On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end on June 6, the Allies gained a foothold in Normandy. The D-Day cost was high—more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded — but more than 100,000 soldiers began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler.
One of those soldiers was Kenneth “Pete” Blankenship.
Pete Blankenship was born July 1, 1919, in Lafayette, TN. His parents were Verlin and Ruth Blankenship, and he had a younger brother—Paul, who sat down with this Times reporter to tell his brother’s story.
Pete enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. He went through basic training at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and very soon thereafter, ended up on the beach of Normandy, France. It was D-Day, a day that would go down in wartime history.
He was one of the 100,000 soldiers who survived the first storming and began to work their way across the continent. He fought in many major skirmishes and battles in countries such as Belgium and France. He was a Combat Engineer. This meant that he was doing things like clearing mine fields, and building pontoon bridges to make way for the Allied Forces’ progressing armies.
One day, though, Pete was captured near Bastogne.
It happened during the Battle of the Bulge. When Pete’s commanding officer saw the enemy they were up against, the ordered his men to scatter, every man for himself.
Pete was one of three friends who ran across a field to get under cover. Pete was the only one of the three who survived. He spent the night in the woods, but was captured the next day.
His mother received the following letter:
“Dear Mrs. Blankenship:
“This letter is to confirm my recent telegram in which you were regretfully informed that your son, Private Kenneth T. Blankenship, 34,500,817, Corps of Engineers, has been reported missing in action since 22 December 1944 in Luxembourg.
“I know that added distress is caused by failure to receive more information or details. Therefore, I wish to assure you that at any time additional information is received it will be transmitted to you without delay, and, if in the meantime no additional information is received, I will again communicate with you at the expiration of three months.
“The term “missing in action” is used only to indicate that the whereabouts or status of an individual is not immediately known. It is not intended to convey the impression that the case is closed. I wish to emphasize that every effort is exerted continuously to clean up the status of our personnel. Under war conditions this is a difficult task as you must readily realize. Experience has shown that many persons reported missing in action are subsequently reported as prisoners of war, but as this information if furnished by countries with which we are at war, the War Department is helpless to expedite such reports.
“The personal effects of an individual missing overseas are held by his unit for a period of time and are then sent to the Effects Quartermaster, Kansas City, Missouri, for disposition as designated by the soldier.
“Permit me to extend to you my heartfelt sympathy during this period of uncertainty.
The Adjutant General”
Pete, who had been reuinted with other members of his unit who were also POW, were marched across Germany to a POW camp in Poland. Pete would later recall that anytime a wounded man had to drop out of line, unable to go further, a German guard would drop behind with him. The guard would always return, and the POW would not. He witnessed many awful acts committed by the Germans, at death camps along the route to Poland.
In the POW camp, Pete was set to work producing food for the German army’s use. He was able to survive by sneaking extra milk and other food, over and above the grass or potato soup they were given.
He was eventually freed by the advancing Russian army, who Americans later learned were responsible for cruelties of their own.
Returning to the states, he was mantled with nearly every honor that can be conferred on an American soldier, including the the Purple Heart and the Silver Star.
A returned hero, Pete then came home to Macon County. He went back to the old family farm, where he raised crops like soybeans and corn until his death of a heart attack on July 26, 1984.