DEADWOOD — Being in five different campaigns, surviving artillery fire, enduring the loss of fellow soldiers, as well as the mental hardships inflicted by the enemy and having absolutely no idea what his role was when he rolled onto Utah Beach in Normandy, Juno Sundstrom makes no hesitation in giving credit to his survival.
“I could show you the Bible I carried with me, pretty well-worn and small,” said the D-Day veteran, reaching into his chest pocket to demonstrate where the bible was kept. “I had two. One I had in my ditty bag and one I carried on me. … I want one of those Bibles in my hand when they put me in the casket. I’m sure I had an angel on my shoulder, because to go through five campaigns like that and see your first sergeant killed and your commander shot twice and all the others. … There were 28 killed out of 130. About one out of five, I guess.”
Sundstrom, 99, took a break Tuesday from installing a tarp on a shed behind his house to weigh in on the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
“That morning, at daylight, we were still on the water … we could hear planes going over us before it was day break. It was paratroopers and gliders. And then at daybreak when you could see, all you could see was ships, just as far as the eye could see any direction,” Sundstrom said. “There was 5,000 ships, if you could imagine what that was like, all headed for Normandy.”
Sundstrom said the day was chaotic.
“For me, it was mass confusion. I didn’t know what was going on. There were mine sweepers out there and shells were falling all over and planes overhead. It was mass confusion. I just followed the half-track. I had nothing else to do. There was a mounted machine gun on the Jeep, but I never used it on D-Day. Because I wasn’t in a firefight until the third day. … In the fighting at Normandy, you didn’t sleep all night. No way.”
Sundstrom said his troop was attached to the 4th Infantry Division.
Sundstrom recalled seeing “minen” signs on the beach, which is German for “mines.”
“We never hit any. I just followed the half-track and I was safe behind them.”
But he was certain he would not leave Normandy alive.
“My commander got wounded twice, and I was close to him both times. Once in the arm and once in the leg. And my first sergeant — we really liked him — got killed by a bullet in the head, put half his head in his helmet. Then you feel like maybe it’s your turn.”
Sundstrom recalled the fatal firefight at a roadblock. His group endured heavy machinegun fire and bullets were “zinging through the air,” Sundstrom recalled. “Why he stepped out there, I don’t know, but I started to go with him, but I thought, ‘No. I’m not going to go out there.’ He got hit right away, rolled over in the ditch. He was a sergeant Dahl from Rapid City. He had a boy he had never seen. He was born while he was gone. I met the boy at a reunion. That’s been many years ago now. And I lost all track of him.”
On June 7, 1944, Sundstrom and his troop had surrounded an airport. Officers wanted to keep the control tower intact to use at the landing strip.
A Piper combo airplane was sent over as a spotter for the artillery, flying halfway across the field and back.
“We didn’t know if (the area) was occupied or not. Then he flew all the way across the field and on his way back, they opened up on him and they shot a hole in his wing,” Sundstrom said. “He came wobbling over the lines, but he landed safe. Then about five or six artillery shells hit. We saw a couple Germans come out, but they fell on the ground. They were dead. So then we went into St. Mere Eglise and it was evening again. We didn’t get right in the town. We bypassed it.”
From that point on, it was hedgerow fighting.
“And that was nasty fighting,” Sundstrom said. “The Germans were dug in and at daylight, they’d start artillery. They’d just blast that row in front of us. Then we’d attack. We lost men, all right. Day after day, attack, attack, and at night, the Germans would holler ‘Gas! Gas!’ and you didn’t know if it was true or not and were just confusing you. Wouldn’t let us sleep.”
So how does Sundstrom feel about his military service?
“We fought for liberty and justice. We fought for our country,” Sundstrom said. “I remember I was working for a rancher one spring and he told me how to vote for the sheriff. … I said, ‘I fought a war so that I can vote the way I wanted to.’ And boy, he kind of blew his stack, but then he quieted down.”
Just prior to ending the interview, Sundstrom expressed a desire to weigh in on one thing regarding war today.
“Wars, I think, should be planned, fought, and executed by the generals. Not officials in Washington, D.C.,” Sundstrom said. “They have studied history, the battles and the victories, and they know different strategies that they can take. Where Washington radios or computerizes an order and that’s it. Custer did three things wrong. He underestimated his enemy. He split up his forces. He left his reserves where he couldn’t use them. That’s three things in battle that’s pretty critical.”
Sundstrom lost his wife of 72 years, Elizabeth McTighe Sundstrom in October 2018 and has returned to the couple’s former residence near Trevino Leather in the Deadwood area.
“He will turn 100 Nov. 24 and he lives by himself. He takes care of himself. He was just out on the ladder fixing up his new tarp on his shed and he’s pretty amazing,” said Sundstrom’s daughter Betty Trevino.
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