Over the last couple of decades, some of North Florida’s D-Day veterans shared their memories of that momentous day with Times-Union reporters. On the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion to take back Europe, we revisit some of their stories to show the bravery these young men exhibited and the horror they saw. Stories have been edited for length and clarity.
Harold Baumgarten, June 6, 2014. He was injured five times on D-Day and captured by Germans on June 7. He wrote books on D-Day and appeared in documentaries. Steven Spielberg used his stories while making “Saving Private Ryan.” He died in 2016. Story by Clifford Davis.
The mightiest invasion fleet the world has ever seen sat in waters in and around England as rain and wind battered the fleet during the night of June 5, 1944. Three million men waited for the word that would unleash the fury of a fleet restrained by anchor, like a bulldog eager to break its chain.
As a squall moved through the gray dreary towns of eastern Britain, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s meteorologists announced their forecast. They expected a break in the weather on the morning of June 6.
At 9:45 p.m., Eisenhower unleashed his dogs of war with two simple words, “Let’s go.”
Immediately, the carefully choreographed plans involving hundreds of thousands of men, hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of tons of supplies lumbered into motion.
Harold Baumgarten was one of the troops, a member of the the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, part of the famed Stonewall Brigade of the 29th Infantry Division. A few weeks earlier, he’d caught a glimpse of a clay model of his company’s daunting objective.
“I saw these pillboxes were up 30 feet above the beach and the trenches were up 30 feet above that — about 50 or 60 feet above the beaches — with three machine guns in those trenches,” Baumgarten said.
“Half of the beach, the beach was 300 yards deep at low tide, was covered with these diabolical obstacles. That’s when I wrote to my sister Ethel and said don’t expect me home.”
On June 6, as Baumgarten’s landing craft approached the beach about 6:30 a.m., the battle was already on and the horizon looked like it was on fire.
Of the 24 boats that were supposed to hit his sector, only seven were left as they got ready to drop their ramps onto the beach.
“As we were coming in, a Co. B boat hit a mine and blew up and we were showered with wood, metal and body parts,” he said. “So now, we only had 180 men.”
As the remaining boats approached a beach bristling with mined obstacles, British sailors driving the landing craft panicked, Baumgarten said. “They got frightened when they saw the mines ... and I didn’t blame them,” he said. They dropped their ramps prematurely, in deeper water than expected.
“They dropped the ramps and that was the signal for the five German machine guns to open up,” Baumgarten said. “We
started to leave the boat and the BAR man in front of me was mowed down and went face-first into the water. His name was Clarence Riggs.
“I was right behind him and all I got was a crease to the left side of my helmet,” he said. “I went over the ramp and jumped in the water. I’m in the water, neck-deep, rifle over my head and all these guys were being mowed down.”
Artillery and mortar shells and machine guns greeted the soldiers on the beach. In a matter of seconds, nearly every officer and sergeant in the first wave was dead.
“I started running inland past the one tank that was still firing with a group of guys who were still alive,” he said. “The whole beach was mined, so we saw guys being blown up all around us.”
When the group made it about halfway up the beach, machine-gun fire shattered Baumgarten’s rifle as he held it.
“I hit the ground ... and noticed Robert Dittmar, from Fairfield, Conn., lying on his back yelling, ‘Mom, Mom, I’m hit,’” he said. “All the sudden it was silent. He was dead.
“I looked to my left and there was my sergeant from my boat, Clarence Roberson of Lynchburg, Va., he was staggering by me. He had no helmet, a gaping hole in the left side of his forehead and his blond hair was streaked with blood. He knelt down, facing the sea wall and took out his rosary beads and started to pray. Then a machine gun to my right fired over my head and cut him in half.”
Mario Patruno, June 6, 2011. His exploits were said to have inspired a scene from the miniseries “Band of Brothers” in which an American paratrooper is seen riding a white horse during the invasion. He died in 2015. Story by Matt Soergel.
Army Pfc. Mario “Gus” Patruno was 23, tough and fit. He’d fought in the ring as a youth boxer, and in the streets of Holyoke, Mass., with a brawling gang called the Bond Street Rovers.
On the dark morning of June 6, 1944, he’d need all the toughness he possessed if he wanted to see June 7.
Flying over Normandy under heavy fire, his plane was going low and too fast when he jumped from 400 feet, landing far from his intended landing spot. With his parachute riddled with holes, he tumbled to a rough landing, all alone.
It was 1:20 a.m. on D-Day. Eventually Patruno, a member of Company F of the 506th Parachute Infantry regiment, stumbled onto other Americans led by a lieutenant from the 82nd Airborne Division. He joined up with them as they marched toward Utah Beach, but Patruno split off as the group went their own way. He was itching to join his own men.
The area was thick with Germans, and all his senses were focused on survival.
Early the next morning, or the one after that, he spotted five beautiful horses in a field next to a barn. He sneaked into the barn, which was guarded by two Germans. He stealthily took down a bridle, went back outside and chose the most beautiful horse. It was huge. It was white.
He couldn’t mount the horse — not with a bag of grenades and his heavy pack — so he coaxed it over to a water trough, stood on top, and heaved himself up.
Just before dawn, he and the horse sauntered by a couple of German soldiers who waved hello to him. He waved back. In the dark, they couldn’t quite see what uniform he had on. Besides, what would a Yank be doing riding by on a big white horse?
And he was riding his white horse when he caught up with the men of Company F. It was quite the entrance. “They said: ‘Patruno, what are you doing? Hey Gus, there’s a war going on.’”
These days, he speaks frankly of the terrible things he saw and did.
“We had it drilled into our minds to kill those Nazis,” he said. “We had a saying: Come face to face with the enemy, kill him, eat his rations and take his watch for a souvenir.”
He once took the ring off the rotting finger of a giant German soldier, dead on the side of the road. Another time he took a hunk of black bread from another dead German’s knapsack: The bullet that killed him had gone through his chest, out his back and finally stopped in the bread. Patruno said he ate the loaf, then spat the bullet out.
Orders were to take no prisoners, he said, so soldiers on both sides routinely killed them instead.
“My friends, they gave their prisoners cigarettes first. I never gave my prisoners a cigarette. I didn’t smoke, and it was bad for their health.”
Once, though, as hardened as he was, he just couldn’t pull the trigger. The German was an older man, perhaps 45, half-balding. He held his hands at his side and bowed his head as he prayed loudly, waiting for the bullet.
“He looked like my father!” Patruno exclaimed. “Like my father. So I turned around and walked away.”
Bill Brewer, a World War II vet, June 6, 2010. He recalled his brother, Forrest “Lefty” Brewer, a fine baseball player and one of eight Jacksonville residents listed on the city’s memorial wall who died during the D-Day invasion. Story by James Cannon.
Forrest “Lefty” Brewer was in the 82nd Airborne Division and parachuted behind enemy lines to cause confusion and open holes in German defenses for the incoming beach invasion force. Bill Brewer said his brother’s unit, like most of the paratroopers who dropped in Normandy, were scattered throughout the countryside and missed their drop zones. But after Lefty and a group of men met up, they were able to secure their objective: a concourse in Sainte-Mère-Église, France.
The victory was short-lived.
“The Germans showed up with a tank and the infantry and they had to retreat across the Merderet River,” Brewer said of the paratroopers. “Lefty and a fellow by the name of Bill Dean were shoulder to shoulder when Lefty got killed.
He said if he had not been shorter than Lefty, he might have been killed too because the machine gun bullets caught Lefty behind the head. He was 6-foot-2.”
Frank Young, June 6, 2008. He survived the skies over Europe to become a longtime journalist for The Florida Times-Union. He died in 2009. Story by Matt Soergel
Frank Young tried to buy his way into D-Day, but no one would give up a seat.
Not even the most nervous guys, the guys who got so terrified they vomited during each flight.
As June 5 turned to June 6, Young, a 23-year-old with a syrupy North Carolina accent, wandered the airfield in Gosfield, England, looking for a way into the fight. It was a surreal scene — bustling, brightly lit up, as work crews rushed to paint big black and white stripes on the American planes before dawn, so they’d be easily distinguishable in the battle to come.
Finally. The invasion of Europe was on.
Young was an Army staff sergeant, a turret gunner in a Douglas A-20 Havoc, a swift twin-engine attack bomber. As dawn on D-Day approached, he told his buddies he’d fly for them, man their guns. He’d give them $10 even, a good-sized chunk of change in those days. But everyone wanted in on this day.
“Oh, I wanted to see that big invasion,” Young said. “That was something you didn’t want to miss.”
On June 7 — D-Day Plus One — Young got his chance at action, in a plane that flew low to avoid radar, aiming for rail and road supply lines near Utah Beach. And as the Allies took back Europe, mile by mile, Young had an overhead view of the action. Lots of it.
From May 4 to Nov. 9, 1944, he flew 65 missions. It was nasty and dangerous work. After missions, Young and his friends made a game of counting the holes in their planes. A few times they stopped counting at 100. About one in three of the men he flew with didn’t make it.
Young pushed his luck: His superiors wanted him to stop flying after 50 missions, but he volunteered for 15 more, in honor of his friend, Jimmy DiRago, killed in the skies over Cologne, Germany.
“That day, I got myself a bottle,” Young said, “I sat down next to a pot-bellied stove in operations, got bombed, wouldn’t give anyone a drink of whiskey, and cried my eyes out.”
Sixty-three years later, Young still thinks of him. “It’s been hard since World War II to have a friend as close as that. We screwed up together all the time.”
By late 1944, he was back at an English air base, his tour in Europe over, ready to board a hospital ship to America. It was strange; he should have felt relieved but he was vaguely deflated. He was leaving friends, and had lost friends. The war would carry on without him.
He stood in formation with other departing bombardiers, all in their greasy, worn jackets. They were drawn-looking, tired, haunted. Nearby were new American pilots, headed for fresh battles. The kids were high-spirited — punching each other, laughing, horse-playing.
“They were just behind us, a year or so younger than we were, but we looked like old men already,” Young said. “You change a lot in one year. You get wrinkles and crinkles, and not just from age.”
Ed Gandy, June 6, 2005. He lied about his age to join the Navy in May 1942, when he was “a few months shy of 15.” On D-Day, he was a signalman on the USS Texas, which followed minesweepers toward the Normandy coast. He died in 2007. Story by Shannon Houghton.
Ed Gandy’s role in the D-Day invasion began well before the 6 a.m. opening fire, as he stood on the exposed signalling bridge and received a message from a minesweeper that another ship was dangerously close to a mine.
“We knew we were going into the biggest minefield in the war,” he said. He used a signal gun to warn the ship.
He was exposed on the bridge. “You’d be the nicest target there is,” he said.
The ship eventually crept up to 3,000 feet from shore, close for a battleship.
When Gandy wasn’t signalling, he helped aim guns or worked anywhere else he was needed. That afternoon, he moved closer to shore as part of a shore fire control party to help spot the ship’s gunners.
The Texas made it through the day, but as Gandy returned to the ship from his spotting duty, he weaved his way through water thick with bloody bodies dangling entrails. “To see that many bodies in the water, that makes you grow up quick,” he said.
He was 16.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 61 years and I’m still walking around,” Gandy said.
“How did I survive that?”
Albert Braddock, June 6, 2002. A survivor of Omaha Beach, he was one of six siblings in one Baldwin family who served during the war. He died in 2010. Story by Rachel Davis.
The gray, four-bedroom house at the edge of U.S. 301 would have six stars on the front door by the time World War II ended — one for each son and a daughter who answered President Roosevelt’s call to duty.
Maybell Saul Braddock, the wife of a railroad worker, sent six of her 13 children, including one daughter, into the service and by 1945, all had made it back home to Baldwin to tell their story.
But it was Albert, an Army private, who never spoke of his D-Day war story until about two years ago. “We were just scared to death,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, there was no atheist on that beach.”
At 6:30 a.m. June 6, 1944, the first wave of troops landed at Omaha Beach.
Surprised and shaken, 34,000 troops battled heaving tides, mined waters and enemy positions that looked down from cliffs 100 feet high.
“Well, the first thing is that was a big snafu,” Albert. “Nothing went right.”
He saw the devastation when he hit the beach in the second wave. “It was full of bodies,” said Albert. “It’s a feeling you can’t realize. Until you’ve been there, you don’t know.”
By nightfall, the United States had suffered 2,400 casualties at Omaha. Albert stayed at Omaha for about six to eight weeks after the invasion, unloading barges full of supplies for the Allies. Instead of the bloody beach, Albert wrote home to his mama about the pretty French dairy maids and cows with fresh milk. Omaha wasn’t something she needed to know about.
Dale Groom, June 6, 1999. He was a new Navy doctor aboard a landing ship assigned to Omaha Beach, intent on saving whomever he could during those terrible days. He died in 1999. Story by Beau Halton.
Most of the Allied naval officers aboard landing ships on D-Day were consumed with moving cargo from England to France’s Normandy beaches. Dale Groom was more concerned about the return trip.
As a young, newly recruited Navy doctor, he ran one of the seagoing ambulances set up aboard tank landing ships on D-Day, stabilizing the wounded as they were ferried to England for hospital care. It was a major test of the Hippocratic oath, the physician’s pledge to preserve life under any circumstances.
Amid fierce fighting, Groom worked on German prisoners as fervently as he did on Allied soldiers. “We cared about the bodies, not the uniforms,” said Groom, a retired cardiologist.
The concept of providing medical care aboard LSTs, the military acronym for a tank-landing ship, was relatively new. After delivering military vehicles and troops to the invasion, the landing craft became ambulances for the return trip north across the English Channel.
On the morning of June 6, LST 357 remained anchored as the smaller landing craft headed toward the beach. Of the thousands of dead and wounded on Omaha Beach, only a dozen made it back to 357 the first day. The medical area was set up in the tank deck, one level below the top deck. A dining table in the officers’ quarters was available as an operating table.
On the second trip to France, on June 8, Groom saw an LST ahead of them torpedoed shortly after midnight. The ship was afire, and men dove from the flaming decks, screaming for 357 to rescue them. But Groom’s ship didn’t stop; the captain told him they would have been hit too.
Minutes later, another LST behind them was hit and sunk.
“One can never forget such a scene, indelibly impressed on memory, often to return and hauntingly to be relived,” Groom wrote. “But clearly the immediate mission of our three remaining LSTs was to forge ahead at the same speed of 10 knots — on to Omaha.”
He recalled taking on 220 wounded on June 8, including about a dozen German POWs.
“Truthfully, nationality was not a criterion in decisions and management of our care,” Groom wrote. “The fact that only one of all those patients died along the way on that trip is a tribute to everyone who worked tirelessly in our tank deck hospital, oblivious to the sounds of battle outside.”
The citizens of Jacksonville, June 6, 1944. Columnist Bill Foley, on D-Day 1999, looked back on how Jacksonville learned of the invasion.
An eight-paragraph story ran on the front page of The Florida Times-Union, under a 14-point head (that’s small): Nazi Radio Reports Invasion Underway Early this Morning.
“The German newsagency Transocean reported in a broadcast early today that Allied troops had begun landing near Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine River in France and termed the blow the beginning of invasion operations.”
By noon the news had clumped around the world in full-page packages, all elaborating on four words flashed from Calais radio at 1:56 a.m., Eastern War Time, June 6, 1944: “This is D-Day!”
At 2:31 a.m. Gen Eisenhower’s London headquarters broadcast to people on the Europe invasion coast that “a new phase of the Allied air offensive has begun.”
“As early as 3 o’clock in the morning lights blinked on in suburban homes, telephones jangled, sleepy-eyed householders clustered around radios,” wrote Ron Sercombe of the Jacksonville Journal.
It rained heavily in Jacksonville on June 6, 1944, when the destiny of man was changed on the beaches of Normandy.
“Lafayette, we are here ... again!” said a full-page ad by Cohen Brothers.
“As we get news of Allied landings to liberate Nazi-invaded countries of Europe, let us turn in prayer, not celebration,” editorialized the Jacksonville Journal. “We are in a sense at the beginning of our great trial, not at the end.”
Carl Bishop and John Robertson, July 24, 1998. The men, both Jacksonville natives in the 29th Division, were in the first wave to hit bloody Omaha Beach. More than 54 years later they went to see a celebrated movie that depicted what they’d gone through. Bishop died in 2006; Robertson died in 2012. Story by Matt Soergel.
“Saving Private Ryan” begins with a bloody tour de force for director Steven Spielberg, as he shows American soldiers on D-Day, struggling across Omaha Beach under German fire so intense you wonder how any of them lived through that day.
It is gruesome, horrifying, and very close to real.
“The blood and guts of it is pretty much just like you saw it,” Carl Bishop said. “Intestines. Brains. Seasick.”
“I saw my lieutenant, the boat team leader, hit by a shell,” John Robertson said. “He went up sky high. And I saw one of our flame-throwers hit. He exploded.”
“We saw some horrible things,” Bishop said. “Some mighty brave men, too. Lots of them. Young men.”
Robertson’s fighting was over a month and five days after D-day, after he was hit in five places by shrapnel from an American artillery shell that landed short. He’d spend more than five months in English hospitals recovering.
Bishop was hospitalized twice for minor wounds, but he was quickly back in uniform. He saw Armistice Day with a tank division near the Czech border.
He married shortly after getting home, and when his wife would get out of bed to go the bathroom at night, he’d fret over her. “Where’re you going?” he’d say nervously. “Keep quiet. Keep low.”
The war was still with him then, and it’s still with them now. They didn’t need to watch “Saving Private Ryan” to remember what happened on the beach in Normandy that day, but they hope it reminds others, especially those born since then, of that pivotal day.
“I think it did a good service to all of us who went in on D-Day,” Robertson said. “You picture guys you trained with, guys who died. I can’t remember their names. I think it’s best if you don’t.”
As the movie ends, it shows an elderly survivor going back to the servicemen’s cemeteries in Normandy, breaking down amid so many headstones, so many names. Both the Jacksonville men have been back themselves. Their reaction was the same.
“In that cemetery you saw there,” Bishop said, “I just broke down and cried like a baby.”
This story originally published to Jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.