EDITOR’S NOTE: Most of the following information is from one in a series of articles on World War II, written by the late E. James Moore of North Wilkesboro for the Wilkes Journal-Patriot about 20 years ago. The newspaper published the articles in a booklet called “Wilkes County Remembers World War II,” with all proceeds going to the Friends of the Wilkes County Library.
A Wilkes Countian who died in August 2017—a day after turning 93—led a platoon on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion 75 years ago this week. Of the 40 men in his platoon that day, Worth Bentley was also the only one who survived the war.
Thursday is the anniversary of D-Day, a day of bloody fighting on the Normandy coast of northwestern France that marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
Bentley enlisted in the Army straight off his father’s farm in the Pores Knob community at age 17 in early 1942. He had graduated from Wilkesboro High School a year earlier.
After infantry, paratrooper and special forces training, Bentley volunteered for overseas duty and joined the Army’s First Division upon arrival in southern England in early 1944. He participated in mock invasions and other training.
After being postponed a day due to bad weather, ships carrying Bentley and thousands of Allied troops left the southern English coast on the evening of June 5, 1944, for the trip of about 100 miles across the English Channel to Normandy.
Bentley was about two months-shy of his 20th birthday when D-Day occurred the next day. He was a tech sergeant and chief noncommissioned officer in a platoon in the 16th Infantry Regiment of the First Division.
Referring to the number of vessels in the channel, Bentley said he felt he could have “walked from England to France on the tops of the ships in the English Channel.”
As they edged closer to the invasion sites, the troops were transferred from large ships to smaller amphibious assault craft, called “LCI’s” (landing craft infantry). Many of these were sunk before even reaching the French coast.
The First Division was supposed to land at an area designated “Omaha Beach,” which became the bloodiest of five D-Day beachheads. It was later learned that a German division was conducting anti-invasion maneuvers in the area, so was well-positioned to repel the invaders.
To make matters worse, a navigational error resulted in the 16th Infantry Regiment landing several hundred yards off its intended landing site and not where efforts had been made to clear the way for Allied forces.
When the large bow door of the landing craft opened for the men to disembark, they were met with a hail of German machine gun fire. The platoon’s lieutenant was among the first casualties, leaving Bentley in charge.
The troops were supposed to have been released on the beach, but the British skipper of the craft with Bentley’s platoon came to a halt some distance from shore.
Bentley, who was 6 feet tall, found himself in water up to his neck. To survive, he left his field pack in the ocean and had little more than his carbine, belt of ammunition and gas mask when he reached shore.
The 16th Regiment was immediately pinned down along the beach’s seawall and was taking heavy casualties when the regimental commanding officer, Col. George Taylor, arrived about 8 a.m. June 6.
Taylor is credited with leading the remnants of the regiment inland by telling them they would die if they stayed on the beach. His famous quote is, “There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
Taylor was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for motivating and organizing his men and then leading them as they attacked the Germans.
The citation accompanying his medal read, “While continuously exposed to this murderous fire, Colonel Taylor never slackened in his efforts in directing and coordinating the attack. By his initiative and leadership, he was able to clear an exit from the beach and begin moving groups of men from the crowded beachhead. This was the only exit opened in the early part of the assault and subsequent events proved it to be one of the most vital points contributing to the success of this operation.”
Bentley said the regiment advanced about 1,500 yards from the beach inland by the end of that day, dug fox holes and bedded down for the night. Bentley said he never slept until three nights later.
Seventeen of the 40 men in his platoon were killed or wounded on June 6.
He remained with the First Division through Europe and was wounded twice, with the second being the most severe. This occurred in the Hurtgen Forest on the border between Belgium and Germany on Dec. 13, 1944.
Bentley spent the next 10 months in an Army hospital and was discharged on Nov. 11, 1945, with honors. He received a Purple Heart with one Cluster and two Bronze Stars for heroism, among other medals.
Bentley was the third of Parks and Margie Broyhill Bentley’s seven sons. In September 1989, he retired from the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier out of the Moravian Falls Post Office.
He was an active member of First Baptist Church of North Wilkesboro, served on the Wilkes County Board of Elections for 12 years, and was in civic and veterans organizations.
Among other relatives, Bentley was survived by his wife of 57 years, Linda Earp Bentley, and a son, Alan Bentley.