The U.S. Army had spent a great deal of time and effort training Senter in the art of war. For more than a year he was schooled in weapons, self-defense and military procedure.
Physically, he was as prepared for battle as any infantryman could ever hope to be. Yet, psychologically, the 20-year-old private was as far removed from the warrior mindset as ever.
The Army could help men prepare for multitudes of battlefield eventualities. What it could never do was duplicate the tidal wave of emotions spawned by combat experience.
As Senter and a group of fellow replacement soldiers began to traverse the beach, he started to wonder if the Army would even need him.
Less than two weeks earlier, the Allies had successfully landed at Normandy and began to push the Germans inland.
Now, as Senter surveyed his surroundings, he was awed by the amount of ships and landing craft unloading thousands of men, mountains of supplies and vehicles of all sizes and description. “As far as you could see to the left and to the right, troops were coming ashore with tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and everything else,” said Senter. “I thought, ‘heck, they ain’t even going to need me.’”
The impressive display of military might quickly boosted Senter’s spirits. It was a false sense of security that lasted only a few brief minutes.
As Senter’s group reached a bluff at the back of the beach, a lone German fighter aircraft gave the men their first real taste of war.
The Messerschmitt 109 thundered out of the sky on a straffing run, scattering soldiers in all directions in a desperate search for cover.
With the roar of the plane’s engines still ringing in his ears, Senter no longer viewed himself an innocent. He was an American soldier who was expected to complete a difficult and harrowing job or at least die trying.
While that reality might not have been completely clear to Senter when he first stepped onto French soil, a German pilot made sure to bring it all back into focus.
“I went into the beaches at Normandy and I wasn’t mad at anybody,” said Senter. “But I didn’t get to the top of that bluff before a Messerschmitt came after us. I knew right then what was going on and that changed my attitude in a hurry.”
The transformation to soldier now complete, Senter would serve with uncommon distinction in some of the most brutal fighting in Europe.
From the hedgerows of France to the nightmare of the Hurtgen Forest, from the snows of the Ardennes to the push toward Berlin, Senter would have few peers on the battlefield.
Awarded both the Silver Star and Bronze Star for his actions under fire, the once unassuming wide-eyed youngster quickly learned the most important and unforgiving lesson of combat in the never-ending desire to get home – kill or be killed.
“If you get him today then he won’t be looking down a machine gun barrel at you tomorrow,” said Senter. “I felt like the only way I was going to get home was kill them. That’s what we did.” Change of plans
The rigors of boot camp and military life were nothing for a young man with Senter’s background. Born in Kipling, NC on December 26, 1923, he was the eldest son of tobacco farmers Hubert and Mertle Senter.
At a time when he was just barely old enough to attend school, Senter already had chores on the family farm. The older he got, the longer his chore list grew.
“My father worked us pretty hard,” said Senter. “He expected us to work like the hired help.”
As the Great Depression crippled the nation, hard-nosed farmers like the Senters simply went on with life as usual.
Money was tight but meals were always big and plentiful.
“Being a farmer, we were able to grow our own food,” said Senter.
Despite the long hours and hard work, Senter loved farming and hoped to major in agriculture. After graduating high school he attended Campbell Junior College (now Campbell University) with the idea of eventually transferring to N.C. State.
The war changed those plans. The 19-year-old was drafted into the U.S. Army in February of 1943. “My father was a World War One veteran,” said Senter. “His only advice was telling me not to get in the infantry but that is where I ended up.”
Senter was sent to Camp Howze in Texas for both basic and advanced training. He then participated for three months in military maneuvers in Louisiana.
“In maneuvers I was wounded, killed and captured,” said Senter. “It wasn’t a very good start for me.” Senter was shipped overseas in the spring of 1944 and, after a brief interlude in England, arrived in France on June 19.
A replacement soldier, he was assigned to Company K of the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division.
He didn’t know another soul in his entire unit.
“It’s a strange feeling not knowing anybody,” said Senter.
Senter barely had time for introductions when his regiment was ordered to relieve the Second Battalion positioned at the front lines.
Upon reaching the front, Senter started to approach an elaborate foxhole when an inquisitive GI popped his head out from hiding.
“This guy says, ‘What’s going on?’ and I told him he was being relieved,” said Senter. “He cried. He cried because he was being relieved and so happy to be alive.”
As he watched the soldier hurriedly grab his gear and begin walking toward the rear lines, Senter began to feel a trace of concern growing inside.
“I said to myself, ‘my God, what I have I gotten myself into?’” said Senter.
He would learn the horrible answer to that question soon enough.
(Robert Senter’s story continues next week.)