From Rush City fields to the beaches of Normandy

Winfred Polzin shortly after leaving the service.
Winfred Polzin shortly after leaving the service.

Winfred Polzin was listed as missing in action in the days following Exercise Tiger, and he was not immediately allowed to write home to tell his family otherwise.

The training was kept secret by the military for a reason: It served as one of the last dress rehearsals for the invasion of Utah Beach on D-Day. Even Polzin’s older brother, Orville, who also served with the U.S. Army in Africa and Europe during World War II, didn’t know what happened until a chance meeting overseas.

“He balled me out for not telling him, but I couldn’t,” Polzin stressed.

Polzin was 23 years old and had been working for a farmer in Rush City when he was drafted by the Army on Jan. 23, 1942. Two years later he was part of the invasion that marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, the now 95-year-old Cambridge resident recalled in a recent interview,.

In his deployment overseas, Polzin said he was initially shipped to Africa, where his outfit became a gasoline company.

“We had big trucks with tanks on them,” he said. “We filled barrels with gasoline, and they were shipped to the front.”

In Africa, he also discovered the military’s use of the DUKW, an amphibian truck that turned out to be a difference-maker for cargo transport operations from sea to shore. His outfit became the 478th Amphibian Truck Company of the First Engineer Special Brigade.

“I’d never heard of it or seen it,” he said of the DUKW, “but they picked our battalion to be two amphibian truck companies. And we trained in Africa on them. We were the first amphibian company. It was 91 percent land truck, (and) 9 percent, they built a hull around it. That’s what it was.”

Five years ago he had the opportunity to once again drive a restored amphibian truck in a lake.

“He remembered exactly how to operate it and swim it, and he’s given valuable information to people who have restored amphibians,” said Paul Dorow, of Pine City, Polzin’s son-in-law.

Amphibian trucks sit low in the water, and they have two pumps. One pumps 160 gallons of water a minute, and the other, 260. So you could have quite a hole in there, and it will still make it to shore, Polzin said.

With the North Africa Torch landings a success, along with Allied Forces gaining clearance in their positions, troops began to have the resources needed to pursue amphibious landings in the Mediterranean. While the timing was not quite right for the Normandy invasions, it was in Italy.

Trained and ready for battle, Polzin served on a DUKW in the Invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. Called Operation Husky, the invasion signaled the start of the Allies’ assault on German-occupied Europe.

So what began for this veteran in Ireland, Scotland and Africa continued with Italy and then Exercise Tiger in southern England. His last stop, in France, occurred on June 6, 1944, at Utah Beach, where he was in charge of 42 amphibian trucks as beach dispatcher during the Normandy landings.

Winfred Polzin today.
Winfred Polzin today.

On the eve of D-Day, Polzin remembered being on one of many ships on port in England, while the soldiers would face “over a million mines on the beaches” of Normandy. He recalled the German concrete bunkers that littered the beach, and they were built to last.

“They’re so big, they can’t get rid of them,” said Polzin of the bunkers that remain as ruins today. “The only way to get to a bunker (during the invasion) was to throw a hand grenade in where the guns were stuck on. The bunkers were built strong.”

For Polzin, the invasion didn’t start until about 6-6:30 a.m. Paratroopers landed beforehand, and the Navy was firing in from 18 miles away, he noted.

“Our LST (landing ship) just shook like that when those guns when off,” he said.

When asked about the landing at Utah Beach, he said it “wasn’t bad,” particularly in comparison to the fierce battle and high death toll for both German and Allied forces at Omaha Beach.

“They (Germans) were firing in on the beach when the 88 artillery guns were trying to knock that road out because that’s where all the trucks and tanks were coming in,” Polzin described. “Right over our head, about to the ceiling. Boy, that’s a heck of a sound, an 88 going over your head. But where we landed, that was about a couple of blocks east of where they were trying to knock that road out.

“There were Germans in the bunkers,” he added, “but I don’t think we lost a man in the invasion.”

Thinking back on D-Day and the days that followed, Polzin continued:

“We didn’t get bombed; once in a great while a German airplane went over. Somewhere I have a picture — it’s just a black line of ships as far as the eye could see, and that was just one beach.

“I could speak some German, and we had prisoners working for us. This German prisoner asked me, ‘Did Germany sink a lot of ships?’

“‘I suppose they did,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how many.’

“(The prisoner responded) ‘They told us that America will never get here, they haven’t got enough ships; we’re sinking everything that’s coming this way.’

“I said, ‘They sank ships, but they sure didn’t sink them all.’ He had tears running down his cheeks. He said … how they ‘lied to us; what it is the world must think of us.’”

Seeing firsthand the sadness in the eyes of a younger German soldier, “the older people there were so glad it was over,” Polzin said.

Seventy years later, this decorated World War II veteran doesn’t forget the men he served with in the 478th amphibian truck company. He keeps an old book on hand that identifies those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country. He remembers many by name and even their personality like it were yesterday.

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