Seventy-five years ago today, Allied troops stormed ashore in France to open the final bloody chapter of World War II in Europe.
U.S. Army combat engineer Arthur Ricker was among American troops to hit the beaches of Normandy. At 98, Ricker is one of a handful of surviving veterans who can recount what he saw and heard on D-Day.
The lifelong Tusculum resident is willing to share his wartime experiences as a way of helping younger generations understand the true cost of freedom.
Ricker enlisted in the Army in 1940. He was 23 years old on D-Day. Ricker said Wednesday that it does not feel like three-quarters of a century have passed since that historic event.
“No, not really,” he said.
On the morning of D-Day, ground troops landed across five assault beaches. American troops were responsible for beaches code-named Utah and Omaha. Omaha Beach proved especially difficult for U.S. troops, which suffered heavy casualties.
British and Canadian troops landed at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.
By nightfall on June 6, 1944, Allied troops established beachheads they never relinquished. The costly eventual breakout into the French countryside took weeks.
Ricker served under Gen. George Patton, a hard-fighting commander who was no stranger to controversy.
“The Germans did not like him. They were afraid of him,” Ricker said.
Ricker knew enough about world events as a young man to believe the United States would eventually enter World War II, prompting him to enlist in the Army in 1940. He was 19 at the time. Fast forward about four years, and Ricker found himself aboard a troop ship that was part of a vast armada steaming toward the shore of France to launch what was known as “Operation Overlord” — D-Day.
Bad weather delayed the landing on the Normandy beaches for one day. Ricker recalls hearing explosions nearby in his troop ship as he waited out the long hours until the invasion began.
“There were apparently German subs in the area and you could hear depth charges being set off in the (English) Channel,” he said.
The invasion began at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of June 6. The terrain provided plenty of cover for defending Nazi troops.
“As we advanced through the hedgerow country of Normandy, we were under fire,” Ricker said. “There was no protection. Everybody was fair game, I guess.”
On D-Day, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of fortified French coastline. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion. By day’s end on June 6, the Allies gained a tenuous foothold.
The D-Day cost was high. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded.
Ricker served with the 4th U.S. Infantry Division, known as the “Ivy Division.” After D-Day, he fought across France and into Germany, spending time in seven countries during the war. The grim realities of war hit home soon after Ricker came ashore on the morning of June 6.
“The first day on that beach an (enemy artillery shell) killed one of my best friends. I was standing, I think, about six feet from him,” he said. “We landed at Utah Beach and from there we moved inland. Our main objective was to capture Cherbourg,” a French coastal city needed by the Allies for its port facilities. Opposing Nazi troops had other ideas, and the fortified port didn’t fall until the end of June.
“Our next objective was to capture Paris, which was a great distance away,” Ricker said.
There was plenty of fighting before Paris was occupied in August 1944 by the Allies. Ricker recalls the deliriously happy crowds that greeted American and French soldiers.
“We left Paris and our next objective was the Ardennes front,” he said.
Ricker’s job as a combat engineer included demolitions, repairing blown bridges, building new ones, and breaching prepared fortifications like the formidable Siegfried Line along the German border. He was also rated an expert marksman.
“The worst place I ever fought was the Siegfried Line,” Ricker recalled. “I think the Hurtgen Forest was the worst battle I’ve ever been in. We lost a lot of men there.”
Concrete bunkers 6-feet thick with steel doors were defended by enemy troops.
“We had to disable them. We had to use explosives and (destroy) them outward,” Ricker said.
In one instance, the German defenders in a pillbox refused to surrender. A bulldozer had to be called in “and they covered it up,” he said.
Ricker’s unit helped turn back the surprise German counteroffensive in December 1944 known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 4th Division crossed the Rhine River at a German city called Worms. Ricker ended the war in Bavaria, in Southern Germany.
V-E Day on May 8, 1945, “was a joyful day” for Ricker, whose happiness at the end of the war was tempered by what he saw at a Nazi concentration camp in Bavaria as the 4th Division advanced through the mountainous Alps region.
“This brought us into a place I wish I had never seen,” Ricker said.
Dachau originally housed political prisoners and eventually included the imprisonment of Jews, German and Austrian criminals and foreign nationals from countries that Germany occupied or invaded.
Dachau and similar, smaller camps in the region were liberated by U.S. troops, including the 4th Infantry Division.
Ricker saw inmates resembling living skeletons wearing black-and-white striped clothing. He saw smoke coming from one building and decided to investigate.
“What it was, it was furnaces where they burned human flesh,” Ricker said. Allied Commanding Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gen. Omar Bradley, Patton and other top military “brass” toured the camp several days later to see for themselves the brutal inhumanity of the Nazi regime. Patton, known as a tough solider, became physically ill.
“It was unreal,” Ricker said. “I was asked the question, ‘What would you do if you saw (Adolf) Hitler?’ I said I’d have shot him.’”
Ricker knows why he and his brother Walter survived hazardous military duty in World War II.
“I had a praying mother and both of us got back unhurt. I believe she could get in touch with God,” he said.
The late Tracie Hull Ricker helped instill a strong sense of faith in her sons. Arthur Ricker said his faith helped him cope with his wartime experiences.
Unlike many former soldiers who had problems readjusting to civilian life, Ricker returned home to his Greene County family farm at peace with himself. He and his wife, Edith, raised eight children and will celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary this month.
Ricker held up a small, well-worn book. The New Testament of the Bible was given to him by a chaplain in England. He carried it in his pocket throughout his Army service in Europe.
“I used it to pray in the daytime and I would pray at night,” he said.
Ricker returned with other veterans to Normandy on the 25th and 50th anniversaries of D-Day. Walking is more difficult these days for him.
“I don’t think I will ever go back,” Ricker said.
Ricker’s Tusculum living room includes a painting of U.S. troops coming ashore from a landing craft on D-Day and other reminders of that singular day 75 years ago. There’s an old 48-star U.S. flag framed on a wall, along with Ricker’s many military decorations.
There are family connections. One of Ricker’s children and one of his grandchildren were born on D-Day. His family, which includes Edith, seven living children, 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, are all well aware of Ricker’s personal link to the pivotal day in history.
“They are very proud of what he did for his country,” daughter Connie Ricker Smith said.
Ricker spent 11 months in Europe and served in five major campaigns before Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945.
Every day, there are fewer U.S. soldiers like Ricker left to tell their stories. As of September 2018, Tennessee had 8,653 living World War II veterans, according to The National World War II Museum.
Out of 16 million Americans who served in World War II, about 497,000 remained alive in September 2018. Veterans pass away at a rate of 348 a day, according to the museum.
Ricker has told his story to many school groups and other organizations. He hopes his experiences help young people understand that the freedom all Americans enjoy today required the ultimate sacrifice for some 75 years ago.
“I’ve seen the worst of the worst. I think it’s very important that they know what the American soldier endured. It’s hard for them to contemplate what we went through,” he said. “From my standpoint, I think it’s important for our people to understand what can happen to our country.”
Greene County may have something in a few months it has not had in years — a single property tax rate for landowners both within and outside Greeneville corporate limits.
Whether the Greene County Commission approves a single tax rate or votes to keep separate tax rates for inside and outside Greeneville, the amount paid by the town’s landowners will increase in the year ahead.
The County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday voted to recommend a single tax rate of $2.0145 per $100 of assessed property.
This rate is the same as what was assessed during the current fiscal year for properties in Greene County but outside Greeneville limits, so there would be no increase for a majority of those paying property tax.
If approved, for property owners inside Greeneville, it would be an increase from what was levied this year — $1.8551 per $100 in assessed value.
Two tax rates have been traditionally set in the past several years, one rate for county taxpayers outside Greeneville and a lower rate for inside the town. The difference has related to education debt service for Greene County Schools, based on a rationale that Greeneville residents should not pay the portion of county property tax used to retire county school bonds, as city taxpayers fund and utilize Greeneville City Schools.
The portion of property tax used each year toward retiring county schools’ debt has traditionally been subtracted from the overall county rate to determine the levy for Greeneville taxpayers.
Payments on one county school debt were completed in the past year, Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison said.
If two rates are levied in the year ahead, city taxpayers would see an increase of 3 or 4 cents because a lesser portion would be used for school debt service. There was a similar increase in the inside rate last year, as another debt was retired the year prior.
County officials have said the inside rate will increase incrementally over the next few years as more county education debt is retired. Greene County Schools’ debt service is scheduled to be completely paid by 2026; a separate debt service for the county is scheduled to be retired in 2025.
Part of the property tax is also distributed to both the Greeneville City and Greene County school systems, separate from the portion used for the county’s debt service.
Additionally, the Budget and Finance Committee voted to recommend that a 2.5 percent across-the-board pay raise for county employees be included in the 2019-20 budget.
An across-the-board pay raise was not included in the proposed $25.9 million general operating budget that was introduced to members of the County Commission during a budget workshop last week.
County Budget Director Danny Lowery said the pay increase would add about $400,000 to the budget. Around that amount had been reduced from the proposed budget, reducing the budget deficit that would have to be taken from fund balance.
With the funding for the pay increase, the budget deficit would be around $1.7 million, about the same as in the 2018-19 fiscal year budget.
“It would be essentially the same budget as last year,” Lowery said.
As the budget discussion began, county commissioners asked questions about what appeared to be pay increases within the proposed budget within various departments in addition to a increases for personnel at Greene County-Greeneville Emergency Medical Service and for election workers, approved earlier this year by the commission. It was noted that those positions would not receive the proposed 2.5 percent wage increase.
As each situation was addressed, explanations were given for the apparent increases, which were primarily to bring the pay of individual employees to a more competitive level or to reflect additional, earned certifications.
The Greene County Clerk’s office has proposed to open a drive-thru service for vehicle registration renewals.
Greene County Clerk Lori Bryant told the Greene County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday that the proposed drive-thru service could be opened in a new development under construction at the intersection of Summer Street and the Highway 70 Truck Route.
A drive-thru could be located on one of the end of the commercial building, which is planned to contain three different storefronts.
The drive-thru would benefit citizens with disabilities, the elderly and others who may find it easier than visiting the County Courthouse Annex on Hall Street, where parking is at a premium, she said.
The mobile locations that the Clerk’s Office operates one day a month in Baileyton, Camp Creek, Mosheim and Tusculum have proven to be popular, particularly with older people who don’t want to drive into Greeneville, she said. The drive-thru might prove equally popular.
The proposed location would also be easily accessible to the public and close enough to the annex to allow Bryant to travel there quickly if needed, she added.
Bryant said she did not foresee the drive-thru requiring additional staff, as one person would be assigned to work there.
The rent would be $1,200 monthly for a 3-year lease. There would be an option to extend as needed, she said. The owner, former Greene County Sheriff Pat Hankins, will have a laundromat business there and will maintain the property.
According to Bryant, the rent could be paid through fees the state returns to county clerks for driver’s license renewals and handgun permit renewals. The state pays $4 for each driver’s license and gun permit renewal completed at a county clerk office.
Bryant asked for feedback from committee members about the idea on Wednesday, and members said the opportunity was worth exploring.
The drive-thru would require the approval of the Budget and Finance Committee and the full County Commission to come to fruition.