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Posts Tagged ‘D-Day’

 

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 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.

Thirty 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” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and 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 seventieth. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here for the 70th. Another president spoke today, and the 75th will bring fewer who were there back to Normandy.

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Today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

A  couple weeks ago this article popped up. So glad to see Bill’s name.

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D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

 

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

Bill Gast, Silver Star citation.

Bill Gast, Silver Star citation.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget but you try to hide things somewhere.”

http://news.yahoo.com/d-day-view-tank-omaha-beach-104656852.html

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BusterOne of the hard parts about this project is that people whom you come to know and love get older and pass away on you. But you are thankful that you came to know them, and how you saw them enrich your life and the lives of others.

I first met Buster over five years ago, when I attended my first 30th Infantry Division reunion and he served as the chaplain and the master of ceremonies and chief auctioneer at our final banquet. He had a funny way of putting folks at ease, and the auctions were like a comedy act. He was very devout and serious about his chaplain duties, though.

I have a couple short video clips to share. The first I post on D-Day every year. A producer from ABC News in New York called me looking for the Benjamin photo for a piece on veterans returning to Normandy. Though the 30th did not land until after D-Day, the fact is that Allied forces were only ten miles in, with some very heavy and decisive battles still ahead for the 30th. They would also be bombed not once but twice by Allied heavy bombers on two consecutive days before the launch of Operation Cobra.Buster was a combat medic. “You did not stop to think about how you would cope. You just did the best you could.”

Buster was so taken with the appearance of the Holocaust survivors in the Old Hickorymen’s lives after 62 years, he told the story everywhere he went. After his wife died unexpectedly, he was at a loss, but I know that getting out into the community to tell the story of the Holocaust and the 30th’s connection to this amazing photograph kept him going for a while. He’d call me up at school, looking for pictures to share with students down South in the classrooms. He became a Holocaust educator! And he was sure proud to be an American.

He and his son Sandy, who also recently passed, expended a great deal of energy traveling to our high school in upstate NY for the last reunion with soldiers and survivors at our high school. At the tail end of this short clip he describes one of the wonders of this trip for him. I guess if I was dancing with a lovely young thing, or two, or three, I would say the same!

To close, I wish to paraphrase the reporter for the ABC story, Erin Hayes:

Maybe, just maybe, a group of students like those at College of the Ozarks will discover [veterans] and they’ll get them to tell their stories, to hear what I heard … that a generation that will soon be gone left us a legacy of bravery and wisdom and resilience.

We really, really should treasure that — before it’s too late.

Rest on, Buster. Peace to their families.

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Buster Marion Simmons, 91, a resident of Farmington, Ark., passed away July 20, 2013 in Fayetteville. He was born July 7, 1922 in Orange County, N.C, the son of Tom and Olivia Jackson Simmons.

Buster served in the United States Army during World War II. He was a Combat Medic in the 30th Infantry Division throughout the European theater. He served as the Chaplain for the 30th Infantry Division reunions. Buster attended many reunions in Europe and all over the USA. His favorite trip to Europe was in 1994 when his granddaughter traveled with him. He worked until he was more than 80 years old.

He was preceded in death by his parents; wife of 67 years Bessie Mae Simmons; two sons, Eric G. Simmons and William J. “Sandy” Simmons; three brothers, William Clinton, Glimer and Wayne; one sister Lucille Oakley.

Survivors include one daughter-in-law Kathy Simmons; one granddaughter, Nancy Woodward and husband Rusty; one great-grandson Garrett Woodward and his grand dachshund Buster, all of Farmington.

A Memorial Service will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, 2013, at the Luginbuel Chapel in Prairie Grove with Preston Beeks officiating. He will be interred in Burlington, N.C. at a later date.

Memorials may be made to the Willard Walker Hospice Home, 325 E. Longview St. Fayetteville, AR. 72704; Farmington Senior Center – Meals on Wheels, 340 W. Main, Farmington, AR. 72730 or a charity of your choice .

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This is from last evening’s PBS NewsHour. Book is on my summer reading list. April 1945 a focus of my studies.

‘Bad to the Very End’: Author Reflects on the Long, Deadly Road to WWII Victory

In honor of the 69th anniversary of D-Day, Ray Suarez talks to historian Rick Atkinson about his new book, “The Guns at Last Light,” which chronicles the brutal fight for victory at the end of World War II.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, we mark June 6, D-Day.

Ray is back with book conversation he recorded recently about World War II.

RAY SUAREZ: The war that had a hand in cementing U.S. status as a superpower and created the map of the modern world ended almost 70 years ago.

You could fill a library with books about the Second World War, yet historians still find new things to say and new ways to say it.

Award-winning author and historian Rick Atkinson has just completed the third book in his “Liberation Trilogy,” “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945.” And he joins me now.

And, Rick, if nothing else, this book is a reminder that, with D-Day, there was still some of the worst fighting of the war left to go.

RICK ATKINSON, author, “The Guns at Last Light”: That’s certainly true, Ray.

I think the horror of it is difficult to imagine 70 years later. And it continues really after D-Day, almost to the last gunshot. There were almost 11,000 Americans killed in Germany in April 1945, the last full month of the war in Europe. And that’s nearly as many as died in June 1944, the month of invasion.

So the bloodletting continued right to the end. The notion that many Americans have that it was bad on the beaches, and then something bad happened during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, and then it was kind of sweeping into Germany and the war was essentially over is actually quite incorrect. It was bad to the very end, almost to May 8, 1945, when the war in Europe ended.

RAY SUAREZ: Terrible, ferocious, deadly fighting through Northern France, through Holland and Belgium, and finally into the German homeland.

Then you bring us to one British officer who says, “Why don’t the silly bastards give up?”

What was the German calculation in those last months, when it was clear they could no longer militarily prevail?

RICK ATKINSON: Well, there are several things at play.

Part of it is terror. Hitler had a police state of the first order. And those who showed any sign of being weak-kneed faced prison or often summary execution. That prevented a lot of people who knew that the war was not going to turn out well for Germany from giving up.

In other cases, you have to say that 80 million Germans tended in large measure to be true believers, that they believed in the fuhrer almost to the bitter end. You would see parades, for example, on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1945, in Berlin — this is 10 days before he kills himself — of young girls, young boys who are too young to go into the military carrying flags and singing patriotic songs, people cheering along the streets of a badly battered Berlin at that point.

So, the German psyche was such that they’d been heavily influenced by propaganda. And they were just generally disinclined to give up.

RAY SUAREZ: Rick, you also remind us that the war got deadlier as it went on, because both sides were innovating, inventing new ways of killing the other side practically until the last day of the war.

RICK ATKINSON: That’s true, Ray. The lethality increases as the war goes along, and it — it’s extraordinary how brutal it is.

We Americans, for example, invented something called the POZIT Fuse. That was the code name. There was a little radar sensor in the nose of an artillery shell, and it could, by emanating radar signals, determine when a passing plane or when an approaching target was just within the kill radius of the burst, and detonate that shell.

It was used for the first time in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The Germans called it pure manslaughter. It was part and parcel of a generation of weapons that came along, napalm used for the first time around this time. The Germans had invented the V-1 and V-2 flying bombs and then a ballistic missile, the V-2, with terrifying results, most of them launched against London or Antwerp with devastating results to civilians.

RAY SUAREZ: We have in the final weeks and months of the war some moments where it’s hard to tell where moral authority existed, if such a thing any longer existed.

How could you tell concentration camp inmates not to rise up and kill their captors who were trying to surrender and act like normal soldiers? How could you put trial Americans who, sickened by the slaughter, would just turn and around pop these guys with their sidearms as they tried to surrender? It got nasty, brutal, and frightening in those final weeks.

RICK ATKINSON: This is true.

And it’s not just the final weeks, actually. There’s killing of prisoners that begins early in the liberation of Europe by American, British, Canadian soldiers, and, of course, by the Germans. It intensifies during that last 11 months from Normandy on.

But when you get to the camp liberation phase, particularly in April 1945, for example, at Dachau, American soldiers coming into this camp, tens of thousands of emaciated, horribly treated prisoners, and thousands of bodies lying around, and there were soldiers that went on a rampage. There were at least a couple dozen S.S. guards who had surrendered, had been taken into custody who were murdered, probably more than that.

This is at the same time that there are liberated inmates rampaging, tearing literally some camp guards limb from limb. There was an investigation. The investigators found that, yes, there had been prisoners murdered by American soldiers. Nothing was ever done of it. No one really had the stomach to prosecute American soldiers under these circumstances.

This is just one example of many, though, of the barbarity that war unleashes with — inside otherwise good soldiers.

RAY SUAREZ: I want to continue this conversation with you online.

The book is “The Guns at Last Light.”

Rick Atkinson, thanks a lot.

RICK ATKINSON: Thank you, Ray.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/military/jan-june13/atkinson_06-06.html

 

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American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)Today one of my former students emailed me to visit saying that she had a surprise for me. She brought me a present- sand from the beach at Omaha in Normandy.

This was originally posted four Junes ago, I re-post here now.

I came into school today, on a Saturday, to start packing up my room for a move to another room.

But it is the 6th of June.

Instead I am getting nothing done, mesmerized by the scenes, live from Normandy, of the 65th anniversary celebration.

The President is there and so are 250 American veterans of the battle for Normandy,  including one of my good  friends, Buster Simmons, of the 30th Infantry Division. The Greatest Generations Foundation sponsored his visit with 9 other vets and college kids. Now I’m looking for him in the sea of faces.

My son Ned and I watched him last night as a “Person of the Week” on ABC World News in a story I contributed to. If you view the clip, you can see the photograph I provided ABC with, taken by Major Clarence Benjamin, of the liberation of the train. This is the photo that Buster uses when he speaks to high school classes to tell this story.

I am hopeful that we can get Buster to come to our high school for the  liberator-survivor reunion in September.

It was twenty five years ago, on this anniversary, that I wrote an essay in the local newspaper expressing my appreciation for the veterans of World War II. And as I begin to sort through and pack up 20+ years of memories in this room, three things are becoming clear: 1) my love for these men and women and what they did only increases as time passes; 2) the rest of my career will be focused on the promotion of narrative history in the classroom, linking students, veterans and survivors together; and 3) I won’t be getting any packing done this day.

Take a minute to watch Buster in the clip and take his optimism about the future of our nation to heart. Especially if -“you’re an American.”

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