For World War II veterans, June 6, 1944, has remained in their memories for a lifetime. For Americans, it was among the bloodiest days of the war. For the world, it was a turning point.
This year’s anniversary of the pivotal Allied invasion of France — the 70th anniversary, D-Day plus 25,568 days — looms large. More than 500 WWII veterans die daily, and the number of living participants in what was Operation Overlord is shrinking fast.
Wallace Newcomb, 91, of New Carlisle, said mere words will never do his experience in D-Day justice.
“I just remember being there and going forward, you know?” he said. “You had to keep your mind on what you were doing … you didn’t have time to think about it. You just did it.”
D-Day had 160,000 Allied troops land along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France.
From 1941 to 1945, 405,399 U.S. service members died during World War II, including 291,557 who were killed in action. There were 16,828 Ohioans who died in the war, including 9,866 who were killed in action.
These are the stories of local veterans who served on the frontlines, on the homefront and, most importantly, for their country.
William Wilch: ‘They ran right into death’
For William Wilch, 9o, landed with the first invasion wave on a stretch of Omaha Beach, known as “Easy Green,” on June 6. The day is forever emblazoned in his memories — and his nightmares.
“I put my head down and ran straight ahead to those bluffs,” said the Middletown resident, who was an Army private first class 70 years ago. “I didn’t look to the left or right.”
Wilch and Newcomb are two of many area WWII veterans with whom this newspaper has spoken in the past two weeks to recount their stories of service in the war, including talking about Overlord, the Allied invasion that established a Western front in France.
For those who stepped foot on the beaches of northwestern France, and for those who supported them, it is not an anniversary to miss.
“From what I smelled, heard and seen, the D-Day assault where I was, the American soldier was magnificent,” Wilch said. “They went into death, hell. After going through being wet, sick, all that. They never hesitated. I never saw one man hesitate after he came out of those landing craft.”
Added Wilch, “I think it stunned the Germans, that they ran right into death.”
Wilch served with the 2nd squad of the 2nd platoon, E Company, in the 115th Regimental Combat Team in the 29th Division.
He believes he survived D-Day — and the ensuing seven decades — thanks to “an angel” on his shoulder.
“There’s no skill in combat,” Wilch said. “It doesn’t matter how fast you are, how high you can jump, what you can do. If they flood the place with bullets, you’re going to get it.”
Wallace Newcomb: ‘It hurts a lot’
For Wallace Newcomb, 91, of New Carlisle, the principal memory from Overlord is of a German tank running over his left arm.
Newcomb, then an Army private, was seven days from landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy with the first wave. Well past the beach, Newcomb and other soldiers in his unit were following German tanks on June 13, he said.
“We got real close to them,” he recalled of the tanks. “They stopped and were camouflaged, covered up with brush. They were sitting still.”
Then the tanks began firing.
“When they had to move, I was right beside the tank, laying down with a machine gun, what they call a BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle,” Newcomb said.
When the tank moved out, the brush on the tank caught hold of Newcomb’s pack, twisting him around. He was shifted to the point where the tank’s tread ran across his left arm.
The ground was sodden with rain, making it comparatively soft. That may have helped spare Newcomb’s arm.
“They saved my arm,” Newcomb said. “It had been raining, it seemed like all the time we were in there. The ground was real wet and soft and everything. It just pushed it (his arm) down (into the ground).”
He was sent back to a hospital in England, and eventually, back to the United States.
Don Jakeway: ‘We jumped everywhere we were not supposed to be’
Don Jakeway jumped out of a C-47 Skytrain troop carrier plane, plummeting through the after midnight darkness and left hanging by a parachute from a tree limb in the French village of Ste. Mere Eglise in Normandy.
Precariously, and ever so dangerously, the Johnstown, Ohio, paratrooper had dropped into the unknown and into history.
Jakeway was an Army paratrooper with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment with 82nd Airborne Division.
“When we jumped there we jumped everywhere we were not supposed to be,” said Jakeway, now 91. “A trip into Normandy itself was quite an experience.”
The soldiers heading over the English Channel and into France were concerned about dropping into the water. Loaded with gear — landmines, a reserve parachute, ammunition, weapons, canteens, K-rations and bayonet — Jakeway said soldiers like him who weighed about 180 pounds could tip the scales at 325 pounds.
“It took everything we could do just to get on the plane or to get up off the seat and jump out of that plane,” he said.
“When I landed in the tree, of course, I was scared to death because you didn’t want to be caught in a tree,” he said.
He had been issued a cricket, or noise-making device, to click in order to locate fellow soldiers.
But with German soldiers lurking in hedgerows or hidden corners, he didn’t think it wise to start making noise. “Being in the dark out there by myself, I threw my cricket away,” he said. “If they want to find me, they’re going to have to find me.”
Dispersing the troops had one highlight, he said.
“I think if we had all landed in one place, I don’t think we would have made it,” he said. Of the 12,000 soldiers with whom he parachuted in, 3,200 made it out alive, he said.
“I lost seven men in my squad and I don’t know how I got out of there, but I did,” he said. “A lot of times I sit there and wonder how I made it out of there because I can tell you there were 40 times when I shouldn’t have.”
He is in Normandy today for the 70th anniversary.
He went there on a business trip decades after the war. “It’s very emotional because a lot of the places when I went back over there looked almost the same as they did during the war,” he said. “It hasn’t changed much.”
Robert L. Harvey: ‘When you actually hear someone die’
Robert L. Harvey was a letter carrier in Dayton when he was sure the war would come calling for him.
The 1937 Dunbar High School graduate decided to answer the call before being asked.
Partly, he wanted to pick what he would do in the midst of World War II.
When he spoke to a draft board chairman, the official told Harvey he wanted to send him to the Navy. Harvey would have none of it.
“There was no advancement for black people in the Navy at that time,” the 94-year-old Dayton man said this week. “None.”
Harvey wanted to earn his wings as a pilot. But not just any aviator in the 1940s world of segregation.
He would go into training to become an Army Air Corps pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen in Tuskegee, Ala. Many of those pioneering blacks were flying in segregated units in Europe battling the Nazi regime and escorting vulnerable, plodding bombers on missions.
After basic training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., he crossed into Alabamato begin training with the all-black aviation unit. Pilots who had flown in Europe returned to Tuskegee to help train the next wave of “Red Tails,” so-called because of the red paint on the tails of the fighter planes the pilots flew in combat.
Many of his colleagues had qualms about flying, but he said he never did. It felt like freedom and stirred a sense of religious connection and thankfulness in the cockpit.
“I just felt a sense of jubilation,” he said. “There’s nothing like being up there by yourself.”
He trained flying over the Alabama countryside and on cross country flights.
When D-Day arrived, a sense of optimism gripped trainees, certain that the war would be over, soon.
The war ended the following year. The trainee said he never saw combat and was never sent overseas.
In 2007, President George W. Bush presented the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in Washington. Harvey was there.
“We weren’t surprised,” Harvey said. “We just wondered why it took so long.”
Chuck Benston: ‘Ten weeks of very intense training’
Chuck Benston survived a violent Pacific typhoon on a warship at sea, dodged scattering bullets, and blew up floating mines.
Before World War II was over, the Army staff sergeant would don a pair of swim fins with a Navy underwater demolition team in Hawaii, and swim under the cover of darkness on hit-and-run missions across the Pacific.
“We were the forerunners of the SEALs,” said Benston, now 92, and who lives in Moorefield Twp.
Drafted in 1943, Benston left Springfield for the Army.
A soldier with the Army Amphibian Engineers, he was a demolition explosives expert with the 534th Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment.
He said he and his comrades made numerous beach landings around New Guinea and the Philippines, often under fire.
“I was involved in blowing things up. That was my job,” said Benston, a retired assistant manager of a foundry.
Benston believes he was in New Guinea on June 6, 1944, thousands of miles away from the shores of Normandy, fighting under the same flag but against a different enemy.
When the infantry landed, there was no element of surprise, he said. The Japanese usually knew the Americans were coming, he said. But he survived.
“The only thing I can tell you is I was lucky,” he said.
At the end of the war, the threat hadn’t ceded. For months,he temporarily served with the Navy where he disarmed floating mines in the bay waters at Nagoya, Japan.
The technique: Swim up, attach an explosive and swim away. The mine blows up.
But that technique once backfired. Benston was handed aerial reconnaissance photos of a pier in Japan and ordered to blow it up. He did.
It was the wrong pier, he said, a mistake on the part of those who gave him the photo. A brigadier general told him he had blown up a pier costing $3 million.
“After it was all said and done it was kind of funny because I thought I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do,” Benston said.
Vernon “Moon” Miller: A teen fighting overseas
Vernon “Moon” Miller, who served in the U.S. Navy on D-Day, is in France today to commemorate the historic day.
A Dayton native, Miller enlisted in the Navy on his 17th birthday. He was a boatswain’s mate, helping with ship maintenance. He served on the USS Cincinnati for two years, and that was the ship on which he served on D-Day.
Miller went aboard the Cincinnati, a light cruiser in Miami in August 1943. Soon, the ship was escorting troop and equipment convoys to from New York to Belfast, Ireland, in preparation for the Overlord invasion.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” Miller recalled of the time in Belfast. “This was like the 20th of May or something. But we also were there for two-and-a-half weeks or something like that, waiting on orders. And so was everyone else.”
Between 4,000 and 6,000 ships supported action on five beaches across 60 miles in Overlord.
Did Miller feel like he was part of history?
“I did not,” he said. “The day before, I was 18. You understand what I’m saying? I was one of the younger ones.”
Nadine Nagle: ‘They did not recognize us for anything, even flags on our coffins’
Nadine Nagle was accustomed to teaching in a classroom more than flying in the cockpit of a warplane.
But the Kettering woman signed on to become one of a select few in the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, in the midst of World War II.
Her life changed Jan. 3, 1943, when her husband, Dale Canfield, was killed in a bomber crash in England on a mission to bomb German submarine pens in France.
“At his death, that just kind of ruined my life,” Nagle, 95, said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
She read a magazine article about Jackie Cochran, who formed a group of women pilots who ferried warplanes across the country to help the war effort.
Nagle, who grew up on a crop farm and was a school teacher in her native Kansas, wanted in.
“I thought if Dale isn’t here to fly, I will fly in his place,” she said.
She traveled to Wichita to earn a pilot’s license. Later, in April 1944, she trekked to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, to begin seven months of learning how to fly “the Army way.”
“It was exactly the same training that the male cadets were getting” prior to deploying, she said.
The WASPs were considered civil service aviators, she said, and weren’t officially accepted into the Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Air Force.
Most of the WASPs-in-the-making had jobs far apart from the world of 1940s aviation. They were factory workers, teachers, nurses, businesswomen, a pro-golfer and even a Broadway dancer, she remembered.
Of the 105 women who started in her class, 55 graduated. And so did she.
“The ladies were washed out because they could not fly the Army way,” Nagle said.
She ferried passengers and planes, such as the troop carrying C-47 Skytrain and the B-24 Liberator bomber.
When D-Day arrived, Nagle “knew that things were going to be coming to a close” on the warfront.
Before the war ended, the WASPs would be out of the cockpit. Congress disbanded the women’s aviators group in December 1944 – despite Cochran’s attempt to make the WASPs a full-fledged part of the military.
Of the more than 1,000 women who became WASP pilots, 38 died flying in uniform. Since they were not part of the military, the female aviators were not recognized as veterans and did not get any death benefits, Nagle remembered.
“We were civil service, and it was sad that we were not remembered,” she recalled. “… In the beginning, they did not recognize us for anything, even flags on our coffins.”
When she left the WASPs, she continued to serve in the American Red Cross. “I did not want to get out of uniform,” she said.
But she never returned to the cockpit.
In 1947, she married Frank Nagle, an Air Force officer, and the couple had four children. Nagle’s career brought them to the Miami Valley when he was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She retired in 1982 as a kindergarten teacher.
She’s acted as a mentor to young women with aspirations in aviation for decades. A granddaughter graduated from the Air Force Academy and became an aviation maintenance officer.
In 2010, the Women Airforce Service Pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Nagle joined her fellow WASPs there. “It was a wonderful life and the WASPs taught me one thing: that I would be able to do anything that I wanted to do,” she said.
Albert B. Kirtley: Went down fighting
Albreta Wilson began participating in Memorial Day parades in Springfield when she was a little girl living on the west side of Springfield, and picked up the tradition again when she moved back from California nine years ago.
This time of year she remembers her father, Stewart Mate 1st Class Albert B. Kirtley, one of 86 sailors who perished aboard the USS Lagarto on May 3, 1945.
The submarine was on its way back to the U.S. from the China Sea when the crew received word that another submarine needed help. On May 29, the Navy went to the Kirtley home on Innisfallen Avenue and informed his wife and two children that the sub was missing.
One year later, with no sign of it, the families of the crew were told their loved ones were now considered killed in action and for decades they didn’t know what had happened.
“We all thought that maybe they were POWs somewhere,” Wilson said.
But in May of 2005, almost 60 years to the day of the sinking, divers found the Lagarto on the bottom of the Sea of Thailand.
“When we got the call that they’d found the ship, I was so excited,” Wilson said. “It gave us some closure.”
About a year later, the families of those fallen sailors gathered in Manitowoc, Wisc., at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum for a reunion. There they shared stories of their loved ones and got to meet the two divers who finally solved the mystery of their disappearance.
All evidence from the sub showed that they had surfaced too early, been fired upon by a Japanese sub and gone down fighting, according to Wilson.
She wished her brother, who served 28 years in the Navy but died before the sub was found, could have had the same comfort after so many years.
“He was determined that he was going to follow in our dad’s footsteps,” Wilson said.
Now she’s focused on making sure her father is properly honored in her hometown. Wilson said her father’s name does not currently appear on the list of locals killed in action during the Springfield Memorial Day parade.