Preserving our stripes fell to more than stars

May 28, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

SOMETIME THIS morning, Walt Wintsch will head over to the green, rolling grounds of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium for the annual Memorial Day ceremony.

You won't find him up front with all the politicians and big shots and the war heroes with the pins in their caps, their chests sagging with gleaming medals and ribbons. Wintsch, 76, will be somewhere in the back of the crowd, alone with his thoughts, and maybe with a few tears, too.

This is the day we honor the men and women of our armed services who gave their lives defending this country. But it's a day when some of us think about all the brave war veterans still living, too. And that's why I called Walt Wintsch, who I first met a few months ago playing (and trash-talking!) in a basketball league for seniors.

Walt Wintsch was no war hero -- he's the first to tell you that. But on June 6, 1944, as a 19-year-old Navy medical corpsman, he was part of the D-Day invasion of France, the greatest seaborne assault ever mounted.

Throughout that chaotic day and well into the night, he served aboard an LST a few miles off Omaha Beach, scene of the bloodiest fighting at Normandy.

The LSTs -- Landing Ship Tanks or "Large Slow Targets" as the men called them -- were flat-bottom ships more than 300 feet long used to ferry soldiers and equipment onto invasion beaches.

But on D-Day, they also served as floating hospitals. And on LST 6, as the dead and wounded and German POWs from Omaha Beach were hoisted aboard, many with their chests blown apart and gaping holes in their guts, Wintsch got his first look at war and all its horrors.

The other day, when we met at a fast-food joint in Cockeysville, I asked him what he thinks about each time Memorial Day rolls around.

He was quiet for a few seconds. Then the retired insurance executive from Timonium said softly: "I think of all my buddies that are gone."

Pharmacist mate 3rd class Walter Wintsch left for the war in Europe on LST 52 in mid-February of 1944. As his ship sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to hook up with a convoy that would cross the North Atlantic, Canadian doctors tested an early form of Dramamine on the men.

"It didn't have much of an effect," said Wintsch with a shrug. "We didn't know if we had a placebo or the real thing."

Zig-zagging across the sea at 8 knots to avoid German U-boats, the convoy took 15 days to get to England.

Rumors of a huge Allied invasion of the continent were flying everywhere. But it was not until May 31, when the crew of his new ship, LST 6, was restricted to quarters and combat infantrymen and Army engineers began coming aboard, that Wintsch knew the invasion was imminent.

A few days later, LST 6 crossed the English Channel. At sunrise on June 6, off the Normandy coast, Wintsch stepped onto the deck from behind heavy blackout curtains and gazed out at the panorama of the biggest invasion fleet in history.

"When I looked out there," Wintsch says, eyes widening at the memory, "I said to myself: `This is the biggest day of your life.' There were ships all over the place."

Despite the intensive shelling laid down by U.S. battleships, the assault on Omaha Beach -- one of five landing sites chosen by the Allies along a 60-mile front -- quickly turned into carnage.

"Omaha was screwed up -- badly," Wintsch remembered. "They had bombed too far inland. So the Germans were still there."

In the heavy waves, many of the smaller landing craft were swamped. The soldiers who made it onto the beach were met with murderous ground fire.

Soon after the initial assault, a landing craft pulled alongside the LST 6 and a voice screamed: "I got casualties and half my crew is gone!" Then the litters began to swing overboard with the dead and dying, many with severe shrapnel wounds, including a young sailor blown apart by a German 88 mm shell.

The sailor was -- somehow -- still alive. Wintsch helped rush him to the tank deck, where the doctors were doing triage. But later that morning, someone whispered to Wintsch: "The sailor's gone."

"They said he had two kids, too," Wintsch recalled. "That was my first real taste of war."

All day and well into the night, the dead and wounded were hoisted aboard, as doctors and medical corpsmen worked frantically to save those they could. Wintsch still keeps a copy of the ship's deck log, with the date clearly visible at the top: Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

One entry begins: "Received from officer in charge the remains and effects of the following men ..."

One of the dead is listed as Doherty, with a gunshot wound to the head. Another is Fiore, with a gunshot wound to the chest.

The next morning, as the fighting near Omaha Beach raged on -- it had been touch and go the day before as to whether the American troops would pull out -- LST 6 left for England to deliver the 35 casualties aboard to hospitals. The ship would make four more trips back and forth, delivering a total of 792 casualties.

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