D-Day veterans recall World War Two turning point
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sixty-seven years ago, Walter Ehlers landed on a Normandy, France, beach leading a squad of 12 men on D-Day who had no battle experience and had spent their Army tours entertaining the troops.
Ehlers’ 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’ own brother, Roland, was among those killed on another part of the French coastline.
“We had a lot of troops that landed and a lot of them paid the supreme sacrifice,” Ehlers, 90, told Reuters, as he sat in his home in Buena Park, California.
Monday marks the anniversary of the pivotal World War Two invasion when 160,000 Allied soldiers, mostly from the United States, Britain 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 II, only 1.7 million are still alive, leaving an aging 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 liquor 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, man,” he said.
Ehlers had more battles ahead. He received the Medal of Honor 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.