Victor Graham was 15 when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on U.S. Naval forces in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. He said he and his father were at a bowling alley in his hometown of Cincinnati when the announcement came over the loudspeaker.
Graham, a World War II veteran and resident of Greenwood Place assisted living in Marietta, said that was the day he decided he’d serve in the Army. From that day forward, he said his free time was no longer spent playing the drums in big bands in the city. Instead, he said he spent his time volunteering with the Army until he could officially join.
“I couldn’t join the military until I was old enough,” said Graham, who turns 93 on June 27. “I couldn’t wait until I was 17.”
After enlisting, he was assigned to the 119th Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division, an assignment that would earn him five battle stars from experiences in Normandy, Northern France, the Battle of the Bulge, the Rhineland and Central Europe.
Graham was soon to be 18 when, as an acting sergeant, he led a squad of six men onto Omaha Beach only days after the initial landings across the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Graham’s landing was a part of multiple missions to connect the beaches captured on D-Day.
“It was a very confusing day. I don’t remember how much I used my weapon. I was supposed to be in charge of nine men, but I didn’t have nine,” Graham said. “All we were thinking about was how long were we going to be able to last.”
Graham said he and his unit trudged up the beach toward the hills in front of them, feet sinking in the sand as the remaining German soldiers shot at the U.S. forces from defensive positions above. He remembered hating and being thankful for the sand, which absorbed the incoming bullets.
Graham said he and his unit fired at the German soldiers from the beach for hours, but couldn’t tell if they hit anyone.
“I probably fired too many rounds, but the best thing you could do was keep covering fire, because you didn’t want your men to get hurt,” Graham said.
When they finally made their way up the hill after about four hours on the beach, Graham and his squad moved to clear the pillboxes at the top.
“We got to the pillboxes and would you believe it, the back doors on the pillboxes were not locked. We could walk right in, and we did,” Graham said. “We threw in grenades and everything we could think of. I don’t remember how many we killed in there.”
After clearing the pillboxes, Graham said things settled down, and he and his men waited to relax until they received an “all-clear” from a lieutenant. At least 18 men from Graham’s platoon had been killed, but all six of his squad survived the initial mission.
Graham and his unit were also tasked with moving inland and clearing out the nearby towns and farmlands as they moved toward Belgium, where the Germans had begun retreating.
“Our main responsibility was getting rid of what Germans were left,” he said.
It wasn’t until August 1944 that Graham and his unit made it to Belgium and continued clearing territory to Germany. Late that same month, Graham and his men arrived at the border to Germany and, as part of six weeks of fierce fighting in Aachen, Germany, worked to establish a hold on the city. It was during this operation that Graham, now a platoon sergeant, earned the first of two Purple Hearts while attempting to secure a home where he would establish a command post.
“I was going down the basement steps, and as I went down the steps, a German soldier came up the steps and I didn’t see him too well, but he got me and cut this leg all the way up to here,” Graham said, pointing to his groin. He added that the soldier who cut him “didn’t make it too far,” as one of Graham’s men killed him when he left the house.
Graham said the soldier had cut him with a bayonet from his knee nearly to his hip, an injury that required 100 stitches and sent him to two hospitals in England to recover. Graham thought he was headed home, but after only six weeks of recuperation, he was back with his unit.
A few days later, in early December, they received orders to head to Belgium and prepare for the Battle of the Bulge.
Graham recalled huddling in foxholes with and rubbing the feet of the other men from his unit, still dressed in summer uniforms from the Normandy invasions, to keep warm during the battle. He remembered with horror seeing hundreds of dead GIs stacked in piles during that same battle. And he said when he received shrapnel to his head in the final weeks of fighting — for which he received his second Purple Heart — it was one of his men who told him it was there. Graham’s service led him nearly to Berlin before he said he was unhappy to hear he would be ordered no further.
As incredible as Graham’s account is, it’s not terribly uncommon for a veteran of the European Theatre in WWII, said Keith Huxen, senior director of research and history at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Huxen said many servicemen were sent into several locations in Europe and often experienced multiple intense battles or campaigns in a relatively short time.
“It’s not uncommon for some of these guys to just keep fighting through this war — this was their job,” he said. “The plan in WWII was, ‘We’re going to go to Berlin. You’ve got the Americans and the British and the allies coming in from the West and the Soviets coming in from the East, and we’re going to meet over Hitler’s corpse in Berlin.’ And that’s a lot of fighting.”
Huxen said he believes veterans of the WWII era are extraordinary and are deserving of special recognition because of the level of sacrifice and the horrors experienced by people like Graham. He said there is no question that WWII veterans are heroes.
“I understand their humbleness, because the survivors are always thinking about the guys who didn’t make it,” Huxen said. “But I do think, particularly given what was at stake in WWII ... however humble they might be, I do think that it’s legitimate to refer to WWII veterans — all of them — as heroes.”
After Graham’s service, he graduated from Xavier University in Ohio, and his work in the packaging industry carried him around the country, which included stays in Marietta from 1984–1993 and 1996–99.
Eventually, he and his wife, Betty, who he met during her service as a nurse in WWII, retired to Florida. But after she died in 2017 after 69 years of marriage, he returned to Marietta to live closer to family.
Today, on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasions and at the age of 92, Victor Graham will return to American cemeteries in Normandy with musicians from Hillgrove High School’s band and orchestra, who are scheduled to play in D-Day ceremonies across France. He says he is unsure how he’ll feel when he arrives.
“I’m totally unprepared for what we’re going to find,” he said.
Patrick Erwin, head band director at Hillgrove High School, said it “means the world” to be able to bring Victor Graham with the students on the trip. It will be a moving tribute to a local man who gave more than most others for his country, Erwin said.
He said the trip will be a chance to celebrate Victor Graham for the hero he is.
“To bring a war veteran and a hero along with us is the cherry on top of what was already an amazing trip,” Erwin said.
But true to form, Victor Graham, a Silver Star recipient, maintains that he is not a hero, no matter how many he talks to who consider him one. Whenever anyone calls him a hero, Victor Graham says he politely tells them, “I was doing my job. That’s all.”