in August 1945. He was awarded a Purple Heart for sustaining injuries during combat.

Cogan became a history and speech teacher and later principal of schools in Blackford and Noble counties. He and Joann became parents to three children. He has participated with Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana.

In 2013 Cogan received an invitation to represent the 29th Division at a D-Day celebration in the village of Carentan. When his name was added to a plaque unveiled in remembrance of the invasion and on a section of road in the village, he was thrilled. “I’m a better person for having served during World War II,” he said.

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