Bobbing up and down in the waters of the English Channel in June of 1944, coastal Delaware native Kenneth Hudson had a front-row seat for one of the biggest days — one of the biggest events — in the history of the world.
The Allies were launching the offensive that would lead to the suicide of a tyrant, to the crumbling of an empire and to the beginning of a new world order. Hudson witnessed it all firsthand, realizing almost immediately how lucky he was to have survived the day.
Ironically, it was a German sharpshooter that likely saved his life during the famed D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, when the landing craft he and 36 other American soldiers were riding in was sunk about 100 yards from the beaches of Normandy.
One of only five survivors, it’s by the grace of God that Hudson returned home to tell his story — especially since he had more than 30 pounds of explosives strapped to his person at the time his ship slipped below the surface.
“We were supposed to be one of the first ones in there, so I guess I was actually lucky that I didn’t make it to shore,” said Hudson, a native of Roxana and resident of Selbyville since 1947. “I was scared I was going to drown, because all I had on was a little Mae West (life jacket).”
From his vantage point in the choppy waters of the channel, Hudson could see it all — he observed dead bodies everywhere he looked, on the beaches and floating nearby. But he also saw more and more American soldiers whizzing by him on a seemingly endless supply of landing craft.
It was a surreal moment for the Delaware teenager, a turning point in his life.
“It was really rough watching that. I could see all the boys going in and could see the Germans firing at them from the shore,” recalled Hudson. “I was in the water for about two hours before the Coast Guard came and picked me up. I was really lucky that day.”
When Hudson’s boat was hit and sunk, he bailed out and immediately cut off the more than 30 pounds of explosives strapped to his body. And he waited — but his wait was not without turmoil.
Amid the American soldiers being gunned down by countless Germans on the French shore, and while struggling to stay alive himself, Hudson had to make one of the most difficult decisions of his young life.
He still thinks about it today — about his friend that he couldn’t save, about the unenviable dilemma that provided no good answer.
His choice that day, though horrific, was one that had to be made.
“I don’t like to talk about it very much, but there was this one boy in the water who had grabbed a hold of me so he wouldn’t drown. But he was pulling me under with him,” recalled Hudson, the emotion from the impossible choice coming back to him nearly seven decades later. “I had no choice but to let him go, and he drowned. That was really hard; I didn’t want to let go, but if I hadn’t, we both would have gone under.”
Hudson spent a few days in a hospital in England before rejoining his unit for the push toward Berlin, but it was that day in the turbulent waters of the English Channel that defined his service during World War II.
It was a service that began when a draft notice arrived at his Roxana home in March of 1943.
“I can’t say I wanted to go, but I knew I had to because we were at war,” he now admits.
After basic training, Hudson departed for Europe aboard the famed Queen Elizabeth, a member of the First Army’s First Infantry Division. The oldest division in the United States Army, the First Infantry has seen continuous service since its organization in 1917. It was officially nicknamed the “The Big Red One” after its colorful shoulder patch.
The men of the First Division landed at Southampton, England, and continued training for combat, which came a few months after Hudson’s arrival in the European Theater of Operations.
“When I woke up on June 5, I remember having powdered eggs for breakfast and going out to sea,” Hudson recalled. “After we left England, we were out in the water for a full day before the invasion started.”
After his ordeal in the water, where he says “the good Lord had his hand on me,” Hudson spent about a week in the hospital before rejoining his division in France.
Soon walking through the streets of Paris after that city’s liberation, Hudson spent some time on the front lines before his unit was replaced by another.
The people of France’s most famous city were certainly happy to see him, and the Allies, march through their neighborhoods.
“The people would stand out on the streets and wave to us as we went by, even offer us wine and food,” Hudson recalled. “I remember, me and a buddy were walking down the street one night, and this couple who owned a bakery asked us to come in and have supper with them. So we did, and it was very nice.”
Classified as an infantryman, Hudson spent most of his time carrying a rifle — D-Day was the only time during his duty where he was given the task of carrying explosives.
Returning to the front lines, Hudson was about to rejoin the fight about the Nazis when a freak accident abruptly ended his military experience. It’s a day he still physically suffers from today.
“The Germans were shelling us, and we were trying to get out when they hit us,” recalled Hudson. “What happened was that I was standing next to one of our trucks when these other two trucks came around the corner and hit ours. My arm was stuck in between and got sandwiched.”
Hudson underwent three operations on his damaged arm, but never could straighten it again — he still can’t today.
His military service came to an end earlier than expected. After spending time in hospitals in both Paris and in England, he returned home to the United States in 1946 — but not before a day in the hospital he will never forget, a day when news of Germany’s surrender filtered through the sterile walls of the medical facility.
“There was so much hollering, and we were all so happy because we knew we were going to get to go home,” he recalled. “It was a special day for us.”
Another surgery in Atlantic City resulted in screws keeping his shattered arm in place — an operation that was deemed a success.
Despite his ordeals, and his obvious physical damage from the war, not a day went by that Hudson didn’t count his blessings. He very much realized how lucky he was to have survived the second world war, and to be given the chance at a new life in his home country.
“I went over there to fight, and I feel good about that, but I sure am glad I came home safe,” he said. “I’m proud of what I did for my country.”
Kenneth Hudson retired in December of 2009 at the age of 87, after working at the same place for more than 65 years. He and his wife, Betty Ann, had two children and were blessed with four grandchildren. He made his home in the Selbyville area until his passing in the fall of 2012.
The preceding profile is one of 50 that will be featured in James Diehl’s book “World War II Heroes of Coastal Delaware,” now scheduled for a Veteran’s Day 2014 release. The book is the follow up to the award-winning “World War II Heroes of Southern Delaware,” released in 2009.