Sunday, June 7, 2009
D-Day veterans tell their stories 65 years after attack
This wonderful story appears in the Atlantic City Press today. More and more it's obvious that the Lookout Tower is going to be a must see part of any visit to Cape May Point. It's hard to believe! How many people have walked by without giving it a second thought. Not anymore --
LOWER TOWNSHIP - When Richard Baker helped liberate Paris during World War II, the French thanked him over and over as they celebrated in the streets.
But nobody was there to sing his praises, or pour him wine and cognac, 12 weeks earlier when he arrived. Baker, then 22, said it was the scariest day of his life as he joined 160,000 Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy.
On Saturday, 65 years to the day after D-Day, an 11-year-old boy from Greenville, S.C., tried to make up for the slight.
"Thank you. Thank you," Joseph Bay said as he extended his right hand to Baker.
Bay has read about D-Day. He's seen it in the movies. He understands just what Baker did that day.
"I would have been freaked out," Bay told Baker.
Similar scenes played out over and over Saturday at the World War II tower on Sunset Boulevard recently refurbished by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts.
MAC wanted to do more than just restore a concrete World War II tower used to spot enemy submarines and plot artillery firing ranges to hit ships off the coast. It also wanted to bring World War II to life, and did this in part by bringing in veterans to talk to the public.
"They're the VIPs," said MAC Museum Education Coordinator Robert Heinly, noting that Baker, 88, of Wildwood, fought at D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Tiger and the Battle of Paris.
Heinly made sure the tower had pictures displayed of all the local World War II veterans and video clips of their stories. On the anniversary of D-Day, he made sure several were on hand.
"The World War II veterans are in their mid-80s and won't be here much longer. What's really nice is they know at least in this one place they're not going to be forgotten. We wouldn't enjoy the life we have today without them," Heinly said.
The first thing most people said as they met Baker and other veterans was "Thank you." Then they wanted to hear what it was like. Baker didn't disappoint.
Baker explained how he thought they would sink crossing the English Channel. They turned back once due to inclement weather. The invasion was supposed to take place June 5, 1944.
When they finally did arrive at Normandy, Baker said, it was pretty much like the movie "Saving Private Ryan."
"It was pretty scary, especially when they put the ramp down and we got into the water," Baker said.
The soldiers waded ashore in chest-deep water, being peppered with German machine-gun fire. Some were sinking before they could get shot. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed and wounded that day.
"I weighed 130 pounds, and I had 90 pounds of equipment on my back. Some of the shorter men went under when they got off the boat. We were grabbing them to bring them up until they could touch the sand," Baker said.
Baker survived D-Day but almost died five days later when a German shell exploded when he was in a foxhole.
"The dirt caved in on me. They started digging me out because they knew I was at the bottom of the hole. I was bleeding at the nose, mouth and ears. The medic gave me mouth-to-mouth and a blood transfusion on the battlefield. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here," said Baker, who never saw that medic again.
Edward P. Kent, 85, a resident of Lower Township, was at the tower signing copies of his book "My Great Adventure to Normandy & Back."
Kent was 18 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Army the next day and found himself on a Landing Craft Tank on June 6, 1944.
The LCT was within sight of the beaches when the German artillery hit: "We kept going, didn't take evasive action or anything, just plodded right straight in," Kent wrote in his book.
They passed another LCT that was sinking and later found out 59 men from the artillery battalion just like theirs had perished.
When they got to the beach, German fire was rattling off the metal ramp they had to open to get out. Kent remembers thinking once that ramp opened they would get strafed.
Then they felt the lurch of the LCT grounding on the sand. They heard the anchors go down and the sound of the chains lowering the ramp. Their hearts were pounding.
"It was thrilling to hear that ramp go down because you know you're on foreign soil and somebody was doing his best to shoot you," Kent recalled.
A soldier Kent remembers only as "the Greek" led them to shore. Kent said on the beach there were burning vehicles, wounded and dead GIs, and the Germans kept shooting the boats and vehicles full of holes.
The division's goal was to take the town of Cherbourg, when Kent, a tank gunner, was wounded a couple weeks after D-Day. Shrapnel from a German mortar shell killed "the Greek" and wounded four including Kent. When the war ended, Kent was still recuperating from the injury at the Hotel Traymore in Atlantic City, where amputees and those with nerve injuries were taken. The shrapnel severed the main nerve in Kent's right arm.
"I was in the hospital for 16 months. I very nearly lost my arm, but they saved it," Kent said. "We took the city of Cherbourg."
Kent never recovered full use of his arm, but still had a long career as a carpenter and woodworker. He has a hard time believing D-Day was 65 years ago and doesn't think there will ever be another one.
"I don't think we'll have to invade any more beaches, but who knows. We may be going back to throwing rocks at each other the way things are going," Kent said.
E-mail Richard Degener:
If you go
The tower is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today. Admission is $6 for adults and $2.50 for children. MAC has other events planned as part of World War II Weekend. Call 609-884-5404 for more information.
And thank you again to Joe Slattery, my grandfather, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and won the war for us to live the way we live. RIP, Pop.