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Cumberland resident and D-Day veteran Floyd Wigfield chats with Jack Russell via Skype Wednesday. Russell’s brother, Bob, was Wigfield’s commanding officer and was killed during the Normandy invasion 75 years ago. (CTN photo by Steve Bittner)

It took Jack Russell three-quarters of a century to find someone who could tell him about the day his brother died.

Floyd Wigfield was there when it happened on June 7, 1944.

He told Russell, "It was terrible." Nothing could have been done to save him, "but he wasn't in any pain."

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Cumberland resident Floyd Wigfield shares details with Jack Russell about his brother’s death on June 7, 1944. (CTN photo by Steve Bittner)

Although both men are now 100 years old, neither has forgotten the day U.S. Army Capt. Robert Russell was killed by a German bullet.

They recently crossed time and space to meet for the first time, thanks to — and because of — a technology that few people alive in 1944 could have imagined would even be possible ... let alone be used every day and taken for granted.

Wigfield lives near Cumberland and Russell is from Clemmons, North Carolina. They're about 340 miles apart, which is 50 miles closer than they were 75 years ago.

In 1944, Russell was at Royal Air Force station Shipdham in Norfolk County, England, helping to keep U.S. Army Air Force B-24 bombers flying the missions that would turn Nazi Germany's plans for world domination into charred rubble.

Wigfield was in France, having waded or swum ashore onto Utah Beach with 21,000 other American soldiers during the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy that began the liberation of Europe. 

Wigfield was one of the D-Day veterans recently interviewed by the Times-News on the occasion of the landing's 75th anniversary. He said Robert D. Russell — his G Company commanding officer — had been killed the day after the landing and that he wanted to find and visit Russell's grave, to pay his respects.

Jack Russell's son-in-law, Tross Kimmer, found Wigfield's story on the internet and told Russell about it. Russell wanted to meet Wigfield, so the Times-News arranged for them to do it face-to-face in their home towns via Skype on laptop computers.

'Orders were orders'

Wigfield talked to Russell about his brother, and he also described what it was like to go to France and visit return to Normandy for the D-Day anniversary observation at the invitation of President Donald Trump.

Russell told Wigfield "I appreciate your desire to visit the grave of my brother. For years, I wondered how I could get in touch with some of Bob's old outfit. Now, I'm 100 years old, and it's coming to pass."

He said, "I know your experiences were terrible."

Wigfield said they were. "You remember, if you've been there," he said.

Russell was an aircraft inspector serving in maintenance with the 444th Bombardment Group at RAF Shipdham. He said Suffolk and Norfolk counties were home to about 60 air bases, none of them more than 10 miles apart.

Before the invasion, he and Robert planned to get together in London, but "my commanding officer wouldn't let me go."

"Orders were orders," Wigfield said.

Wigfield said Capt. Russell was a good officer. 

Bob Russell

Bob Russell

"He led his company right off the boats," Wigfield said. G Company of the 4th Division, 22nd Infantry Regiment, was one of the first units to land at Utah Beach and went ashore with about 350 men.

Wigfield said "There were two rows of boats for as far as the eye could see, and I was in the second boat."

'It was terrible'

On D-Day plus one (June 7), "There was a lot going on that afternoon," Wigfield told Russell. "It was terrible. Your brother was in one of those hedgerows (long, irregularly shaped mounds of dirt that were covered by virtually impenetrable vegetation that were used to separate farms).

He said Russell came out of the hedgerow and called for a medic, "and that was the last word he said. He was shot right about where your belt buckle is."

A lieutenant joined Wigfield, and they stayed with Russell's body until almost dark, when it could be removed.

"We couldn't do anything about it," he said. "But he wasn't in any pain."

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Brothers Jack, left, and Bob Russell are shown in 1936 in Mila, Va., with guitar and mandolin.

Russell said a chaplain had contacted Robert's wife, Millie, and told her he had been killed by a German sniper in a tree.

Wigfield said it could have happened that way, "but there were bullets and everything going on."

He said that while they were preparing for the invasion, Capt. Russell wanted him to take training to become an officer, "but the war was coming up and I didn't want to change horses in the middle of the stream."

A trip back

Wigfield said that when first approached about flying to Normandy for the D-Day anniversary, he didn't want to go.

Then he was told he would be on the president's airplane, the flight would take only six hours, and he would be the only D-Day veteran present who still had his uniform.

"Then I said I would go," he said.

The trip "wasn't too bad," he said. He flew on the president's plane with the president's staff, and he also rode the president's helicopter. 

Wigfield said he was one of about seven D-Day veterans at the ceremony and that he sat in the front row, about 20 feet from where the speeches were being made.

Two were paratroopers who had landed inland, and two others had come ashore on Omaha Beach. There were no Rangers (who climbed the cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc) or troops who had landed in gliders towed by cargo planes.

"That was all they could find," he said.

The worst part of it was that "I had to stand up in front of a couple million people," he said. "But the French president (Emmanuel Macron) shook my hand, and his wife (Brigitte Macron) kissed me!" 

Wigfield said "They really took care of us." Wherever they went, each veteran had an escort of at least three uniformed American soldiers. When they returned to their rooms, a soldier went in first to inspect it and make sure it was safe.

He said one of his fondest memories was hearing what he believed was a church group singing a beautiful song for them in French, and he regretted not being able to record it.

Wigfield and the others returned to the place where they first set foot in Normandy.

He said that for three days after the landing, they went without being resupplied because a German artillery battery 13 miles inland was shelling the beach.

"We had no water, and I was running out of bullets," he said.

The guns that shelled them are gone, but one of the emplacements that held them is still present and mostly intact. Wigfield said, it's made of concrete that is at least three feet thick and once had trees planted around it for camouflage. Now, it is next to a field.

"It will probably still be there 100 years from now," he said. "I bet the Germans didn't pour that concrete. They probably made the French people do the work."

Wigfield said what's left of a giant pillbox (a fortification containing automatic weapons or artillery) that was near the point where he landed is still there and "I got within 200 feet of the place where I was wounded."

He said a German bullet struck the rear of the helmet being worn by one of their corporals, "and don't think that didn't scare him." Wigfield said he was told that later on, in another place, a German soldier shot that corporal between the eyes.

Both remain active

Jack Russell spent three years in England and, like Wigfield, returned to the United States soon after the war was over. 

"I came home on the (ocean liner) Queen Mary and we had 15,000 on that ship," Russell said. Wigfield came home on a hospital ship. 

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Jack Russell, 100, at his home workshop in Clemmons, N.C.

Wigfield was an electrician, and Russell worked at a Cadillac dealership. Both retired about 30 years ago.

Russell asked Wigfield if he worked in a garden or did anything like that.

When told that Wigfield prepares his garden with a Rototiller and uses a chain saw, his daughter Ann Kimmer said "That sounds like Jack Russell."

Russell has a small two-bedroom apartment attached to Ann and Tross's house and has converted a garage into a workshop.

Wigfield told Russell that when he was a hunter, he usually got a turkey and a deer every year.

"I hunted on private land in Pennsylvania," he said. "I didn't want to get shot at again."

Russell played baseball and was a musician, joining his brother to perform at high-school get-togethers. "Bob was a great mandolin player and I played the guitar," he said. Both graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Wigfield plays the mandolin, the guitar, the violin and the organ, and his grandson plays the mandolin. 

Capt. Russell initially was interred in France, just as most others were buried near the places where they fell. The resources that could have been used to take them back to America were needed elsewhere during the war.

Repatriating their remains after the war was a massive task.

An Arlington meeting?

Between 1945 and 1951, the Army employed about 13,000 people and spent $163.8 million (about $2.33 billion today) to identify the remains of about 280,000 service members who had been buried in various theaters of World War II.

Their next of kin were contacted and asked if they wanted them brought home or left where they were buried. About 93,000 World War II are interred overseas at the 26 permanent American military cemeteries that are administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission and are considered to be American soil.

Capt. Russell's widow, Millie, petitioned the Army in 1948 to have his body returned to America, and he is at rest today in Arlington National Cemetery.

Wigfield and Jack Russell hope to meet at his gravesite sometime after Labor Day, agreeing that the weather will be milder that time of year.

In the meantime, they plan to keep in touch.

They said they have a lot of catching up to do. 

Reach Jim Goldsworthy, columnist, at 301-722-4600 and jgoldsworthy@times-news.com.