The U.S. Navy attack troop transport I served on in 1962 carried a dozen small craft we called “papa boats” or “Higgins boats.” The 36-foot long craft, made mostly of plywood, developed by Andrew Higgins, was officially known as an LCVP, (landing craft, vehicle, personnel). The “P” was phonetically “papa.” It could carry 36 combat-ready troops or one jeep with a trailer.
I’ve ridden those boats to the beach and waded through the surf after the bow ramp was dropped.
But serving in a peacetime navy, I wondered what kind of man rode this same boat to an enemy-held shore during wartime and fought his way onto the beach and further inland against machine guns, mortars and other artillery.
Willis Feltes of Atascadero is one of those kinds of men. The 93-year-old Army veteran was a private first class on June 6, 1944, when his infantry regiment landed at Normandy, on Omaha Beach.
Feltes was, of course, a part of the largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation we now call D-Day, which began the invasion to liberate France, push the Germans back to their homeland and eventually bring about the end of World War II.
The Germans had placed many obstacles in the path of the landing craft, so soldiers had to debark farther out in water up to their necks, exposing them to even more enemy fire. Feltes’ company suffered grievous losses as the men came ashore.
Private Feltes was among those who made it to the top of a bluff overlooking the beach behind him. As the men of H Company, 29th Division, 116th Infantry Regiment, moved inland, Feltes was wounded in the town of St. Lo (in France) but was able to return to his company and join them in the drive all the way to Aachen, Germany.
He will be honored this Saturday in the annual Colony Days parade. This year’s parade theme is “Our American Heroes” and this quiet man, who said he was riding in the parade to honor those who didn’t come home, will be driven in a World War II jeep by another local veteran, this one of the Korean Conflict, Barry Lewis.
Feltes will be wearing the Combat Infantry Badge, the Purple Heart and the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in action.
The Colony Days parade kicks off at 10 a.m. with a flyover from the Estrella Warbirds Museum. Following the parade, the Sunken Gardens will be filled with food, game and information booths, and you can visit the historical recreation of Tent City, which will remain open until 3 p.m.