Wednesday, June 4, 2008

D-Day and Puyallup

D-Day and Puyallup
By Hans Zeiger
An adapted version appeared in the Puyallup Herald on June 4, 2008

On June 6, 1944, the churches of Puyallup opened their doors for people to come and pray. Pray they did, especially those with loved ones then climbing onto the beaches of Normandy or making the choppy voyage across the English Channel.

On the night of June 5, a young truck driver from Puyallup named Douglas Scott was on machine gun duty, bound by two ammunition belts to a pole at the front of a flat-bottomed landing craft. After Scott had been for enough of a ride, the captain came out to summon him back into the boat. Inside, men were either seasick or sleeping. Scott lay down on a table and joined the sleeping party.

In the early hours of D-Day, Scott’s 149th Amphibious Engineers approached the shoreline with a fleet of other landing crafts. In a landing craft just a few hundred feet away from Scott’s craft were two brothers and their uncle. With the sergeant’s permission, one of the brothers had traded places with Scott so that he could be with his relatives.

German artillery exploded from the side of the cliffs ahead. A rocket filled with oil and shrapnel came down on the boat where Douglas Scott would have been. An inferno of diesel rose into the air.

But then the Channel was filled with men and bullets and there was no time to reflect. “All of the sudden you’re trying to get out of sight in a hurry. We swam in the water first, then we waded up to shore. They were trying to take care of some of the wounded. There was more than the medics could take care of. The tide came in and washed a few of the wounded out to sea.”

And there were waves of metal, pounding down from the cliffs, echoing back from the American destroyers. The sound was deafening.

“I didn’t talk about it for years and years and years,” said Al Gerstmann, who spent his youth working at the family clothing store at the corner of Pioneer and Meridian, graduated from Puyallup High School in 1942, and went to work at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, making bolts for ship repairs. Among the ships Gerstmann restored was the U.S.S. Nevada, badly damaged during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The next time Gerstmann encountered the Nevada, her guns were pumping shells into the German fortifications on Omaha Beach, and pelting the enemy miles inland. Among the million other blasts and cries of war that day, the Nevada resounded loudest. “My ears are still ringing from that concussion,” he says.

Al Gerstmann’s 348th Combat Engineers, stationed at Swansea, had practiced the landing for several months. They loaded into ships on June 5, but they were delayed by rough weather and stayed on board the ship until transferring into landing boats the following morning.

The first group of the 348th was almost entirely wiped out, and every one of its boats was lost. Gerstmann’s group was to be in the second wave off the ship, but the loss of the initial boats required the men to improvise with smaller boats that were usually reserved for infantry.

Embarking, Gerstmann’s boat soon encountered a patrol boat with Navy men waving flag signals to avoid the area because of a mine. Redirected toward the coastline, the boat made its way toward the landing area, which by then was so crowded with men and landing craft that there was no room to get out. The boat retreated to the ship. Soon it were dispatched to a less crowded section of Omaha Beach beneath a steep cliff north of the main landing site.

Even though the cliff offered some initial protection to Al Gerstmann and company, they would have to make their way along the beach to the heart of the fighting, and the scene ashore was a grisly sign of what lay south along the sand. “The shore was just packed with wounded. They were waiting to get back on the boat to go out to the hospital mothership.”

Gerstmann made his way down the main landing site and took shelter near a field hospital. The hospital was far enough beneath the looming bluff that German shells just missed it. “They landed out toward the water, and everything rocked. We were dug in there. We liked that spot to dig in, because it was all sand, and we could dig down easy.”

Meanwhile, Douglas Scott was scrambling around the beach dismantling landmines and other obstacles. He estimates that bullets came his way three or four times that first day.

Up the coastline at Utah Beach, German fighter planes strafed the beach occasionally as members of the 101st Airborne Division made their way to the French village of Carentan. One of the men was Bob Leonard of Wisconsin, who would later come to Puyallup to work at the YMCA. Leonard was encamped with the 327th Glider Detachment in Berkshire when the command came to cross the English Channel. Leonard had volunteered as a medic’s aide, earning a reputation for a strong stomach after he was the only crew member who didn’t vomit on a wild glider ride to test newly invented airsickness pills.

But what Bob Leonard saw at Utah Beach late on June 6 was sickening. The glider missed its landing target and touched down some five or six hundred feet up the beach. As Leonard exited the glider he could see on one side of the beach the yellow lines the Marines had left as they battled their way into France. And on the other side—“the first realization I had of what war was—was a body rolling back and forth in the water.”

Al Gerstmann had an even closer encounter with death when he returned to his landing area north of the main beach to dig in near the rows of wounded men waiting for evacuation. But Gerstmann soon found that the beach was hard clay and rock instead of sand. “By nightfall, I didn’t get a very deep hole. I got tired of digging so I stretched out in part of a hole. All of a sudden, one of the MPs was going by and hollered halt. Whoever was there didn’t halt and he got shot. The guy almost fell on top of me in the foxhole. They just left him there in the foxhole, and I had company all night. He was a German prisoner of war. He died right next to me. I went to sleep anyway.”

Before reaching Carentan, Leonard’s colonel ordered the men to dig in for the night on the beach. According to Leonard, a general appeared in the course of the digging and fired the colonel for having told his men to stay the night along the beach instead of moving into Carentan. That settled, the 327th Glider Detachment finished its march into the village, where they spent the night in the back of a church. “I was scared spitless but nothing happened.”

Back in the main landing zone, Douglas Scott spent that first night stretched beside a telephone pole. “Between me and them was a telephone pole,” he said, adding, “I was sleeping.”

And when we sleep tonight, we will owe much to men like Al Gerstmann, Douglas Scott, and Bob Leonard.

Leonard and the 101st Airborne completed the liberation of Carentan. Scott worked for the next two days on the beach, removing obstacles and landmines, evading the occasional bullet. When the beach was secure, Gerstmann spent the following three months at Normandy, constructing roads over which thousands of Allied tanks and trucks would pass.

In the course of that long operation, some Puyallup boys would pay the ultimate price in the battlefields of France and Germany, and we shouldn’t forget their names: George Holm, Julian Gamaunt, Eddie Myers, Leonard Kandle, Mark Porter, to name several. If there’s ever been a generation from Puyallup who embodied our name—“The Generous People”—it was that great generation that took the beach at Normandy 64 years ago this week.

If you’d like to share stories of other veterans from the Puyallup area, contact Hans Zeiger at 253-905-8160 or