An American Hero

UPDATED 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

Only an English schoolchild would consider this day decent for the beach. The Bay of the Seine feels like a just-melted glacier; the sky is the color of gunmetal. But the children of the Ashton Middle School in Dunstable, Bedfordshire are splashing in the frigid water or clambering over the slimy, lichen-covered hull of a ship that lies near the low-tide line. Here, beneath the vacation houses that line the road from Saint Laurent-sur-Mer to Vierville-sur-Mer, the air is happy with the squeals and giggles of youngsters determined to enjoy the final day of their school trip to Normandy.

An American man approaches: muscular, erect, only graying temples hinting that he is 63. The children gather around, and when he strikes up a conversation the giggles soon subside and their faces turn sober as he tells them of the first time he saw this beach, which even the French still call Omaha.

"I landed here on D-Day," he says, and like a child's choir they ask in unison, "What was it like?"

He points toward the horizon. "When we landed it was a day like this, with not so much visibility down the beach. What you saw in front of you, to the right and left of you for a few hundred yards, was masses of soldiers getting ready on the beach."

The children, wide-eyed, prompt him for more. "We were way out there when our boats came to a sandbar, so we had to wade through all this water clear up to our necks in places and hold our guns above our heads."

"Were they shooting at you?" one boy wants to know.

"The Germans were in pillboxes up on these hills," the man explains, indicating a bluff now dotted with the summer homes of the Parisian middle class. "They were shooting down, but they had so much to shoot at they didn't know where to shoot first."

"Were any of your friends killed?" asks a serious little girl.

The slightest pause. "My brother was killed on D-Day as he was landing," the man answers in a voice shaped by the accents of Kansas.

"Is he buried at the cemetery here?" she asks quietly.

"He told my mother that he wanted to be buried in the corn soil, so we brought him home," he replies.

As conversation continues, the children remain respectful, but the novelty soon wears off, and they drift back to their games. It is quite an adventure for them, meeting this man who fought a war so many years ago, on the beach of this seaside resort, in a time and a world they cannot even imagine. They understand only vaguely that they are free to play on this beach because of this man and thousands like him; that their nation, like his, owes a debt of liberty to him. The man's companions tell the children that he is the holder of several decorations for bravery, and the children seem properly impressed to have met a true American hero.

The citation reads, in part:
EHLERS, WALTER D.
Rank and organization: Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army, 18th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. Place and Date: Near Goville, France, 9-10 June 1944.

S/Sgt. Ehlers, far ahead of his men, led his squad against a strongly defended enemy strong point, personally killing four of an enemy patrol who attacked him en route. Then crawling forward under withering machinegun fire, he pounced upon the gun crew and put it out of action. Turning his attention to two mortars protected by the crossfire of two machineguns, S/Sgt. Ehlers led his men through this hail of bullets to kill or put to flight the enemy.... The next day, the platoon of which S/Sgt. Ehlers was a member, finding itself in an untenable position...was ordered to withdraw. S/Sgt. Ehlers...stood up and by continuous fire at the semicircle of enemy placements, diverted the bulk of the heavy hostile fire on himself.... Though wounded, he carried his wounded automatic rifleman to safety then returned fearlessly over the shell-swept field to retrieve the automatic rifle.... The intrepid leadership, indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness displayed by S/Sgt. Ehlers in the face of overwhelming enemy forces serve as an inspiration to others.

Along with the commendation came the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Only a third of all Americans are old enough to remember the cruel morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, when some 5,000 ships deposited 157,000 Americans, Canadians, British, French, Polish and Dutch soldiers on the northern beaches of the Normandy peninsula to begin the last phase of the war against Hitler. One way to understand that distant time is to see Normandy through the eyes of Walter D. Ehlers. Now a veterans' counselor in Buena Park, Calif., Ehlers is one of only four men alive today who earned the Medal of Honor in the Normandy campaign. (Two are profiled on page 44, the other has slipped from public view.)

As Ehlers walks through the American military cemetery above Omaha Beach, in the surprising full sun of a late Norman evening, a few songbirds break the silence. Here in the crisp geometric symmetry of row on row of crosses and Stars of David, 9,386 sons and daughters of the American melting pot who fell in battle are united in death: Harry Hamilton of Arkansas and Oscar Joyner of North Carolina lie side by side with Salvatore Arnone of New York and Kenneth Baum of Pennsylvania. Walter Ehlers speaks few words as he walks past their graves; his thoughts are his own. Then he reaches the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., whose white cross is surmounted by an engraved gold star. The star, Ehlers notes, is not there because Roosevelt, a hero of D-Day, was a brigadier general nor because he was the son of the former President. "That star means that he had the Medal of Honor," he explains. "They put a star on your gravestone when you die." Then a pause. "I don't expect to have one for a long, long time."

A day later, having thought about it all night, Ehlers brings up the cemetery again. "You know," he says, "this cemetery is sort of a monument to love. The young Americans and British and French and Canadians who participated in D-Day didn't go there seeking glory. They had love for their relatives and their friends and the people of the world who were oppressed by tyranny. These people gave their lives to keep tyranny from happening to the world."

The vocabulary of Walter Ehlers is plain, sturdy and honest, as befits a Kansas farm boy who holds some patriotic truths to be self-evident. When he retraces his steps in the Normandy invasion he describes his deeds with simple verbs of motion and being, without embellishment. "The sea was choppy when we landed," he remembers. Arriving at the beach in the second wave of the D-Day assault, he lurched out of a landing craft into neck-deep water, fought his way to his feet and struggled to keep his squad of 12 infantrymen together and alive (all of his men survived D-Day). A civilian looking up and down this beach sees an empty strand for miles in either direction, a vacant resort out of season. Walter Ehlers sees hell. "There were people everywhere," he says. "And there was noise: guns, trucks, tanks. I knew I had to get my squad off the beach or we wouldn't live." The hill that rises gently from the beach at this point takes all of 20 minutes to climb—including a detour to an opening in the seawall. On D-Day it took almost six hours of scrambling, ducking, climbing.

At the hilltop, Ehlers' squad came to a German bunker of reinforced concrete. Two satchels of TNT thrown from a distance failed to disable it. Its gun was spewing death on hundreds of GIs below. Sergeant Ehlers and his men leaped into the trench that ran around the bunker's walls. Before the Germans could cut them down, the Americans knocked it out at close range with hand grenades. Ehlers was awarded the Bronze Star for that action.

As he led his men on, into the infamously murderous hedgerows of Normandy, Ehlers took with him a childhood of trapping and tracking and shooting that served him well. "I've always had 20/20 vision and good hearing, and I could smell the Germans before I could see them," he recalls. "There was some kind of black bread and licorice liquor that Germans served their people, and when I smelled it, I knew that I was near something that was German."

When Ehlers went on patrol he went out far ahead of his men to spot and neutralize the enemy. Standard procedure would have been to keep close enough to his squad to allow them to cover him. "I wasn't that kind of squad leader," he says.

Today he has trouble remembering the names of those troops. "I had just about all the combat I could take," recalls Ehlers, who was wounded twice in the Normandy campaign and twice more as his unit moved across Germany to the Czechoslovak border. "When you go into combat you know that you're going to be fired on, but you don't know from where and you have this terrible feeling of not being able to do anything about it. It's scary and you're tense, you're frightened."

The psychological wounds have taken longest to heal. He speaks of his brother's death: "I had nightmares about it for 30 years," he says. From their enlistment in 1940, through campaigns in Africa and Sicily, Roland and Walter Ehlers fought together. But in 1944, when their unit was shipped to England, "The company commander called my brother and me in and told us there was this big invasion we were going to make. He said 'Casualties are going to be high. The two of you shouldn't be in the same company.' " On D-Day, Roland's Company K landed a few hundred yards away from Walter's. A mortar shell struck the ramp of Roland Ehlers' landing craft as he was disembarking. That night Walter learned that Roland was missing. It was a month before his death was confirmed.

For three decades, in his dreams, Walter Ehlers has kept trying to save his brother on D-Day and never succeeding. Even now his sorrow is palpable. "You know," he says, abruptly raising the subject several days after the schoolchildren had asked him about it, "men aren't supposed to show emotion, so I never hugged Roland or told him that I loved him. Sometimes now I wish I had."

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