There are three dates embedded in our national consciousness: Dec. 7, 1941, Sept. 1, 2011 and June 6, 1944 — the day of the invasion of Normandy by Allied forces seeking a foothold on the European continent in order to conquer Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Today is the 70th anniversary of that colossal event, the largest seaborne invasion in history. Twenty-two American divisions took part out of a total of 39. British, Canadian, Polish and French made up the rest. There were 12,000 casualties that first day, with 4,4l4 confirmed killed. The beaches were Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Among those landing on Omaha Beach that morning, around 8 a.m., between the first wave and the second was Staff Sgt. Walter Ehlers of Manhattan, Kansas, and his squad of 12 green troopers. On another ship, his brother Roland awaited his turn to hit the beach. “We landed out there in the water,” Ehlers told me, “and waded into shore amongst all the guys on the beach. We went around and up and through them and got up to the last rolls of barbed wire. We had to have it blown... The first wave suffered fifty percent casualties... they don’t talk about it but they put us on the assault boats because they wanted more people on the beach immediately... If you’ve ever seen the opening of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” well, the scene you saw there in real life was about 60 times worse than the scene in the movie.
“Some companies were completely wiped out. When we headed in, we hit a sandbar before we got to the beach part ... and we go out into water that’s over the heads of the short guys. It went over the head of my second in command, I forget his name, but I had to drag him along. I got him so his feet touched the sand, and he could get his head above water, and we waded in.
“There were guys laying on the beach. Bodies, guys hanging onto beach obstacles, and there were bullets coming around overhead. And the guys wanted to dig in on the beach, and they were trying to dig in, and I said, ‘Come on, you got to go! We can’t stop here. We got to keep going.’ I always led my squad. I always had them follow me. Of course, I had all new men. They didn’t know anything about fighting in combat.” Going up the beach, not one of them suffered so much as a scratch.
Two hours later, Walter’s brother, Roland, did not survive the landing. “His whole squad was caught when the ramp went down,” Ehlers said. “They all got wounded or killed.”
Eight miles inland, three days later, on June 9 and 10, fighting in the hedgerows near Goville, Sgt. Ehlers performed the actions that led to his being awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. Months later, fighting in Germany, he was awarded the Silver Star. He also received three bronze stars and three Purple Hearts. He was a one-man wrecking crew.
I interviewed Ehlers in January 2002 for “Beyond Glory — Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words.” Published in 2003 by W.W. Norton. One of 23 Medal recipients from World War II, Korea and Vietnam featured in the book, Walter Ehlers was a delightful man. He died only last Feb. 20 at age 92.
In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the invasion, he went to France and gave the main address at Omaha Beach. “There was a microphone out here in the middle of this field, and of course I had a general escorting me.”
Walter and his daughter wrote his speech, reproduced at length at the end of his chapter in “Beyond Glory.” Here are a few excerpts:
“The world changed on June 6, 1944, the day the good guys took charge again. It did not mean peace, but it marked the stand for freedom that would continue through the Korean War. The Vietnam conflict, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Allied containment of Iraq... We fought to preserve what our forefathers had died for. We picked up our guns to protect our faith, to preserve our liberty. Our purpose went well beyond aiding our allies as they faced the German blitz. It was to save our way of life, for our parents and siblings at home, for our children, and the children we hoped to have, and for their children.
“We must not forget, however, what this freedom cost. We earned that security with our sweat and our blood, some of us with our lives. Much of it was earned right here in Normandy. Many of those who enjoy freedom know little of its price... This anniversary must be not only a remembrance, but a new beginning. Many of us still live with D-Day but never talk about it... I pray that the price we paid on this beach will never be mortgaged, that my grandsons and granddaughters will never face the terror and horror that we faced here. But they must know that without freedom, there is no life, and that the things most worth living for sometimes may demand dying for.
“Today, 50 years later, the beaches are quiet. We come back to mourn our losses, and to celebrate our success. Our presence here commemorates our and our comrades’ lives, and it validates the sacrifices we all made on D-Day.
“That wave (from Roland) in Southampton, England, was the last time I saw my brother. He died here, on Omaha Beach. That we can be here today proves that it was not in vain.”
On a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach stands a sea of white crosses. Nine thousand three hundred and eighty seven Americans lie there.
Larry Smith’s “Beyond Glory — Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words;” “The Few and the Proud — Marine Corps Drill Instructors in Their Own Words;” and “Iwo Jima — World War II Veterans Remember the Greatest Battle of the Pacific,” are all available in paperback from W.W. Norton. Smith and his wife Dorothea have been coming to Block Island since 1972. They live on Corn Neck Road.