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In 2003, a year before the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Bill Forstchen accompanied World War II veteran Andy Andrews and three local Eagle Scouts to Omaha Beach to report a story for Boys’ Life magazine.

On the day of Andrew’s 80th birthday, they stood on the spot where the 20-year private had made his way to the beach despite withering machine gun fire from German pillboxes on the cliffs above.

If you’ve seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan” and the carnage the machine gunners inflicted, you’ve witnessed some of what Andrews and thousands of other American troops experienced trying to get from their landing craft to the beach and up the hills where the gunners were. Standing on that ground again with Andrews, the place where so many of his friends and comrades died, was a disquieting, emotional experience, Forstchen said.

“I’m going to start crying when I tell you this,” he said, doing just that. Seconds later, the author and Montreat professor continued. “He said, ‘Bill, I didn’t expect to live another 10 minutes. But I kept praying to Jesus, just let me get off this beach. And now, 60 years later, I’m standing here again. Jesus gave me 60 years that I never thought I would have.’”

Andy Andrews died April 22 in his home at Givens Highland Farms. A machine gunner in the 16th Infantry of the 1st Division (known as The Big Red One), he often spoke of his experience on Omaha Beach and combat throughout Europe to many groups in the Swannanoa Valley and elsewhere.

Andrews had a varied vocational history. Mayor of Montreat twice, a town council member for 20 years, he was the president of the Asheville Area Tourism Association, the Western Carolina Chamber Executives and the Black Mountain Rotary Club. He served as chairman of the WNC Foster Grandparent Program and the Land of the Sky Regional Council. He served on the Montreat College Board of Trustees for more than 15 years. Conference director of the Montreat Conference Center, he was also a staff member of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland.

And he never thought he would live to see the day.

The life span of a machine gunner during battle during World War II was seven minutes, Maury Hurt said Andrews told him on a trip through World War II battlefields a decade ago. Enemies tried to take out the gunner before the gunner killed their troops. Often, setting up quickly in combat, there was little place to hide.

Andrews killed many German soldiers, he told Hurt and other people accompanying Andrews on that European trip. Andrews was good at his job, but he wasn’t insensitive to the lives he was taking.

“I saw him kneel in front of a group of graves of German soldiers killed during the war ... I saw him weep,” Hurt said, weeping himself as he remembered, “and say how sorry he was he had had to kill all those men. He said he was sorry, to their wives, to their families, to their children.”

Gathering himself, Hurt said “that’s the kind of man he was. He hated that he’d had to do it, but he did it. He was a true American hero who never described himself as such. The guy had so much love, so much energy that we all expected him to make it to 100 because we couldn’t imagine him being gone.”

Andrews was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on July 27, 1923, the fourth of six children of Ernest “Andy” and Margaret Andrews. He was preceded in death by his wife Hellon and his brothers, Karl, Don, and Bill, according to an obituary sent by Harwood Home for Funerals.

In 1930, Andrews’ family moved to Signal Mountain, Tennessee, where Andrews lived until he graduated from Central High School and was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He was assigned the position of squad leader of a 30-caliber heavy machine gun.

It was an assignment he kept throughout World War II, from Omaha Beach in Normandy through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and into Czechoslovakia at the war’s end.

Between June 6, 1944 to May 9, 1945, he experienced combat in 26 ground battles, including the Battle of the Bulge. Once shot in the face but merely nicked, he received four Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts.

Forstchen went to Europe twice with Andrews.

“On that second trip,” Forstchen said, “Andy described his last weeks of the war in Germany when they came under machine gun fire and he was ordered to take out the machine gun. So he crept around the flank, got close enough to throw a grenade. And when he was about to throw it, the machine gun went silent and he thought he heard children crying.

“He put the pin back in the grenade and crawled up to the machine gun pit. And there were three little boys inside. They been brought there by a commanding officer, who’d fled. The boys were looking up at Andy, terrified.

“What he did next - these boys had been trying to kill him 30 seconds earlier - he had a stick of gum in his pocket and tore it in three pieces and gave it to the boys. Seconds later the boys were in his arms, sobbing. He and the men in his unit carried them back to their village to their parents.”

After the war, Andrews attended the University of Chattanooga, King College in Bristol, Tennessee and the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, where he graduated in 1949.

Following graduation, he had a 35-year career as a layman serving in the Presbyterian Church, US and ultimately, the PCAUSA. He was a member of Christ Community Church in Montreat, where he served as a deacon and an elder, and in his later years, as the official greeter for the Montreat Morning School, one of his favorite jobs.

During the last 30 years, he has spoken to countless groups, including civic clubs, home schools, middle schools, high schools, and college and university classes.

When he died, he was writing a book of war memoirs titled, “Seven Minutes to Live.”

Memorial service

A public service for Andy Andrews will be at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at Anderson

Auditorium in Montreat. A private burial will be at the Western Carolina State

Veteran’s Cemetery in Black Mountain.

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