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My local news just broadcast the story I did not want to hear.

The last surviving Medal of Honor recipient in New York State and New England has passed at the age of 94. And I had the honor of calling him my friend and introducing him to some of the Holocaust survivors that he and the 30th Infantry Division helped to save in April 1945.

Francis Sherman Currey was humble; he was, as the time of our association from 2008 on, the vice president of the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II. He and Frank Towers, the president, helped to organize and come to our high school in upstate New York for our 2009 gathering of American soldier liberators and the Holocaust survivors they help rescue in 1945. Frank and the others signed autographs for the kids and were treated like rock stars. And in every sense of the word, they were more important than rock stars to these kids.

Frank told me he met Eisenhower, Bradley and Truman after the war. Ike told him that in his opinion, Franks had single handedly shortened the war by six weeks or more, by stopping that German advance during the Battle of the Bulge [below]. Later, he was an administrator at the Veterans Administration in Albany and played a role in uncovering corruption. He enjoyed supporting other Medal of Honor recipients— at the White House announcement, our new heroes’ lives are going to change on a dime—but also was content in turning down a White House request for an appearance much later in life, especially when the staffer calling him told him he could not refuse the President. Well, he lived life on his own terms. He also played a large role creating the Medal of Honor Museum aboard the USS Yorktown in South Carolina.

Frank Towers, Frank Currey, Matthew Rozell. September 2009.

Later, I met him in the local airport as he and his wife Wilma were flying out of Albany, New York for our reunions down south with the 30th Infantry Division. It was nice to witness the red-carpet treatment afforded him by our federal authorities as he travelled. I cherish the memory of being honored to sit at the head table with him, medal adorned around his neck, and Towers and their wives at these reunions with soldiers and Holocaust survivors. I especially cherish the late-night hospitality room conversations with the two Franks; he even gave me advice, after we were featured on the ABC World News (you can see him in some nice stills with students near the end of the clip), about the ‘perils’ of the limelight. Once in Nashville I think, we were sitting there alone and were approached by a shy teenage boy and his girlfriend, who wanted to shake his hand, aware of the actions that Frank undertook when he himself was the same age. They turned away, awestruck, and Frank watched them go, with appreciation I think, and maybe even a touch of admiration as well, simply commenting, ‘Youth’.

Both those men are gone now. And I’m struck today that we are losing these guys, these national treasures, our World War II veterans, like a tsunami washing over us. Francis S. Currey was a giant among giants, yet still a simple boy who had had the opportunity to go into the Army, like so many others, to improve his lot in life. He remained true to his roots.

Rest easy, Frank. I’m following with a post about you to help my readers understand more about who you were, and what you did. MR


Nearly seventy-six years ago, it began. Hitler’s last gamble would claim more American lives than any battle in U.S. History. Frank Currey was there, and on a cold winter day in December, saved five men and killed scores of Germans single handedly. Frank was in the 30th Infantry Division, which liberated the Train Near Magdeburg; he came to our school.

The morning of December 16, 1944. A lonely outpost on the Belgian frontier.

In subzero temperatures, the last German counteroffensive of World War II had begun. Nineteen thousand American lives would be lost in the Battle of the Bulge. “Hell came in like a freight train. I heard an explosion and went back to where my friend was. His legs were blown off-he bled to death in my arms.” The average age of the American “replacement” soldier? 19.

Of the sixteen million American men and women who served in WWII, four and a quarter hundred thousand died on the field of conflict. In 2015, on the downward bell curve slope, nearly 500 veterans of World War II quietly slip away every day. The national memory of the war that did more than any other event in the last century to shape the history of the American nation is dying with them. The Germans threw 250,000 well trained troops and tanks against a lightly defended line on the Ardennes frontier in Belgium and Luxembourg, which created a pocket or “bulge” in the Allied offensive line, the objective being to drive to the port of Antwerp to split the American and British advance and force a separate peace with the Western Allies. What ensued was the bloodiest battle in American history. It saddens me that it comes as a shock to many Americans today that the “Battle of the Bulge” didn’t originate as a weight-loss term.

On a personal note, I have had the privilege of interviewing many of the veterans of this battle. In the high school where I teach, I have been inviting veterans to my classroom to share their experiences with our students. As their numbers dwindled, I smartened up, bought a camera, and began to record their stories. And for the past decade, I have been sending kids out into the field to record the stories of World War II before this generation fades altogether. These men and women have helped to spark students’ interest in finding out more about our nation’s past and the role of the individual in shaping it. In our books we have worked to weave the stories of our community’s sacrifices into the fabric of our national history. And that, to me, is what teaching history should be all about. After all, if we allow ourselves to forget about the teenager who bled to death in his buddy’s arms, if we overlook the sacrifices it took to make this nation strong and proud, we may as well forget everything else. I shudder for this country when I see what we have all forgotten, so soon. But if you are taking the time to read this post I suppose I am preaching to the saved.

I will close with the account of a nineteen year old infantryman who in fact survived the battle and the war, and who I was able to introduce to many Hudson Falls students on more than one occasion. Sixty-nine years ago this December, a day began that would forever change his life.  Frank is now the only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II left in New York State and New England.

In the winter of 1944, nineteen year old Private First Class Currey’s infantry squad was fighting the Germans in the Belgian town of Malmédy to help contain the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge. Before dawn on December 21, Currey’s unit was defending a strong point when a sudden German armored advance overran American antitank guns and caused a general withdrawal. Currey and five other soldiers—the oldest was twenty-one—were cut off and surrounded by several German tanks and a large number of infantrymen. They began a daylong effort to survive.

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

Francis Currey MOH and Ned Rozell March 2010-Ned is friends with the last WWII Medal of Honor recipient in NY and NE, Frances Currey. Yes, the special edition GI Joe he signed for Ned is 19 yr. old Frank!

The six GIs withdrew into an abandoned factory, where they found a bazooka left behind by American troops. Currey knew how to operate one, thanks to his time in Officer Candidate School, but this one had no ammunition. From the window of the factory, he saw that an abandoned half-track across the street contained rockets. Under intense enemy fire, he ran to the half-track, loaded the bazooka, and fired at the nearest tank. By what he would later call a miracle, the rocket hit the exact spot where the turret joined the chassis and disabled the vehicle.

Moving to another position, Currey saw three Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house and shot all of them with his Browning Automatic Rifle. He then picked up the bazooka again and advanced, alone, to within fifty yards of the house. He fired a shot that collapsed one of its walls, scattering the remaining German soldiers inside. From this forward position, he saw five more GIs who had been cut off during the American withdrawal and were now under fire from three nearby German tanks. With antitank grenades he’d collected from the half-track, he forced the crews to abandon the tanks. Next, finding a machine gun whose crew had been killed, he opened fire on the retreating Germans, allowing the five trapped Americans to escape.

Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.

At nightfall, as Currey and his squad, including the two seriously wounded men, tried to find their way back to the American lines, they came across an abandoned Army jeep fitted out with stretcher mounts. They loaded the wounded onto it, and Currey, perched on the jeep’s spare wheel with a Browning automatic rifle in his hand, rode shotgun back to the American lines.

After the war in Europe had officially ended, Major General Leland Hobbs made the presentation on July 27, 1945, at a division parade in France.

source material Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier.

Frank signs autographs at our school.
Frank signs autographs at our school.

A Journey of Humanity.

TEN YEARS AGO today I looked up at a TV screen at a resort restaurant where I was gathered with some very special people—Holocaust survivors, American World War II veterans who became their liberators, family, students and the school staff who helped me pull off one of the most incredible experiences of our lives. The word was that we were going to be featured on national television that Friday night for the closing segment of the ABC World News. And as we gathered for our final banquet, were actually going to get to watch it together.

Earlier in the week, the soldiers and survivors shared their gripping testimony with high schoolers and news reporters. We had planned this three-day event for months—and don’t you think I wasn’t sweating bullets. What if the students are indifferent or inattentive? What if the octogenarian participants, traveling from all over the world, experience health issues, or worse? Who am I to have the audacity to attempt to bring them together for the first time since 1945? Will this event serve to rekindle trauma buried for decades?

All worries evaporated, from the first informal meetings between soldier, survivors, and families, to the formal presentations. Kids listen attentively, cheered their new heroes, formed lines to get autographs, even danced with our guests on a special evening lake cruise. Many tears flowed, but ones of joy and happiness and love in a special reunion across decades.

And just how had a schoolteacher found himself orchestrating a life-changing event that might have reverberations for generations to come?

Eight summers before that 2009 reunion, I sat down with an American World War II veteran, Carrol Walsh, to record his war story for posterity, in my hometown. He was the grandfather of one of my students, and I knew of the family because we shared the same day-care provider. Picking up children one day at the same time, Walsh’s son-in-law suggested I contact Walsh for an interview for my WWII oral history project.

So I did.

We sat down together, and I started questioning and filming. He told me of pitched battles and close calls, ten months of combat and 18-hour days on the move after crossing the Rhine in the spring of 1945.

But he very nearly did not tell me of the incident on Friday, April 13, 1945, when his tank and another reached a mysteriously stopped train near the Elbe River. He had overlooked it—his tank was only on site for an hour—but his daughter reminded him that it was an interesting story, and that he should share it with me.

So he did.

At his suggestion, I reached out to his friend George Gross, the other tank commander who was present that day. Walsh told me that Gross had taken photographs. Dr. Gross was delighted that I had an interest and gave me permission to put them on my school WWII oral history webpage. I did some research and shared those interviews and photos there; in one of them was one of the most spectacular photographs of Holocaust liberation that the world had never seen before. Gross also gave me his recollections of the encounter with the train.

That narrative seemed to just sit there on my obscure little website for four years, with no commentary and few visitors. Then in early 2006, a grandmother in Australia who had been a 7-year-old on the train found my website and got in touch with Gross and Walsh because of it. I cried when she wrote to me and told me what it all meant to her.

And then it really began.

After the fourth survivor contacted me in 2007, I organized the very first reunion at my high school between Walsh and three of the survivors. It was very emotional, and students were the witnesses. The news story that day also went viral; nearly 60 more survivors who had been children on the train contacted me. So did soldier Frank Towers, who would go on to partner with me and an Israeli survivor’s daughter to track down over 250 more train survivors on five continents and organize more reunions.

We had eleven reunions in total. We have since met the soldier-medics who nursed survivors back to health. I’ve visited Bergen-Belsen Memorial, where they have set up an exhibit on this transport, and authentic sites in Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland [with the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program], retracing the steps of the victims, the perpetrators, and the soldiers. I’ve also studied intensively at Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And I spent ten years gathering material and working on my 2016 book, A Train Near Magdeburg.

The banquet room hushed as ABC News anchor came on for the final three-minute segment. I had been after them for months to come the 3.5 hours north from New York City and film this event, but just weeks before the event all communication ceased as they dropped off the radar screen to cover the death of an important statesman. And then, just as the participants began to arrive on Tuesday, they called and said they would be up Thursday to film!

Holocaust Survivors, front row. Soldier-Liberators, back, and me, far right.

Friday night September 25, 2009, we all watched together. In the opening sequence, Frank Towers is walking his wife Mary into the high school, and he says, “Here we are! We have arrived!” And it was the perfect metaphor for the arrival of the liberators on the scene of the train; 64 years before, because tank commanders Carrol Walsh and George Gross did exactly that—they arrived on the scene with their two tanks to save 2500 Jews from probable death, just as the SS was fixing to set up machine guns. The next day, Frank arrived to transport those saved by the Americans out of harm’s way.

*

You can say that my ordinary schoolteacher’s life had taken quite a turn; and now ten years later (eighteen since interviewing Walsh), I have committed almost half of my adult life to telling this story. No one who becomes aware of it goes away untouched. I became a witness to the greatest crime in the history of the world. And that comes with an obligation to educate others, who themselves become the new witnesses.

We are working on a new film, and that is what it will be all about. Mike Edwards the filmmaker came into my life three years ago with an interest, which quickly became a commitment as he shared my vision. It became our vision, and he never has stopped pushing; we have witnessed new miracles together. And to reinforce that this is meant to be, we would like to thank all of our supporters, and announce that we last week received a $50,000 commitment to bring it closer!

I think about all this nearly every day. Most of the soldiers are gone now, as are many of the survivors; Gross died in 2009, Walsh in 2012, and Towers in 2016, but we are driven especially by Walsh’s commentary, as people were hailing him as a hero—a mantle he emphatically rejected:

“I cannot believe today, as I look back on those years and on what was happening, I cannot believe that the world almost ignored those people and what was happening! I cannot believe it! How could we have all stood by and have let that happen? We owe those [victims] a great deal; we owe those people everything—they do not owe us [liberators] anything! We owe them for what we allowed to happen to them! That is how I feel.”

Ariela meets her liberator Carrol “Red” Walsh, Sept. 2009, at our “reunion”.

 

I am in Amsterdam at the moment, a 2-day stop on a short tour of Europe.

Last night I stopped by the Anne Frank House. It was late. My party was viewing it from across the canal. I had to go to the door for myself.

I was moved, deeply, and I had not expected my reaction. I was alone at the point, and sat across from the door. Even at the late hour, tourists posed for photos in front of the door. [That’s something I will never understand, I suppose.] Here is where the Frank family hid, in their own adopted city, Jews hunted down by their own neighbors and the invaders who were in fact their German countrymen.

I’ve been to the door of Anne’s girlhood home in Frankfurt, and I’ve met and listened to her childhood friend in Jerusalem as she related Anne stories and spoke of her last meeting with Anne across the wire fence in February 1945 at Belsen. I’ve walked the grounds where she and his sister died a few months after arriving at Bergen-Belsen, emaciated and racked by disease. She is buried somewhere there, no one truly knows where, one of many thousands in one of many mass graves.

I sat there, thinking, in the semi-darkness. And I was glad for a moment alone with her again.

Sometimes we need our special moments alone to think about these things. What does “Never Again” truly look like? Did anyone really care then? Do they today? What if she was my neighbor? What does my ‘selfie’ at her door really say about me?  Have I asked God about the victims? The perpetrators?  The bystanders? What have I done during my sojourn on Earth?

My wife came by and we walked away.

[Visit the Anne Frank House website; if you are going, book a time slot/tix well in advance]

 

I awoke with a start about quarter to three this morning, today, July 29, 2019. I think in my subconsciousness I had been preparing for this a bit.

I’d like to tell you a story about how this photo above came into my possession. First, though, it was exactly 75 years ago, almost to the hour, that the boys in that photo were all killed in the skies over Nazi Germany. The boy on the far left, Clarence McGuire, was known to me; I’d been visiting his grave with my dad since I was a little boy; his body came home at some point and he is buried in our local cemetery.

All were killed―except one. That’s why I have the photo today.

I had never seen this photo before it was sent to me in the mail two summers ago.  In fact, all of my life I thought that the man who sent it to me was dead, like everyone else in the picture. Even as I began my book discussing this tragic event, I had assumed everyone in my dad’s cousin’s B-17 was killed when their plane blew up 20,000 feet over Nazi Germany in the summer of 1944.

My dad’s cousin Clarence was a twenty-year-old waist gunner on the crew, clean cut, the one in the white T-shirt.  Many times I accompanied my dad on walks to the quiet cemetery a few blocks from our house. The memorial reads:

SGT. CLARENCE B. McGUIRE

A COURAGEOUS AND GALLANT GUNNER

WHO GAVE ALL FOR GOD AND COUNTRY

JULY 29, 1944

MAY HIS SOUL, AND ALL THE SOULS

OF THE GALLANT MEN WHO DIED, REST IN PEACE

So naturally, for years I thought that all of his crew had died in 1944 when their B-17 was hit on a mission to bomb a German oil refinery. I think that is what my dad told me; I dug out their crew photo—the only photograph I had ever seen of Clarence, to be honest—from his desk after Dad passed. So imagine my surprise a two summers back when I found the exact same photo, labeled, on the internet, at the American Air Museum in Britain. Then I noticed that someone had sponsored the page, ‘in memoriam’, and it was the same name as one of the crew. A son, perhaps?

back row, third from left, Clarence; far right, John.

No. I tracked the tail gunner in Florida, and mailed him a letter to what I hoped was the right address, hoping that maybe he was still alive.  Well, he called me shortly thereafter.

John at World War II Memorial, Washington, DC

‘‘This is John Swarts’, said the voice with the distinctive Southern twang. ‘Me and Clarence was pretty good friends.’ A pause. ‘You got it right, address and everything. I knew him well; I went with him to his home up there in New York. Me and him used to ride horse together; I got some pictures to send you. His mother used to write me letters afterwards.’

Letter from Clarence’s mom to John Swarts, 1946.

John hailed from Missouri, and later settled in St. Louis.

‘Things worked out right for me. Was married twice, got a boy and a girl. Spent 33 years on the railroad, and then had my own business. But it was just me and the co-pilot who survived that day. I was burned in the eye and didn’t go on the last mission.’

The plane went down on July 29th, 1944. That last weekend in July of 2017, the 73rd anniversary was upon us as we spoke.

‘The name of the plane was Pugnacious Ball. Flak got the plane. Blew up before it hit the ground. But I think they recovered a body bag to send home to his mother.’

‘I watched for the planes coming back; you always do when they are out on a mission. You count them. We waited and waited. They didn’t come back.’

‘It was the worst day of my life. Still is.’

John also sent me newspaper clippings. ‘Vet Feels Guilty Because Buddies Died’, declares one. ‘I feel so guilty. They were buried in Germany the same day they were shot down.’

And he sent me the picture I had never seen before, labeled in his hand, five friends for life smiling for the moment, smiling for eternity, though the kid in the back looks more reserved, almost as if he is already carrying the burden that will haunt him in some ways forever.

My book with the vets recounting the air war over Europe starts with the kid on the far left in the top photograph (Clarence), and ends with the one in the back, on the far right (John), 73 yrs later. So I went back to the cemetery where I had visited with my father many times in my boyhood, and left a simple note, and my book.

I found him, Clarence, or maybe John had rediscovered you, somehow, through me. But he did not forget you, and neither will anyone who reads John’s words:

‘I get a little emotional. I’m almost 95; I hope to see them all again in heaven.’

You can read more or listen to the book in The Things Our Fathers Saw- VOL II, Book One: War in the Air here.

D-Day and Beyond: The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume V

NEW BOOK: D-DAY AND BEYOND

 

“We know we don’t have much time left, so I tell my story, so people know it was because of that generation, because of those guys in this cemetery. All these generals with all this brass, that don’t mean nothing. These guys in the cemetery, they are the heroes.” 

-99-year-old Steve Melnikoff, World War II veteran, standing at the Normandy American Cemetery, June 6, 2019.


Did you pay attention when the 75th anniversary of D-Day rolled around?

Only a few of our veterans of the battle of Normandy and France who still with us were able to make the trip. In my time on this planet, I knew of several who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944, and in the weeks that followed. I talked to them, recorded what they had to say, as did my like-minded students and friends. And that is what this book is about; sadly, most have now passed on, but I want to keep them alive for future generations of Americans.

I talked to them, recorded what they had to say, as did my like-minded students and friends. And that is what this book is about; sadly, most have now passed on, but I want to keep them alive for future generations of Americans.

For the cover, I went to the National Archives and chose a public domain photograph that is very famous; in fact, it has been used several times before for books on D-Day. My book is a bit different than all the others, though, and I wanted the cover to reflect that. So I had my designer zoom in on the men—the face of the soldier half-turned, the image of the men wading through the murderous surf toward the obstacle littered Omaha Beach, their backs laden down with equipment and trying to keep rifles dry.

What makes this book different from all the rest? Well, like the rest of the books in my ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’ series, I wanted the men to speak for themselves; I weave their stories into a tapestry of contextual historical experience for the reader, but I want the overall impression you get to be as if you yourself are sitting down across the kitchen table with someone who is baring his soul. When interviewed, our World War II generation realized that time was no longer on their side, and they had something to get off their chests, some never having spoken about their wartime experiences before. Some guys got emotional. Some were speaking to young people about their own age when they had to go to war. It was cathartic, and I wanted this book to reflect that.


An engineer dropping into the surf to clear beach obstacles is suddenly struck by a vision of the postman delivering his KIA telegram to the family house back home.
*
A tank driver recalls the bullets pinging off his Sherman as it advanced up the beach, like someone throwing marbles at a car, wondering, with his limited view, if he was driving over the bodies of dead and dying men.
*
The Coast Guardsman directed back to the fantail of his ship, only to find his hometown friend, killed earlier that day, propped up for the return to England.
*
The GI later buried alive in his foxhole by a German artillery round, teeth knocked out, still feeling the shrapnel in his cheek every morning when he shaves.


And many more. To be sure, this is an important work; it’s currently battling it out for the #1 New Release in United States Veterans History over at Amazon. While I am still working on it, I have made the ebook available for pre-order for my followers at a discounted price, which will rise the day it is released. Once the ebook is released, the paperback and hardcover versions also be available. (Some of you have asked about the availability of hardcover books; I am happy to report that you can order them for all of my titles, from Amazon and other booksellers or directly from me, autographed).

Just 4 summers ago, I released my first book. This will be my 6th new title. As always, thanks for your support and I think you will enjoy this volume. Remember.

Matthew Rozell

Two Franks.

The “Two Franks” in this story are American World War II soldier/liberator Frank Towers and a Dutch teen named Anne Frank. Today is Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, had she survived; Frank would be 102 tomorrow, so I’m re-posting from the original in 2017.  Rest easy, friends. The world is a better place because you were in it.


My friend Frank Towers would have turned 102 years old tomorrow. Frank passed on July 4th, 2016.

Frank W. Towers.

Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Division was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers under British rule. Revolutionaries in Ireland were still licking their wounds after the doomed Easter Rising against the British the year before. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

Frank Towers by Pete Fredlake, USHMM, 2010.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust. Varda W., a survivor’s daughter in Israel, even orchestrated a massive reunion of 55 survivors and their children for Frank in Rehovot, Israel when he was almost 94… talk about a rock star. I was there to see him mobbed.

Frank Towers greeting survivors at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel, May 2011. Credit: Matthew Rozell

*

There’s talk this week in Holocaust education circles of another important birthday, and another ‘Frank’—Anne Frank would have turned 90 today.  She came into the world on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany; I’ve seen the house where she was born, and I’ve been to the place where she died, at age 15. I’ve met some of her friends. Just shy of her last birthday, on June 6th, 1944, she recorded the following entry:

‘This is D-Day,’ the BBC announced at 12 o’clock. This is the day. The invasion has begun!

Anne Frank iat school in 1940,Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Unknown photographer; public domain.

Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true?… The best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way. Those terrible Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation means everything to us!

On D-Day, 26 year old 1st Lieutenant Frank Towers was also listening to this news in England as the 30th Infantry Division was preparing to ship out to the battle a few days later. Anne and her family would be betrayed in Amsterdam that August, as Frank’s 30th infantry Division held off a massive German counterattack in Mortain, France. The family was deported to Auschwitz and then Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Bergen Belsen, all the while with the Allies slugged forth through that long summer, fall and winter into 1945. Anne and Margot died in Belsen before the spring came, and liberation; there is a marker to honor them but they lie in a mass grave there today, whereabouts unknown, like so many thousands of others. Frank would not know them, but would help to liberate and rescue some 2500 from the train near Magdeburg, including some who knew of the Frank sisters. And yes, we are left to ponder some of Anne Frank’s closing words to humanity:

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that only 5,000 of the 107,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands between 1942 and 1944 survived. That’s less than 5%. But I close today with Frank Towers, at age 97, in the Netherlands in 2014 meeting the generations who survived because of that fateful day when the US Army investigated a curious Bergen-Belsen transport stopped by the tracks near the Elbe River. And listen to the little girl in the video. The world was too late for Anne Frank, but maybe her ideals indeed live on.

 

Tuesday morning, June 6, 1944. Omaha Beach. National Archives.

So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty-five years ago I watched as the American president honored the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Those thirty-five years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” would soon stir the consciousness of a new generation, and the reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there, when they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-fifth. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend, Buster Simmonds, a combat medic who is no longer with us. Last year, I featured a living D-Day veteran, Bill Gast, a tanker who made it from surf to beach and beyond. Sadly, Bill passed last December.

And today I am hard at work on the fifth oral history in my World War II series, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw: D-Day and Beyond’, due for release in August. Featured in it is one of our frequent classroom visitors, Tony Leone, a Coast Guard veteran of D-Day aboard an LST. And as I was working on his narrative this past March, footage of his ACTUAL SHIP, LST 27, was discovered, loading up for D-Day [click the photo below, it is only a minute long].

Tony left us in 2010. I’ll leave you with the book excerpt below. And remember to pause for a moment this day, June 6th, to think about what they did, 75 years ago.



Excerpt from ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw: D-Day and Beyond, by Matthew A. Rozell

He sits behind a student desk, wearing a medal presented to him by the French government that he also wears to Mass every Sunday. ‘I wear it with pride to pay homage to those fellows who burned alive next to me. I made it and they didn’t. It still bothers me.’

He rests on his walking cane and leans forward as he speaks. He is animated—he motions with his hands to emphasize his points. A prolific author and newspaper letter writer, Anthony’s mission is to educate the public about what his generation of Americans went through: ‘It would be at least 25 years after World War II before I could begin to think about the experiences of that time. They were buried deep in my subconscious and remained there so that my mind and body could heal.’

Anthony F.J. Leone

The Invasion of Normandy

 

I got assigned to USS LST 27. I said to myself, ‘What the heck is an LST?’ We boarded in Norfolk, Virginia. I carried my sea bag, along with the rest of the graduates of boot camp, up this long gangway. This was the biggest vessel I had ever seen in my life! If you had it up here on Lake George, it was 327 feet long, imagine that, and 50 feet wide. That’s a big ship.

‘LST’ stands for ‘Landing Ship, Tanks’. What we did is to carry small boats. We sent the small boats in first loaded with troops and vital supplies, then we came in right up to the beachhead with the LSTs and opened the bow doors and dropped the ramps. But on D-Day, not even the small boats could get in among the obstacles, and there were mines all over the place. They were killing our soldiers like sheep to the slaughter.

*

We left Norfolk in March of 1944 and landed in Africa. We had gone through bad air raids by the Germans in the Mediterranean and U-boat attacks but we survived. One ship was hit and set afire, a ship carrying lumber, and incidentally the crews couldn’t get the fire out; it was in the stern of our convoy. We got attacked by the Luftwaffe, JU-88s and Dornier torpedo bombers.

We reached Africa without further incident and then we sailed for England. We landed in Swansea, Wales, and we got liberty [after] we unloaded an LCT from the ship. An LCT is a long, wide, flat-box sort of landing craft where the ramp drops down and the conning tower is in the back, and we had one topside. We carried it piggyback; what we did was fill the starboard bilge tanks with water and then chop the cables holding the LCT on, onto these greased wooden skids. By severing the cables, the thing would slam into the water with a big splash. We got rid of that thing because there were some heavy seas and we were top heavy. These were the craft that what would land the men, later on.

About the end of May, about a week before D-Day, we went to Southampton, and then to Falmouth, to become part of the back-up force for the D-Day landings. We took on units from the 175th Infantry, which belonged to the 29th Division. Everything was frozen in place, we couldn’t move. The area was sealed off, we couldn’t go on liberty, we couldn’t visit the British girls, which was quite a sacrifice in those days, since they were all over the Yanks. We were like the invention of sliced bread; the British girls couldn’t get enough of the Yanks. [Laughs] We had a lot of money I guess, and we showed up the British service men pretty bad. The American troops over there, their behavior was abominable. The British treated them really good, but the Americans were spoiled had a lot of money, and… well, it’s the same old story.

They sealed us off, and on the 4th and 5th of June we were ready to go. We headed toward ‘Piccadilly Circus’, that was the code name of the circle in the middle of the Channel that we were supposed rendezvous at, from there the flotillas would go towards the English beachheads [in Normandy] and we would go towards the American beachheads, Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.

We went out to the sea on the 5th, and it was really stormy. Eisenhower was really blown away by [the weather]. So, they waited, and I guess a British meteorologist saw a break, a window in the weather. Eisenhower had decided to go for it, he had his fingers crossed, he had a letter ready apologizing for the loss of lives and withdraw from the continent in case it failed.[1] So, we went, the first units moved up from British ports of Southampton, London, Plymouth and Portland. We were the second, the backup force from Falmouth.

The Americans had gotten off the beach by late June 6th. Of course, [before that], the Germans had mowed them down like a wheat field. As I said before, there were German privates just sitting there with machine guns, just killing Americans and crying as they were doing it, ‘Please go back, I don’t want to kill no more!’ [Repeats this line in German]. At one point, General Bradley was going to pull them off, take all the people at Omaha Beach and bring them over to Utah. Utah was a pretty successful landing—there, casualties were [far less].

By the time we got to the [Omaha] beachhead the next day, it was a mess. We came in with the LSTs. We had already launched our LCVPs [on June 6] which brought in the troops, the ‘Landing Craft Vehicle-Personnel’, that is, a Higgins Boat. It was invented by Andrew Higgins, a boat builder from the United States. Then it was time for us to come in and unload the tanks.

It was now June 7th; all you saw was a layer of white smoke on the beach. The [US Army] Rangers had gotten in behind the Germans, but when we [first arrived there with the big ship], it was still hot, there were still mines all over the place, hedgehogs and stakes driven in the ground with Teller mines sitting on them. At high tide when you came in you couldn’t see them. Our LCVPs had to negotiate between them, this was impossible at high tide, you had to wait until the tide was way out, then the soldiers had to walk almost half a mile over bare land, no foliage or anything.

As we came in, it was pretty hard to negotiate because the mined obstacles were still all over the place and there were pieces of human bodies floating all over. The American soldiers had the life belts on that you activate, and they inflated because they had a CO2 cartridge. But because the guys had heavy packs on, it would up-end them and drown them because they couldn’t get loose. We saw a lot of soldiers floating that way. Their life belts worked alright, but they killed them. Their bodies floated to and fro all day long.

After we saw that, we were not too enthusiastic about going in and hitting the beach—we said, ‘If this is happening out here, what is going to happen there?’ Even though it was a couple days later, we were all armed to the teeth. We had our clothing well-impregnated with chemicals to withstand a gas attack, and when your body got out of it, that stuff would drive you crazy.

We proceeded in. Now up in our conning tower, our officers had barricaded themselves behind a pile of mattresses up in the bridge, not that they were ‘chicken’, they were just being smart about the whole thing, they didn’t want to get hit with shrapnel.

We had that on and we were all ready to go over, life jackets and helmets, I was manning the 20mm gun and all of a sudden, the public address system crackled. I heard the damnedest noise, that scared me more than the enemy, really, when it first came on [singing], ‘Mairzy doats and dozy doats And liddle lamzy divey/ A kiddley divey too/ Wouldn’t you?’. It was the voice of our skipper, and he was dead drunk. [Laughs] Now understand that he was a very solemn-looking individual, dark, so dark that at night we couldn’t see him, so we called him ‘The Shadow’—when he walked on the bridge, all you would see was the glow of his cigarette. He would let it burn to his lips and then spit it out, he was [tough as nails]. So here is this guy who is fearless, and as we were going in, he is singing ‘Mairzy Doats’[2] I would have chosen a different tune really, but everyone burst out laughing, so it was a morale builder in a sense. It told us the captain was human after all, and he was just as much afraid as we were!

So we went in and hit the beach, started up the ventilator fans as we had big tubes coming out of the tank deck to suck the exhaust fumes out—and incidentally, both their vehicles were burning oil, don’t know why, poor maintenance. They got them going and the trucks were towing—this was the 175th Heavy Tank Company, it was part of the 29th Division—they started to move out when the brake seized on the 57mm anti-tank cannon carriage they were towing in the back of the lead truck. Marion Burroughs, a friend of mine who was driving it later told me, ‘God that saved my life, that brake locking up like that, it never happened before in all my years of working with it.’ That’s the way things happen, you know. He motioned for the other truck to go back around him—it was an army wrecker, used for picking up tanks or wrecked vehicles. It went around and both of the vehicles went out, the wrecker hit a mine just coming off the ramp. They had it taped off where it was safe you know, I still think they went ‘off the tape’, the taped-off lanes to distinguish between the mined and unmined areas… It blew up and there were bodies all over the place and the trucks were filled with Chesterfield and Old Gold cigarettes, I remember vividly; ‘Lucky Strike had gone to war’ with gold packaging—they had taken the green out of the cigarette wrapper to save the cadmium that was green, I think—well, I remember those cigarettes just went all over the place, bazooka shells, the thing was loaded with ammo and gasoline and it went up, a flaming cauldron—it was like a blast furnace! These poor guys were screaming and they were pinned to the frame and you could see the rubber of the tires all turning to liquid and dripping. And their screams! It seemed like they screamed long after life left their bodies. I still hear them sometimes. If you ever hear a person screaming in agony when they were being burned alive… [looks down, shakes head]

We went out to see what we could do. I reached down and a piece of shrapnel came through the top of my helmet, punched it open, and broke some skin. I didn’t realize it until later, when the thing fell off my head and landed on the deck. You couldn’t get near the fire because the flames were so hot. A couple of individuals did rescue somebody, and I went out again to get another helmet. They were all over the place, like coconuts. I saw one with netting on it, and I went to get it and ‘zing-zing-zing’ [gestures quickly, tapping the air in succession three times], there were little bursts of sand right in front of it, some German probably anticipated my move and said, ‘well, this guy’s not going to get his helmet.’

One of our officers, a deck officer, a little fellow named Serge, went out and dragged somebody back to the ship. Now they had always made fun of Serge because of his size; he was puny, like another Don Knotts, all nervous and such. They all used to pick on him, like making him stand on a table because he was Jewish, things like that; that was World War II, you know. A colored steward would have to stand on the back of the bus—even though he survived a lot of battles, he had to stand on the back of the bus in Norfolk, Virginia. This is what World War II was really like.

He went out in the surf, the crazy [son of a gun, and rescued some guys], and he got back, I think he got the Silver Star or something for it. He was ten-foot-tall in our eyes after that. Finally, we closed the damn bow door; we lifted the ramp—it takes ages for that thing to come up on chains—and we closed the bow. We waited for the fires to subside and the flames went down, and we went out. We hated to see what was still out there. Things were still hot, fires were still burning, everything was gone—it was just bones sitting there, grinning skeletons.

[Later] on Utah Beach on June 19, a big storm stirred up a lot of mines. As we were coming in our lookout yelled, ‘Stop engines! Wreckage in the water, dead ahead!’ We slowed and stopped. Apparently, there was an LCT that had been hit earlier and it was laying there. Had we gone another 25 or 30 feet, we would have been impaled, practically stuck on the thing—so we couldn’t move. We reversed and motioned for the LST in line behind us to go around us. When they went around us, and as they made that move alongside, they blew right in half; they struck a mine. Now try to picture a huge structure like an LST, 327 feet long, welded steel, 50 feet wide, blowing in two, [lifting out of the water and straight up into the air]. The crew aboard it had a motley assortment of pets. They had pigeons, and chickens—what the hell would you have a chicken onboard for?—chickens, and dogs and cats; this was strictly forbidden, but they let them get away with it. Just before, we had been waving to the guys and laughing at the animals. We were the ‘Suicide Navy’, they called us. A very apropos title.

There were medical teams assigned to all the landing ships, like the LSTs, and they were composed of one or two naval doctors and a team of corpsmen. We had a surgical operating station in the back of the tank section, it was a complete operating room and they operated on the wounded there. At times we’d go back to eat, and we’d set our trays down in the dining room. They’d operate on the tables there, and our trays would slide in the blood—well, you don’t feel much like eating after that.

That is what I had to live with every day. The wounded, the dying, the death, it became a way of life. That’s bad, that’s real bad. When I got discharged from the service, I got a 100 percent disability because I was a basket case. I had to get some shock treatment, once or twice. I spent ten years at the VA hospital in out-patient treatment, I’m still going there in Albany. But I would do it all over again, because it was a cause. A cause célèbre, you might say. It’s nothing like what’s going on today.

War itself should be abolished, it should be outlawed. There can’t conceivably be any winners, [with these nuclear weapons]. For me it was bad enough to see men die all the time. I’d hate to see, right now today, a dog die—if a dog got hit by a car, I’d die, I’d feel badly. But now think about seeing human beings die, and then you get used to it, to endure you have to say to yourself, ‘This is a way of life, I have to live with it’. That crew became my family for two years, the only home I had. The medal presented to [us veterans by France] is the most beautiful medal I’ve ever seen, and I wear it with honor every Sunday. The priest doesn’t like the medal because to him it speaks of violence and war, but this is the biggest argument against war there is. For kids to even think of settling arguments with violence and war, that just shouldn’t be considered, because it is a foolish move. The innocent die.


MATTHEW ROZELL is an award-winning history teacher, author, blogger and speaker. He has been featured as the ABC World News ‘Person of the Week’ and has had his work filmed for CBS News, NBC Learn, the Israeli Broadcast Authority, the New York State United Teachers, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and one book will soon be released as a documentary on PBS. His books have been read by hundreds of thousands. You can follow him at www.facebook.com/AuthorMatthewRozell


[1] he had a letter ready-Eisenhower had hastily drafted a letter accepting responsibility in the event of a colossal failure at the Normandy landings: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” National Archives.

[2] Mairzy Doats-A silly novelty song that hit #1 in the US pop charts in March 1944. As others have noted, the amusing sheet music lyrics sung by Mr. Leone are revealed in the song’s bridge, “If the words sound queer and funny to your ear/ A little bit jumbled and jivey/ Sing ‘Mares eat oats and does eat oats/ And little lambs eat ivy/ A kid’ll eat ivy too/ Wouldn’t you?”.

  • From the Portsmouth D-Day Story Museum: “The number of people killed in the fighting is not known exactly. Accurate record keeping was very difficult under the circumstances. Books often give a figure of 2,500 Allied dead for D-Day. However, research by the US National D-Day Memorial Foundation has uncovered a more accurate figure of 4,414 Allied personnel killed on D-Day. These include 2,501 from the USA, 1,449 British dead, 391 Canadians and 73 from other Allied countries. Total German losses on D-Day (not just deaths, but also wounded and prisoners of war) are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000. Over 100,000 Allied and German troops were killed during the whole of the Battle of Normandy, as well as around 20,000 French civilians, many as a result of Allied bombing.”