by Laura Boyd
It is my honor to write my first post for the National Museum of the United States Army marking the anniversary of D-Day. On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France and turned the tide of World War II.
The National Museum of the United States Army will honor these brave warriors in a special exhibit that will highlight those who stormed the beaches and the tools they used on the “longest day.” These artifacts and anecdotes bring the Army’s history to life with this amazing story of courage and heroism. Staff Sergeant Walter Ehlers, then a squad leader assigned to the 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, was one of the Soldiers who rode ashore on Omaha Beach that morning and wrote his name into the Army’s rich and vibrant history.
As part of Operation Overlord, the Allies conducted the landings in two phases: an airborne assault shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armored divisions on the coast of France starting at 6:30 am.
Aboard the crowded U.S. Coast Guard Attack Transport ship, Ehlers said the “soldiers were scared; their leaders were scared” not knowing what would be happening in a matter of hours. After the first wave of troops became pinned down, Ehlers and his twelve-man squad climbed down the net rope from the ship onto the Higgins boat, a shallow draft landing craft that bobbed up and down in the heavy surf, and, according to Ehlers,“joined the chaos on the beach.” To keep their weapons dry, the Soldiers made sure to cover their weapons with a waterproof cover and loaded their equipment in a waterproof bag. While we take plastic for granted today, this was a new invention to many of the Soldiers. Though neither side used gas during the war, both the Allied and the Axis forces were equipped with gas masks under the theory that the other side might use gas. Ehlers and his men carried theirs in a waterproof M7 gas mask carrier.
The Higgins boat captain navigated through Belgian Gates, tetrahedrons and hedgehogs, beach obstacles designed to stop the amphibious assault, but the boat was grounded on a sand bar about 100 yards from the beach. As the ramp of the boat lowered, Ehlers’ squad stormed into the chilly surf; for many the water was over their heads. Soldiers on the D-Day invasion carried up to 100 pounds of equipment – enough supplies to last three days – and to help Soldiers stay afloat in an emergency, the Army issued the M1926 USN life belt. This inflatable belt was designed to rest under the arms, but sadly some Soldiers wore the belt around their waists, inflated the belt, flipped over due to the excess weight and drowned as a result.
Ehlers knew they had to keep moving. The Germans were firing all around us. We’d drown if we stayed in the water. We’d be dead if we stayed on the beach,” said Ehlers. He led his troops forward through the chaos on the beach, but barbed wire blocked the way. Ehlers laid down fire to allow time for some Soldiers to remove the wire using dynamite, like the pictured TNT demolition charge. Despite the high casualty rate (50 percent for the first wave and 30 percent for the second wave), Ehlers led his 12 men off the beach with no casualties.
By June 9, the squad was was near the town of Goville, and Ehlers and his squad took out several German machine gun nests and mortar positions. The next day, far ahead of most other Allied troops, his platoon came under heavy fire; Ehlers and his rifleman covered the platoon’s withdrawal. Together they took another machine gun nest, but he and the rifleman were both shot. A bullet hit Ehlers’ rib and went through his back, where it hit a bar of soap in his pack and tore through the edge of his mother’s photo. Despite being wounded, Ehlers carried the wounded rifleman to safety and continued to lead. Ehlers refused to be evacuated. After his wounds were treated and bandaged, he returned to his squad. For his actions on June 9-10, 1944, Staff Sergeant Ehlers received the Medal of Honor and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
The D-Day Exhibit
The D-Day exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Army will feature cast models from the 4th Infantry climbing onto a Higgins boat from the USS Joseph T. Dickman. On the other side of the vessel will be an exhibit of smaller artifacts used on D-Day including the items mentioned in this piece. There will also be beach obstacles used on Utah Beach.
The NMUSA's proposed D-Day exhibit renderings
Proposed Exhibit Renderings for D-Day Exhibit by National Museum of the United States Army