Time will inevitably take the last heroes of D-Day from us, but a few remain, telling their stories to rapt audiences across the nation.
Donald Rutter of the 82nd Airborne recalled having a decent red-eye flight from England to France, but then he jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, and his whole day went to hell.
He said a sniper’s bullet went over his shoulder to hit his lieutenant, and he wound up hiding from 20mm cannon fire in a barn.
“But I happened to survive it,” Rutter, now 94, told his local paper, the Reading Eagle. He said what happened next was “a long story.”
“I could go on and on. I’ll have to write a book,” he said.
The Reading Eagle cites historians who say that even with the surge of pop-culture interest in D-Day over the past generation, ranging from movies like Saving Private Ryan to video games that strive to recreate the experience of storming the beaches of Normandy, most people do not have an accurate impression of what the landing was really like. This makes the recollections of the remaining veterans an invaluable historical resource.
“We want them to have their stories known to others,” said Berks County Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Dale G. Derr. “I wish I could articulate what it means when a WW II vet sits down with you.”
That opportunity will only grow more scarce in the future, as the Reading Eagle estimates that just 855,000 World War II veterans remain in the U.S., and they are departing at a rate of 800 a day.
72 years ago, Frank McCalment of South Bend, Indiana was a 22-year-old Navy gunner, who woke up from a night on the deck of the heavy cruiser USS Augusta to see a B-17 bomber burning in the sky overhead.
“We saw a lot of young fellows going in (to shore) on landing craft. I felt sorry for them,” said McCalment, quoted by the South Bend Tribune.
He spent that endless day loading hundred-pound shells into the Augusta’s 5-inch guns, as they pounded German emplacements on the French coast. “We had superior air power. The sky was almost black with Allied airplanes,” he said. “The Germans were firing back. Thank the good Lord, they never hit us.”
A point made by both D-Day veterans and historians is that D-Day was the beginning of a long and difficult struggle, whose end was nowhere in sight on the day the invasion began. McCalment recalled the Augusta providing fire support for General George Patton himself a few weeks later, when Patton needed help with some German tanks.
91-year-old Robert Levine of Teaneck, New Jersey was 19 when he came ashore on Utah Beach. On the far side of Hill 122, retreating Germans ambushed his unit, filled his leg with shrapnel from a grenade, and took him prisoner. Then he got hit by shrapnel from the very same American mortar shells he had been delivering to forward positions at the time of his capture.
He woke up on the kitchen table of a French farmhouse that had been pressed into service as a German field hospital.
“For you, the war is over,” said a German military doctor, as he prepared to amputate Levine’s leg. Then the doctor noticed the letter “H” stamped on the prisoner’s dog tags… identifying him as Hebrew.
“I had just turned 19, and I thought that was the end for me. I was never going to see my 20th birthday, I knew it,” he recalled.
To his astonishment, he woke up in an improvised recovery room, without his injured leg – or his dog tags. The German doctor hid the tags to conceal Levine’s identity. “That’s the second way he saved my life,” Levine said.
It took him forty years, but he eventually tracked down the doctor, after leaving his contact information at the D-Day museum in Les Perrieres, and taking up a correspondence with a former German prisoner of war whose first letter began, “Dear Robert: Do you mind a former enemy calling you ‘Dear?’”
With his new friend’s help, Levine finally found the home of the man who saved him, only to learn he had already passed away. He presented the doctor’s widow with the hand-written card he found in place of his dog tags when he woke up in that recovery room, containing vital medical information about his injuries.
93-year-old Ray Stewart of Gastonia, N.C. was a 20-year-old gunner on a tank whose crew called themselves “Hell on Wheels.” He remembered rolling into action with the 2nd Armored Division three days after the invasion began, as part of a replacement force.
“I was just like everybody else on D-Day. We didn’t know what was going on,” said Stewart, making a point that could be difficult for young people raised in the Information Age to appreciate. Frank McCalment, the USS Augusta’s gunner, noted that the crew of his ship learned something big was in the wind because the King of England came aboard for a tour, followed soon afterward by Lt. General Omar Bradley.
90-year-old Louis Palermo was part of the second wave of the Omaha Beach assault, after watching the first wave get torn to shreds by heavy German artillery and machine gun fire. He piled out of a Higgins boat, into a storm of bullets and bombs… and then spent 10 minutes wading ashore. This was followed by an hour dug into the bloody sand, while 2,500 men died around him.
“A lot of my comrades got killed. The Germans were throwing everything at us,” he recalled.
Palermo spent the next six months living in foxholes, took a shrapnel hit during the Battle of the Bulge, and was at one point declared MIA after he got separated from his unit for a week. Fortunately, his letter of reassurance that he was still alive reached his mother right after the letter from the Army that said he had been lost.
Amazingly, while he was telling his story to the LI Herald last week, Palermo’s wife of nearly sixty years, Norma, walked into the room and declared, “This is the most I’ve ever heard about it.”
“I just hope we don’t get into another war. I don’t want to see the younger generations go into combat anymore,” said Palermo.
Contrary to the modern fashion, he thought businesses should be shut down on Memorial Day, to observe a national moment of silence. “The heroes are the guys that got killed over there, that are buried. They sacrificed their lives,” he said.
John Provini of Connecticut recalled seeing three ships behind him taking hits, one of them blown out of the water, during landing operations… and that was two months before D-Day, when his group was training to prepare for the attack, and came under fire from the Germans.
He was nevertheless among the first troops to hit the beaches when Operation Overlord went down. “When you look up, it was sunny day, you couldn’t see the sun because of all the planes,” the Connecticut veteran told CTStyle in a Memorial Day interview.
Provini said he handles the weight of his D-Day memories by remembering, “The good outweighs the bad, and call it a day.”
90-year-old Don Carragher of St. Augustine joined the Navy at 17, hoping to serve on a battleship, but since he was color-blind, he was assigned to the Seabees. He spent six months building barges for the invasion, then volunteered for duty as a signalman during the invasion. His post gave him an incomparable view of the battle.
“The guns from our destroyers and cruisers was unbelievable, and the German bombs, the 88 mm, they were coming over like crazy. You didn’t have time to figure out what was going on. The noise was deafening. But I saw it. I saw things no 18-year-old should see,” he told the St. Augustine Record. “You see dead bodies and there’s nothing funny about it, there’s nothing clever about it, there’s nothing nice about it. It’s unbelievable what men can do to each other.”
Given a chance to come ashore and stretch his legs on the day after D-Day, Carragher said he could only handle ten minutes on the beach, because he was “a bundle of nerves” from thinking about all the men who had died there.
Charles Norman Shay, who journeyed to Normandy this year to deliver a speech despite being almost 92 years old, was a medic with the 1st U.S. Infantry Division. D-Day was his first day in combat.
“The seas were red with the blood of men who were wounded or sacrificed their lives,” he says. “It was very devastating. I had to cleanse my soul – well, not cleanse my soul, but I had to think a lot about it and push what I was experiencing out of my mind so I could function the way I was trained to function,” Shay, a Penobscot Indian, recalled to Indian Country Today.
Half his company, and seven out of nine officers, were dead or wounded by noon on June 6th, 1944. He found his friend Edward Morocewitz dying on the beach from a stomach wound. “I could not even bandage him properly,” he said. “I gave him a shot of morphine, and, well, we said goodbye to each other forever, because he died.”
He began returning to Normandy every year in 2007, to “take up contact” with the fallen, and “let them know they’re not forgotten,” with a stop at Morocewitz’s grave on every visit.
“This was one of the biggest operations in military history. And it was a success. And, well, I was perhaps happy and sad to be a part of it,” said Shay.