Amid the hoopla, invasion veterans pay silent tribute to fallen comrades

June 07, 1994|By Dallas Morning News

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France -- On the bluffs above Omaha Beach, 10 buses unloaded veterans of the 29th Infantry Division. They were walking reverently through the American Cemetery, and they were crying.

Ben Mirmelstein, a retired insurance-company vice president from Dallas, trembled slightly as he reached Plot J, Row 19, No. 15 and gazed down at the lush grass above Leonard D. Kerperien, a gunner in his machine-gun squad.

"That's why I came here," he said later. "Not for the ceremonies but to honor my buddies. I can't forget them. One of them must've taken a bullet for me and saved my life."

Many moved their lips in prayer as they picked their way among the thousands of marble crosses and Stars of David. Some fell to their knees.

Maryland resident Lee Hausman knelt when he reached his old landing site at Vierville-sur-Mere. With tears in his eyes, he silently filled plastic sandwich bags with the grainy golden sand.

"I brought 20 of them," he said. "I'm sorry. I can't talk more about it."

"He's never talked about it. He's kept it all bottled up inside for 50 years," said his wife, Doris.

Nowhere was D-Day suffering more severe than on Omaha Beach, where German defenders killed or wounded 14,000 men, 41 percent of the first-day landing force. Many units were virtually wiped out.

Bedford, Va., population 6,000, lost 23 young men. The deaths were so devastating that the military quit forming units from single communities.

Nowhere was D-Day heroism more remarkable than on Omaha Beach, either.

With most senior officers slaughtered at the start of the landing and all plans crushed by German gunners, small squads of soldiers improvised assaults on the German positions.

Their efforts inspired organizers of the 50th D-Day commemoration to schedule yesterday's main "international" ceremony on Omaha Beach.

But members of the 29th, originally formed as a National Guard unit and dubbed the "Stonewall Brigade" (plenty of Yankees eventually were represented as well) said they came to remember, not to celebrate.

"Anyone who says he was a hero, who says, 'I did this, I did that,' I guarantee you he wasn't here," said Jack G. Whetstine of North Myrtle Beach, S.C. "Anybody who tells you it was 'a good war,' he didn't see the water running red here . . . the decapitated heads and body parts in the sand . . . There was nothing good about it."

Allied planners knew the beach's terrain worked against them. The 100-foot cliffs were studded with 12 heavily fortified German strong points, and only four exits led inland.

Many of the Americans never reached shore. Their landing craft were shattered by shellfire, ripped apart by underwater obstacles or swamped by heavy seas.

William Bryan of Dayton, Va., was a 26-year-old captain when his landing craft went down hundreds of yards from shore. He inflated his life preserver and bobbed toward shore on the choppy sea.

"When I was at the top of the waves, I could hear the machine-gun bullets hitting the water near my feet," he recalled. "When I was in the troughs, I could hear bullets over my head. I thought, 'I don't know whether I'm going to get shot or drown.' "

For his part in the invasion, Mr. Mirmelstein was awarded the Silver Star.

"But I wasn't a hero," he said. "None of us were. We were just doing our jobs."

Many of the brigade's veterans said they felt guilty to have survived a war that claimed so many of their friends.

"I got to raise a family. They didn't," said Mr. Whetstine.

Mr. Mirmelstein claimed to feel otherwise, but then his voice broke and he cried, "God, I'm the luckiest soldier in the division. I should be up there in that graveyard. The real heroes are up there, in the cemetery."

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