Friday, June 06, 2014

D-Day Plus Seventy Years: My Uncle's Souvenirs of the Invasion of Normandy 1944

My Uncle Theo, a Texan, took part in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy in June of 1944.  He was a medic with the 2nd Armored Division and didn't land on Normandy Beach until June 7 -- D-Day + One.  When he died in 1957, he left us a suitcase filled with war mementos, collected from the invasion of Sicily (Italy) and also the Normandy invasion (France).  There were Nazi wallets, Italian uniform buttons, German, Italian and French cash and coins, German medals, a German first aid kit, German eating utensils, some unfired bullets, Nazi patches, and even a black Nazi helmet.  I still have most of these mementos, carefully preserved.

As a child going through the suit case, handling the artifacts, I could sense momentous events, Germans and Americans, horror and death. The Nazi wallets were stuffed with personal pictures of handsome young German soldiers posing with friends, family and sweethearts.  This impressed on me the reality of war.  These dead Germans were human beings, and I could feel a certain empathy for them while still hating their cause.  But if somebody had to die, I thought, better them than us.  We didn't start this war.

Uncle Theo? (Sitting)
I noticed a sour smell in the suitcase that seemed to emanate from an orange colored plastic bottle.  It had German writing on the side, so I didn't know what it was for.  Years later, a friend who spoke German told me the bottle contained a salve for rubbing on the skin after a chemical or gas attack.  Now, all these years later, I still associate that sour chemical smell with D-Day.  I still have that orange bottle, but the smell is very faint now.  My uncle's suitcase, which had absorbed much of the smell, crumbled into dust years ago.  I now store his Normandy items in a large, plastic, sealed storage box.

Looking at many pictures of D-Day, however, I get an impression that it was rainy and wet.  It was a massive logistics operation, moving men, weapons, supplies and machines onto Normandy Beach.  LST's, a small ship with doors that opened in the bow, pushed their noses up close to the beach.  A special bridge built by British engineers provided the runway from the LST bows to the beach.  The LST's opened their large doors and expelled tanks, trucks, jeeps, artillery and long lines of troops.  Funny to think that 70 years have passed since that great undertaking -- a lifetime ago.

LSTs Unloading Men, Weapons and Machines
Normandy Beach,  June 1944
(Click to see full size)
Life Magazine printed photographs of the Normandy invasion, and there is a photo of a balding, husky soldier sitting near the water's edge, next to a line of dead American soldiers, most of who drowned coming ashore.   They wore their army life jackets (actually, a doughnut shaped, inflatable tube) too low on their bodies, and the life jackets flipped them over, pointing their heads down into the water, drowning them.  The Army life jackets were poorly designed -- Navy jackets didn't do this.

My father wrote to my uncle, who was at that time "somewhere in France," sending him a clipping of the photo, and asking if it were him.  I still have his letter in response, a letter headed "In France" and dated August 17, 1944.  He wrote "About the clipping you sent [the answer] is yes, but I probably could give no details now.  You see, this division has been under rigid censorship for two years, being an arm'd [armored] division."  However, Unc is facing away from the camera, so we will never be able to prove it (but dang, it sure looks like him to me).  That's the photo above.

As the allied troops moved off the beaches and into the French interior, my uncle went with them, winning both a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for tending the wounded under heavy small arms and artillery fire, near Carentan, France.  He also won his second Purple Heart prior to the Battle of the Bulge (the first was in Sicily), when he was wounded and sent back to England to recover.

The Coast of Normandy as It Looks Today:

The American Cemetery is to the right, the last resting place for those who died on the beaches.

Some of the Artifacts Brought Back From Normandy
by My Uncle Theo, Pvt, 2nd Armored Division
Photo:  On the left is a photo I took of some of Unc's Normandy artifacts.  There's a picture of someone's sweetheart, a German First Aid kit, two wallets, a gray leather cartridge box that was affixed to a soldier's belt, a spoon/fork combination in a gray leather holder that also strapped onto a soldier's belt, that orange bottle mentioned earlier, a case that held the orange bottle, a real Nazi helmet in near-pristine condition, some wallets, a patch, some medals, a German soldier's belt bucklet, some bullets, and one more wallet.

I will make a second post of some of the pictures that my uncle found in wallets of fallen Nazi soldiers during the Normandy invasion.  These pictures, except for Alfred Schmid, have not been published anywhere before.

See post below this one for those pictures.


Always On Watch said...

I've been quite ill and, therefore, late to get to your D-Day post. My apologies.

My two cousins who served during D-Day didn't bring home any souvenirs as far as I know. I wish that they had!

Stogie Chomper said...

Yes, it's nice to have an actual connection to that famous day and time; it makes it all seem more real.