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Thursday, June 6, 2013

D-Day


June 6... to some merely a date on a calendar.

To others the significance of this day is undeniable. Particularly if your parents were part of America's Greatest Generation.

My Dad and his 3 brothers all served in the Second World War.

All 4 saw combat; 2 solely in Europe, 1 in the Pacific, and 1 who served in the Navy, both Europe and the Pacific. All 4 boys returned home. That in and of itself a miracle.

Dad was a tank commander. Sixty-nine years ago today, he was in a staging area in the Southeast of England awaiting the LST's (Landing Ship, Tank) to return from their first trip across the English Channel. All he knew was the Third Armored division of the First Army was to take part of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Hitlers Fortress Europe.

His all expense paid tour of France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium began on June 7, 1944. His trip ended in a snow-choked field in Belgium on December 23rd, 1944 when a landmine shattered his faithful tank, killing all but him.

His Sherman was the first tank off their LST. When he drove down the ramp, the waters of the Channel covered his periscope. He was fearful the ship had turned the wrong way and was discharging the column into the sea. He thought they were sinking. Suddenly, he felt the tracks grind upon French soil at the edge of the beach. The water receded from the periscope.

He then had a view of Hell on Earth.
Omaha Beach on D-day plus 1 was yet a hotly contested invasion site. Shrapnel from German artillery and mortar fire sounded like gravel thrown against the sides of his tank. The view through the periscope was one of horror; explosions, men being obliterated by cannon fire, others being cut down by machine-gun and rifle fire. To his horror, haunting him until his death; he saw there was no clear path to maneuver without driving over smashed equipment, vehicles, dead and dying soldiers. It could not be avoided. A stationary tank is referred to as “a target”. They had to keep advancing.

He didn't talk much about that day. Just a couple of things he would recount.

One highlight was seeing an American P-38 Lightning and a British Spitfire make a low-level strafing run on a German artillery installation.

Also, he would tell of his tank crew capturing a German Colonel and his staff the night of the 8th of June. By now having advanced in-land, that evening they rumbled to within sight of a French farm-house.

Leaving their tank in the cover of some trees, Dad and two of his crewmen crept toward the house. From within they could hear guttural voices. Dad's crew-mate and life long friend George Krueger*, knew German. He understood what was being said. Stealthily, the three Americans crept toward the door of the house.
Dad had been issued a standard steel helmet and liner, along with his tanker's helmet. The tanker's helmet was similar to a 1940's era leather football helmet, and primarily served the purpose of holding the headphones in place.
Somehow, Dad had lost the liner to his steel helmet. All steel helmets were the same size. How they would fit individual men was by means of the liner. The liner was made of reinforced plastic, with a web-suspension inside. This was adjusted to fit the wearer. The steel helmet slid onto the liner.

Without the liner, the helmet fit about as well as putting a Dutch oven on one's head, with about the same visual effect.

Dad placed his helmet upon his head, eliciting many giggles from his crewmen. The bright Lieutenant's bar gleamed in the darkness. Not trusting any action to just his Colt sidearm, he also took his modified Thompson sub-machine gun. It was modified by having the shoulder stock removed, which made it much easier to pass through the hatch of a tank..

Quietly, the trio advanced, carbines and sub-machine guns at the ready. Suddenly, they kicked open the door, firearms leveled at a very surprised German Colonel and his staff. One foolishly went for his side arm, a burst of gunfire persuaded the remaining Germans to raise their hands.

Now, Dad was not a big man, about 5'8”, a bit stockier than average build. When talking with his crewmen, turning his head, the steel helmet stayed in one place! It was so large, his head would turn within the helmet, while the Lieutenant's bar remained stationary, fixed upon the now German prisoners.

This in turn caused the Germans to smile. This irritated Dad a bit.

He kept turning his head in order to ask George what they were saying. George tried to explain the prisoners thought he looked comical with the too-large helmet.

The more he turned his head between George and the Germans; the funnier it became.

The smiles began to become snickers, then chuckles. Before long, there were 5 German officers, leaning against a wall, laughing in near hysterics. Nothing in Officers Candidate School covered how to handle prisoners laughing in hysterics.

Finally, in an attempt to restore order, Dad set his Thompson down, and drew his knife from the sheath. Advancing toward the Colonel, he reached forward with the sharpened blade. In a flash, he cut one of the red and silver braided shoulder boards from the man's uniform.

Turning to George, Dad told him to ask the stunned man, "Who is laughing now?”

Order now restored, the three American tankers marched the prisoners from the farm-house. There was a group of U.S. Infantry about ½ a mile away. Dad turned his charges over to an American Major.

Dad and his men returned to their tank, the Lord only knowing what lay ahead for them.

That long-gone officer's shoulder board is tucked away in a manila envelope, stashed in my dresser somewhere.

I think I will dig it out tonight.

And... I will say a very heart-felt “Thank you”, not to Dad alone, but to all the English, Canadians, and Americans, who gave of themselves upon the beaches of Normandy.



*George Krueger was wounded while fighting in the Benelux campaign. He returned Stateside before Dad, a new man taking his place in the crew. They remained friends until George preceded Dad in death. Now, they are reunited, brothers in arms, eternally.

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