His body has aged, he now walks with a cane, but he can recall every date and detail of the three years he served as an Army Ranger during World War II.
And at 96, even with just one eye, Johnnie Major Hill doesn’t sit idle. He still maintains his driver’s license, cuts grass and even constructs wooden porch swings, or gliders as he calls them, as a hobby on his Lebanon property.
Hill resides in the one-story brick home he built for his family in the 1960s. It’s the small, Berkeley County town where he was raised and his father owned and farmed more than 100 acres of tobacco, corn, cotton and soybeans. Hill’s grandfather gave a piece of the land, a larger chunk of total acreage then, to Hill’s father and his father’s brothers in 1900.
“Farming is in our blood,” Hill said.
For 35 years the Army veteran also managed a feed mill and store on Highway 176; it later changed ownership and closed.
The area is the same rustic Lowcountry retreat where Hill returned in 1945—a man changed by the ravages of war. Not only did Hill serve in the military but he engaged in the war’s most epic battle: D-Day.
Hill said he was drafted into the service at age 20. His birthday was April 3 and the Army came calling for him six months later. At the time it was the youngest age a man could be forced into the military, Hill said.
The date was October 1942.
Hill was soon shipped off to basic training for 10 months at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. But the monotonous routine bored him at just the right time when the Army was looking for volunteers for special ops. That was the fork in the road where Hill said he made the conscious choice to tackle more challenging military assignments.
“I was one of the first ones to join,” he said of the fifth ranger battalion.
The date was September 1943.
The special unit activated in Tennessee, where Hill trained for about five months before transitioning to Ft. Pierce, Florida for what he called “amphibious,” or water training.
The date was January 1944.
“They take a seven-man rubber boat and take you out in the ocean at night, and you’d have to slip back to the coast...without (the Coast Guard) catching you,” Hill said.
Not long after, the battalion shipped out to New Jersey to outfit themselves with new equipment before heading across the Atlantic for additional prep work in Liverpool, England and Scotland. While many men couldn’t make the Rangers cut, Hill prevailed.
“We got some of the toughest training you can get,” he said. “If there was anything you couldn’t do or wouldn’t do, you weren’t a Ranger any more. (There were) times it got tight. ...I’ve seen (men) come and go.”
Six months later, Hill and his unit reached Omaha Beach, France. It was D-Day. And Hill watched as many of his closest friends fell to gunfire and other terrors of war. He also described the trip from vessel to land.
“We was on this boat in the English Channel a couple days, and this boat had landing crafts on each side...and we had to climb a net down to get in the landing craft,” Hill said, “and then we got lined up and that’s when we headed for Omaha Beach. British put us on the beach—British boats.”
Upon exiting the boats, Hill and his fellow service men stood chest-deep in the waterway—each man strapped with the weight of all his weapons.
“You had everything you had with you. You had your rifle and all your equipment—everything,” he said.
The battalion was also forced to utilize torpedoes known as bangalores to move past a wall, topped with barbed wire, along the shore.
The weapons were round, black tubes filled with TNT that the men could hook together and detonate along the wall, breaking it wide open.
“Naturally, we had other fellows come in behind us and...artillery was flying, machine guns and mortar, and everything was hitting the beach,” Hill said. “I guess I was fortunate enough to not get hit.”
The date was June 6, 1944. It was a day forever marking history books—and forever marking Hill’s life.
“You roll your buddy over and his brains is in his helmet,” he said.
One Ranger friend from Florida particularly stood out in Hill’s mind.
He recalled the moment the shrapnel cut the man’s throat and proved fatal.
“The medic was trying to stop, but he still bled to death and you’re looking at him,” Hill said. “(When) you’re fighting a war you get people that’d be in the front lines for so long, and then they’d have to pull us back to get replacements. The ones that got wounded and the ones that got killed — you know we’d have to replace them before we went back to the front lines.”
Hill was part of the Allied Forces’ invasion of France’s northern end, fighting the Nazi regime and those aiding the enemy. And even hours after Hill’s unit moved onto French soil on D-Day, the conflict surged on.
“People were still landing on the beaches on each side and behind us, but that’s how far we got that day and...dug in for the night,” Hill said.
In the days, weeks and months after the invasion, his battalion continued fighting and working its way right on through to Belgium, Luxemburg and surrounding European countries.
But Hill was in Munich, Germany when he heard the news the war had ended.
“Everybody was rejoicing and happy,” he said.
It was a celebration that Hill said relieved his battalion from a possible mission in Japan.
“Before (President) Truman dropped that atomic bomb...(there was talk) that we might have to get ready to ship us to Japan before we got back to America,” he said.
But three years to the exact date he entered the war, Hill received his discharge papers—ones taped together and folded neatly inside a weathered paperback booklet he still keeps close by, considering it more significant to him than many other belongings. The booklet contains facts and details about every single battle involving Hill’s battalion.
As he flipped through the book’s browned pages again last month, 74 years and 16 days after D-Day, Hill leaned back in his armchair, still at a loss for words and uncertain how to fully explain his past.
“I could talk all day, but if you ain’t never been there,” Hill said—his voice trailing off. “When you’re fighting a war you can’t explain what you have to go through—snow a foot deep on the ground. All the heat you’ve got is in the clothes you’ve got on, and you don’t know if a mortar is going to hit you, or artillery is going to hit you.”
While Hill was never wounded so severely that he had to leave the battalion, he did suffer injuries that led to his receiving the Purple Heart. In March 1945 a land mine exploded near him, embedding shrapnel in his leg and hip, he said.
His war accolades also include the Bronze Star and two presidential citations Hill said were given to his battalion. Even after the horrors he encountered in conflict and the many comrades he lost, Hill still recommends military service for those considering it today.
“You’ve got to protect your country,” he said.