It's D-Day, almost to a T Veterans: Soldiers who were there say Steven Spielberg brings it all back with 'Saving Private Ryan.' @

July 25, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Richard "Herk" Herklotz remembers the barrage balloons thick over the vast D-Day fleet and the bodies thick in the water as his landing craft sped toward Omaha Beach.

"We saw bodies of sailors first and then we got a little closer and saw sailors and soldiers mixed in and then the soldiers became prominent and sailors very sparse," Herklotz says. "That was the most frightening and disturbing sight that I'd ever seen."

Herklotz, 76, of Woodlawn, was 22 when he went ashore just as dawn was breaking over Omaha Beach.

"We were all sick as dogs," he says. He was in a field artillery battery of the 29th Division, the Maryland-Virginia National Guard division that was one of the first on Omaha on D-Day.

On Thursday night, Herklotz; John Cuthbert, 78, another D-Day veteran; Milton Price, 78, a B-17 gunner who spent seven months German POW camps; George Linthicum, commander of the && Limestone Post of the 29th Division Association; and Albert J. Craemer, a "29er" who was a kid in Germany on D-Day, gathered to see a preview of Steven Spielberg's epic D-Day movie, "Saving Private Ryan."

"Private Ryan" has immediately become "the best war film ever made" in the words of Steven Ambrose, a historian who wrote the D-Day book "Citizen Soldier" -- and who is listed as an adviser on the film. And, Time magazine says, Spielberg has instantly become "our most spectacular poet of war."

Jack Cuthbert, who lives in Rodgers Forge, went into Omaha Beach late in the afternoon of D-Day with the Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, of the 29th's 175th Infantry Regiment, in support of the 115th Infantry.

"The 116th and the 115th were in the initial wave and they got cut up real bad," Cuthbert says. "We had to swim ashore. We swamped. We got hit. A couple of 'em didn't make it."

He's a square-faced, white-haired man in a blue-and-white-striped sport shirt. He could have easily played the elderly Private Ryan as he searches an American cemetery in Normandy. So could Herklotz and Price. They have that settled confidence of men who served well in "the good war."

"Utter confusion" prevailed on the beach, Cuthbert says.

"Nobody knew what was happening," he says. "Utter chaos. Dead laying around, dead washing up in the water. You had to actually pull the bodies out of the water to get ashore."

These are the things Spielberg's film shows more vividly than perhaps any other American war film.

"I don't know how much realism they can really get into a movie," Cuthbert says, at dinner before the movie. "It's inconceivable to me how a film could depict what actually happened. It's impossible."

But after the 169 minutes of Spielberg's movie, he says: "That was a little too much. I've seen a lot of combat, but I've never been in intense combat like that. A little too Hollywood."

But he adds, "I think some of the action was really great on the beach."

Cuthbert was in combat continuously for 44 days without relief after he hit the beach in 1944. Then a German .88 millimeter shell landed right in front of him at a place known as "Purple Heart

Hill."

"I woke up in England," he says. By the time he got back, the 29th Division was in Germany.

He's got a Bronze Star with two oak leaves and a V for Valor. "For rescuing some wounded guys under fire," he says, laconically, "outside St. Lo."

Cuthbert, who prizes his Combat Infantry Badge more than any other decoration, thinks Spielberg's movie was the best combat film he's ever seen, except for documentary films.

As an American flag ripples across the screen at the end and the credits roll, Price, who was captured by the Germans after bailing out of a crippled B-17, says, "If it teaches the young ones, it has done its job."

These old soldiers watched the film intently and critically and tight-lipped sometimes, but not unemotionally.

"Very moving," says Herklotz, who also was awarded a Bronze Star in Normandy. "Very moving."

He and his buddies offered a running commentary during the movie. Herklotz thinks the final firefight went on a little too long without a resupply of ammunition.

"There's no way those two men could hold off German tanks and .20 millimeters," Cuthbert says, with the authority of someone who has actually fought German tanks.

They thought Tom Hanks' squad bunched up and talked too much when they moved behind enemy lines. "One grenade and they're all gone," Cuthbert says.

And they didn't think the terrain looked much like Normandy hedgerow country. (A good call: "Private Ryan" was filmed in Ireland.)

When Hanks rests his troops between firefights, Herklotz observes, "Too many men in one place. No security."

He approves, however, when the American sniper -- a Southerner, of course, shades of Sergeant York -- puts a slug right through the scope of a German sniper and into his brain.

"That was a good shot, wasn't it?" Herklotz says.

The noise of gunfire and ricocheting shrapnel and the disemboweled bodies and the blood and dismembered limbs all seemed exceptionally realistic to these veterans.

"That's why they called it Bloody Omaha," says Herklotz.

"Bloody Omaha," whispers Cuthbert.

The film ends in the cemetery where Jack Cuthbert walked on the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

"It still haunts me at times."

rTC "Spielberg did a good job," says Herklotz. "Let me tell you this: 2 million soldiers landed in France one time or another and you have 2 million stories told. No two guys saw the war the same."

"That's exactly right," says Jack Cuthbert.

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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