- Of the 16m U.S. men who served in World War Two, only 1.7m are still alive
- Ehlers was one of only 3,454 to receive the highest U.S. military decoration
Sixty-seven years ago, American soldier Walter Ehlers landed on a Normandy beach in France, leading a squad of 12 men on D-Day who had no battle experience and had spent their Army tours entertaining the troops.
Ehlers’s squad scrambled up the beach under heavy fire, and all his men survived that historic turning point of June 6, 1944.
Over 9,000 Allied soldiers died or were wounded. Ehlers’s own brother, Roland, was among those killed on another part of the French coastline.
D-Day veteran Walter Ehlers is shown sitting in a cannon bunker overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, France in 1994 – 50 years after the D-Day landings
Ehlers’s medal of honour, awarded for his actions during World War II, is shown in his home in Buena Park, California (left). And a portrait of his mother (right) was damaged in his pack when he was shot
‘We had a lot of troops that landed and a lot of them paid the supreme sacrifice,’ Ehlers, 90, said, as he sat in his home in Buena Park, California.
Today marks the anniversary of the pivotal World War Two invasion when 160,000 Allied soldiers, mostly from the Britain, United States and Canada, landed in Normandy to begin the drive to break the German occupation of Europe.
Of the 16 million U.S. soldiers who served in World War Two, only 1.7 million are still alive, leaving an ageing population to tell their stories from D-Day and other campaigns.
‘We got on the beach and they have all these people laying down on the beach that were killed, it was chaos,’ said Ehlers, who at the time had already fought in North Africa and Italy.
The Germans were firing down on American soldiers from trenches veiled by tall grass, and from several ‘pillbox’ bunkers made of concrete. Mines littered the ground.
The 23-year-old Ehlers, a Kansas native who did not touch alcohol or cigarettes, was the sergeant for a free-spirited squad with plenty of experience playing music, but none shooting at the enemy.
One was a banjo player, another was a violist and another played the ukulele, Ehlers said, and they all wanted to dig in at the shore instead of advancing up the beach.
But Ehlers said that was a sure-fire way to die, so they followed him up a path where, on either side, were the bodies of soldiers blown apart by mines.
Ehlers and his men eventually got into the trenches with the Germans, where they captured four enemy soldiers and killed or scared off several others.
Then, Ehlers and his squad attacked a pillbox and captured it from behind using only rifles.
‘You didn’t dare run up in front of them because they’d mow you down,’ he said.
Ehlers had more battles ahead. He received the Medal of Honour for attacks he led on German positions a few days after the landing, making him one of only 3,454 recipients of the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government.
A view of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France in 1994 is shown in this copied scrapbook photo of D-Day veteran Walter Ehlers
For Harold Baumgarten, a 19 year-old Army private from New York, the invasion started badly and quickly got worse.
Baumgarten had avoided seasickness on the boat trip across the English Channel at the start of the battle because he only had some Cadbury chocolate instead of the big breakfasts other soldiers devoured, he recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
But soon seasickness was the least of his worries. A German machine gunner shot down most of the men exiting Baumgarten’s boat. There were 30 soldiers in the craft, and only two of them — including Baumgarten — survived.
Once on the sand, a shell exploded nearby and ripped off Baumgarten’s cheek and left a hole in the roof of his mouth.
After being bandaged, he was rescuing another soldier when more shrapnel hit him in the head.
That night, Baumgarten was advancing along a road with some other soldiers when they came under fire from a German machine gunner, and he was hit in the jaw. At that point, he gave himself a pain-numbing shot of morphine.
‘I took a morphine sleep,’ Baumgarten said. ‘I thought we lost the war, because after all I’m laying with six dead guys around me.’
Baumgarten believes that during that night, some German soldiers searched for cigarettes on the bodies of his dead comrades. Baumgarten, who is Jewish, had drawn a Star of David on the back of his field jacket, as an act of defiance against Nazi Germany’s brutality against European Jews.
He said he believes the Germans would have killed him, but they did not see his blood-stained Star of David.
‘I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Don’t worry Yankee boy, you’re going to be OK,” Baumgarten said.
As it turns out, an Allied ambulance did come by and pick up Baumgarten. But the next day, as he lay on a stretcher on the beach, a German sniper’s bullet hit him in the knee before he was transported back to England.
Over the years, Baumgarten underwent 23 operations to heal the wounds he suffered in Normandy. Baumgarten himself became a doctor, and practised for 40 years.
He also shared his story with historian Stephen Ambrose, whose work helped inspire Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ about D-Day and the Normandy campaign. Baumgarten has since met the director.
The 86-year-old Baumgarten had another anniversary to mark aside from D-Day. On Saturday, he and his wife, Rita, celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.
Baumgarten and Ehlers, who also was wounded several times during World War II, have given countless talks to schools to describe their experiences.
‘A lot of kids have not the least idea of what America went through, in other words the tremendous effort that America put into this war,’ Ehlers said.
‘Even I was amazed at what our country did during that time,’ he said