Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. On that day, Allied forces began the push to end the European front of World War II by landing in Normandy, France. Thousands died that day. Those that survived are now in their 90s.
Two St. Louis area veterans, Clem Igel and Harris Gerhard, shared their stories on Thursday's St. Louis on the Air. The show also included George Despotis, who is collecting the oral histories of World War II veterans. Jefferson City veteran Richard Gibbler spoke with Marshall Griffin about his experiences.
Clem Igel, 90, of Ballwin was part of the landing force on D-Day, an infantryman with the 110 AAA Battalion, an anti-aircraft unit.
“I got my first scare just before we landed in Normandy,” said Igel. “We met with Eisenhower’s staff, and they started talking to us. I’m 20 years old and he starts talking to us, and he said ‘you are our landing force. You are going in, and we expect 50 percent casualties.’ He said, ‘Look at the guy next to you, either you or he is not coming back.’”
Igel’s unit was sent in a few hours after the first wave. He remembers watching the Germans firing on and sinking a nearby landing craft, and being anxious to get in on the fighting.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to go in. There’s no use sitting here. We can’t go backwards. We’ve got to go forwards,’” said Igel.
After D-Day, Igel fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped protect the Remagen Bridge, a key route to bring Allied forces further into Germany. By the end of the war he had helped liberate Paris and been promoted to sergeant.
Harris Gerhard, 92, of Webster Groves also participated in the final months of World War II in Europe. As a flight engineer aboard a B-24, he flew on 32 missions over Europe between November of 1944 and April of 1945, bombing key targets such as ammunitions plants and oil refineries.
“Being in the air, it wasn’t all as neat as people think,” said Gerhard. “You had a lot of anti-aircraft flak…and when we went over a target, we knew it. All you had to get was just one burst and 10 men were gone.”
Washington University professor George Despotis also joined the conversation. He is co-author of “Victory Through Valor,” a collection of oral histories from World War II veterans. Most of his interviews were with St. Louis-area veterans who fought in Europe.
Jefferson City veteran recalls Normandy invasion
Richard "Ebbie" Gibbler, 90, is a native of Centertown, Mo., who now lives in Jefferson City. On June 6, 1944, he was a 20-year-old radio operator with the U.S. Navy who was assigned to an Army unit to provide communication from Omaha beach. Gibbler talked about his experiences that day with St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin:
Some highlights from Gibbler's account:
- He discusses the lead-up to the invasion. D-Day had initially been set for June 5th, but stormy weather and rough seas resulted in a 24-hour postponement. Gibbler and the other 1,000-plus soldiers and sailors bound for Omaha Beach were awakened at 2:00 a.m. June 6th for breakfast onboard the USS Henrico before gearing up and climbing into their landing crafts.
- Gibbler's landing craft got stuck about 100 yards off shore and he had to wade to to the beach in water that at first was up to his neck, all while being shot at by German troops. His company suffered heavy casualties, but he came through "without even a scratch or a bruised finger."
- Securing the beach didn't come easy. Gibbler says the Germans had a fortified bunker separated from the beach by a lake and land mines. He also said they helped the wounded as best they could while trying to advance and not get shot themselves.
- Gibbler also talks about a few humorous moments in the days immediately following D-Day, as he witnessed a British fighter pilot try to shoot down a barrage balloon that had gotten loose, as well as his tounge-in-cheek claim of having invented "the world's first air mattress" using CO2 capsules.
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport