Tag Archives: D-Day

A D-Day Veteran Remembered

The anniversary of D-Day is always the occasion for an interview in my series War Stories: In Their Own Words for Allentown’s The Morning Call. This year, I’ve been interviewing an 89-year-old World War II veteran. His story will run in the newspaper on the D-Day anniversary, June 6, 2010.

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 1944

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 1944

When I interview a vet, I find it helpful to take along maps and photos to jog the memory. Over the years I’ve amassed a good-sized library* of material on the Normandy invasion. This year,my interview is with a man who had been with the 1st Infantry Division, called the “Big Red One.” He was in the 26th Infantry Regiment, which was held in reserve and didn’t hit Omaha Beach until late afternoon; the two other regiments of the “Big Red One” hit the beach earlier in the day. While leafing through my copy of Stephen E. Ambrose’s D-Day, June 6, 1944 I found a map of the position of my vet’s battalion on Omaha Beach on the evening of  June 6th. I showed him that page. Sure enough, it jogged his memory.

It wasn’t until I had Ambrose’s book back home that I remembered where I had gotten it. For my D-Day anniversary story five years ago in The Morning Call, I interviewed 1st Infantry Division vet Harold Saylor of North Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, who hit Omaha Beach in a hail of German gunfire at 7:30 a.m. carrying a pair of Bangalore torpedoes, long metal pipes packed with high explosive and used for blowing up barbed-wire entanglements.

Always eager to see me, Harold would have scraps of paper for me with notes of some detail he wanted to make sure I knew. One, giving an idea of how much he was weighed down when he went ashore, was typed out: “170 pounds of equipment, including the clothing.” Another typed-out note to me read: “I could not swim either, and to this day I still cannot swim.” One day when I arrived, he handed me seven pages that he’d scrawled brief notes on. “I talked to Ernie Pyle,” he’d written on the first page, referring to the famous war correspondent.

In his small home office crowded with books,  files and photo albums, Harold knew where everything was. Sometimes he would shake his head and say that he didn’t know what would become of this stuff when he was gone.

His story ran on June 6, 2005, under a headline that was a quote from him: “On the beach, there was no place to hide.” An e-mail I got from a reader said: “I’m at my desk at work and crying my eyes out.”

American Casualty, Omaha Beach, June 1944

American Casualty, Omaha Beach, June 1944

In the months after Harold’s story ran, his health declined. The last time I saw him, he was in a hospital bed in his living room and didn’t seem to know who I was. I rested my hand on his and our eyes met. He died a few weeks later, at age 81, before another D-Day anniversary came.

One day his widow, Anna, called and asked me to come over. Harold had left something for me, she said. It was Ambrose’s account of D-Day. She said Harold wanted me to have it, as well as any other of his books I’d like to have.

Perhaps he hadn’t recognized me in the end, but he did remember me.

On Sunday, June 6, my newest D-Day interview will be in the newspaper and I’ll be going to the annual picnic held in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, by the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge to honor D-Day veterans. I’ll be bringing 90-year-old Dan Curatola, one of Harold’s fellow infantrymen in the 1st Infantry Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment who also hit Omaha Beach that day 66 years ago. And I will think of Harold again.

*Venditta’s Pick of D-Day Photograph Albums

Time-Life editors. THE SECOND FRONT, Time-Life Books World War II  39-book series

Life commemorative edition by Richard Holmes. D-DAY EXPERIENCE, a photo-filled magazine to mark D-Day’s 60th anniversary, 2006

Time special issue, D-DAY: WHY IT MATTERS 60 YEARS LATER, 2006

National Geographic’s issue, “Untold Stories of D-Day,” 2002 which has the most detailed map of the invasion beaches I’ve ever seen

American Heritage‘s  issue “D-Day: What It Took, What It Meant, What it Cost.”1994

Normandy Invasion, June 1944

Normandy Invasion, June 1944

Veterans Live On In Their War Stories

They buried Ernie Leh with his 1st Infantry Division pin.

At the service last week in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, the Rev. Robert D. Machamer Jr. read aloud from the story I wrote about Ernie six years ago as part of my series in The Morning Call newspaper, War Stories: In Their Own Words. He read not just a few lines, but the top third of the article. It was about Ernie’s landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The minister, a friend of Ernie’s, was taken by an occurrence on the beach that would have been humorous if the situation hadn’t been so grave:

“On my way up the slope, I had to relieve myself. I stopped and went behind a rock about 5 or 6 feet high. Others passed me and went on ahead. I remember seeing a major and some enlisted men pass by. Just as they got over the next rise, a shell exploded right in their midst, getting all of them. That, I thought, might have been me if I had not stopped to urinate. The brief delay had saved my life.”

Soldiers on their way to France, June 6, 1944

Soldiers on their way to France, June 6, 1944

Machamer paused and said with a smile that you had to figure Ernie was meant to survive.

As he went on with the story, which I’d put together from Ernie’s own writings and my interviews with him, I thought about the enduring value of recording veterans’ stories, how important they are to family and friends and not least of all, posterity.

By special arrangement, my stories in The Morning Call have permanent homes in the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

Some of my subjects were recommended to me by sons and daughters of World War II veterans whose dads were in poor health. Their children felt they had limited time left and asked me to get their stories down. It’s an appeal I find hard to resist.

Two such interviewees were Earl Metz and Earl Schantzenbach. I worked on them without delay. Their stories ran in March 2003 in the days after the Iraq war began. Metz, who had been a combat engineer in Europe, lived for two more years. Schantzenbach, an infantryman who was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry, died just five weeks after his story appeared. But their stories will live on.

USS Arizona sunk at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

USS Arizona sunk at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

A Pearl Harbor survivor who agreed to talk with me did not live to see his tale in print. John Minnich’s heart gave out several days after my second interview with him. His family gave me permission to run the story as a tribute to him, and it appeared on the Pearl Harbor anniversary on Dec. 7, 2001. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t sense the end was near.

Veterans themselves embrace the idea that their stories will live after them. Most memorable to me was Joe Poster, who endured the Bataan Death March and more than three years as a prisoner of the Japanese. As his health failed in the months after his story appeared, I heard him tell people on more than one occasion, “That story is in the Library of Congress.” His two-part account is at  http://www.mcall.com/news/warstories/all-josephposter1,0,2658608.story and http://www.mcall.com/news/warstories/all-josephposter2,0,2724145.story.

State Representative Jennifer Mann of  Allentown contributes to the perception of permanence. When my war story subjects are constituents of hers, Rep. Mann sends them laminated copies of the articles with a note thanking them for their service to the country. This helps veterans see that people beyond family and friends are grateful for what they’ve done.

Korean War Fallen Soldier, August 28, 1950

Korean War Fallen Soldier, August 28, 1950

Even in obituaries, families have noted their loved ones were featured in the series. When nurse Cecilia Sulkowski died in 2008, the reference to my work read in part: “On July 5, 2002, Cecilia was featured in a lengthy article with photos in The Morning Call titled ‘Mending broken spirits, shattered bodies in Korea.’ In the article, she describes her Army experience which included setting up the first-ever Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the first six months of the Korean War… Her vivid descriptions and sharp memory made this story mesmerizing.”

At veterans’ funerals, my stories have appeared among photos and other memorabilia for mourners to see. This is more than gratifying. That’s because beyond the thanks of veterans themselves and their families and friends, writing veterans’ stories is meaningful and lasting. It not only preserves legacies for generations to come, it contributes to our understanding of history.

That’s partly what I aim for in my book about my cousin Nicky Venditti, an Army helicopter pilot who answered his country’s call. In QUIET MAN RISING: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam. In this book which took me many years to write, I also give voice to a young man whose story – like the stories of countless other veterans – would otherwise lie with him in the grave, untold and unappreciated.

I can’t let that happen.

Tracking Down the Truth: How to Check the Facts in a War Story

The newspaper I work for has fact checkers on staff. The fact-checking for stories about veterans provides special challenges because their material is from so long ago and far away. Of the more than 80 military veterans I’ve interviewed over the last decade, a few have told me stories about major brushes with famous people, and in one case with a particularly notorious bomb.

I had to be careful for my series in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., “War Stories: In Their Own Words.” Memories of long-ago events can be hazy, and age can play tricks on a person. When a veteran tells me stories that feature high-profile people, I find  it isn’t enough to run to the library or search the Internet for checking information.  When I can’t find the answers in the library or online, I have to come up with other ways of verifying the stories. Accuracy, after all, is everything, and I didn’t want someone knowledgeable telling me after publication: That has never happened with my stories.

One of my interviewees, Andrew Cisar, was a cryptographic technician with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army headquarters in England in 1944. His story was that he deciphered a top-secret message from the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, informing Patton of the final date for the invasion of Normandy, D-Day. Cisar remembered the hour and day he got the message for deciphering, and how it was so critical, he had to deliver it to Patton personally.

How could I confirm this?

It’s is easy to contact a professor, a government historian or an independent scholar who has published to good reviews.  All of these types are used to phone calls and will advise you.

I went right to the top – Martin Blumenson, a military historian who served as a historical officer with the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies in World War II.  Blumenson has been described by The Washington Post as “a leading historian of World War II who wrote the Army’s official account of the D-Day invasion and was perhaps the foremost authority on the life of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.” It wasn’t hard to get Blumenson on the phone. After I told him Cisar’s account, and answered questions he had about Cisar’s service, he said Cisar’s story was plausible. The story ran on June 6, 2004.

LC-USZ62-25600 Library of Congress image

Eisenhower addressing paratroopers (LC-USZ62-25600)

Jerry Webre was a Navy lieutenant who co-piloted cargo planes across the South Pacific. On a summer day, he saw unusual freight loaded onto his plane at a base along the San Francisco Bay. He said it was the tail assembly for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima. His C-54 carried the part to Honolulu, he said, and another crew took the plane from there.

How to check?

An online search turned up Alan Carr, historian at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where work was done on the atomic bomb. I e-mailed him the details of Webre’s account.

“No red flag here,” he e-mailed back. “Though I can’t confirm Mr. Webre’s involvement, his story certainly seems plausible.”

H.M. King George VI of the United Kingdom.

H.M. King George VI

Another Navy vet, Dr. John Hoch, recalled that  he had been on a landing craft moored in southern England in the days before the D-Day invasion, waiting to take troops across the English Channel on June 6, 1944.  He said General Eisenhower and King George VI appeared on the dock about 30 feet away from him.

I couldn’t find anything that put Ike and the king together at that time. A newsroom librarian couldn’t either.

But a historian at The National World War II Museum (formerly the National D-Day Museum) in New Orleans suggested I contact an expert on George VI. So I looked up British historians and, through a publicist, reached Antony Beevor, author of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.

In an e-mail, Beevor wrote of Hoch’s seeing Eisenhower and the king together: “It is plausible on 4th or 5th of June, but not on June 6th, as ships had left and the King was broadcasting live to the nation that morning.”

With that, Hoch’s story got the green light.

For my book QUIET MAN RISING: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam, about my cousin Nicky, I interviewed many veterans who had known Nicky. Before I wrote up my interviews with them, I asked the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for their personnel records.  A veteran’s service is public record, though some information, such as birth dates and current addresses, are withheld by law as a matter of privacy. This way, I could make sure the vet was who he said he was.

No matter how daunting the task, there’s always some way to go about verifying a veteran’s account. You might not be able to nail it down completely, but at least you can approach the truth. It’s a matter of taking the time to ask around, then following through. Professors, independent scholars and government historians can advise you on checking out the information you have about a veteran. If you go to the Resources page on my website, you will find a list of places that can help you get started in verifying veterans’ stories.