OCEAN CITY – Sixty-five years ago tomorrow, on June 6, 1944, the invasion of Normandy on the northwest coast of France began. Code-named Operation Overlord, the mission included thousands of ships, aircraft and men in perhaps the largest invasion of its kind in history. Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower told the troops before they embarked on the invasion “you are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we’ve striven these many months.”
Many of those crusaders never made it off the beaches at Normandy with thousands killed in the first few hours and many more perished as the huge juggernaut pushed inland on its way to ending the war in Europe. Time has taken most of the survivors of that great crusade over the several decades that have passed since, but more than a few press on to share their memories with the generations that benefited from their heroic actions including a handful right here in Ocean City.
Tomorrow night, members of the American Legion Sinepuxent Post 166 in Ocean City will gather to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day and the four active members who participated in the invasion will be honored and relate their memories of the tragic, but heroic day with their comrades. This week, a couple of D-Day heroes living in Ocean City shared their stories of the fateful day with The Dispatch.
John J. Sauer, Sr. was just 19 years old when he was drafted into the Army and attached to the Army Air Corps. Shortly after hitting the ground in England, he was re-assigned to the infantry, shipped to Dover on the English coast and re-trained in the skills he would likely need in the pending invasion of Normandy on the coast of France.
At around 4 a.m. on June 6, the call came to prepare for the invasion and Sauer and his mates loaded onto the landing craft bound for France. A few hours later, the landing craft ran aground on a sandbar and the crew on the vessel believed they had reached the beach and lowered the gate to unload the troops. What they didn’t know was that they had not reached the beach at all.
“We dropped the gate and all of the men, about 30 of us, plunged into water about 20 feet deep,” Sauer said this week. “With all of the gear and equipment, just about everyone sank to the bottom and perished before they ever set foot on the beach. When I went into the water, I realized we had fallen short of the beach and threw off my weapon and my heavy gear and plodded along the bottom until I reached the shore.”
Sauer said this week when he got to the shoreline, he heard a man crying for help. He reached the man and found out he was a war correspondent who had come ashore with the men armed only with a typewriter. The war correspondent said he could not swim, and Sauer helped him to a relatively safe place among all the confusion on the beach. He said this week the scene was one that has stuck with him his entire life.
“The water was red and there were dead and dying soldiers all over,” he said. “It was awful to talk about and it’s difficult still after all these years.”
Sauer said he started up the beach in an effort to connect with any of his outfit or any other outfit still engaged. A short time later, his day on Omaha Beach was over.
“I heard the whiz of an incoming shell and that’s the last thing I remember,” he said. “I had been hit in the head and the stomach with shrapnel from one of the German 88s. The next thing I knew, I woke up on a hospital ship.”
Sauer said about two days later, Ike himself came aboard the ship and awarded him the Purple Heart. About two weeks after that, another general came aboard the ship and awarded Sauer the Bronze Star for his heroics on the beach at Normandy that day.
His involvement in the D-Day invasion was only part of Sauer’s heroics in Europe in World War II. After recovering from his injuries, he was sent to Nuremburg in Germany to participate in the liberation of the concentration camp. Sauer said he knew when his outfit liberated the camp at Nuremburg the end of the war was near.
“We were told to shoot to kill and take no prisoners because we had limited supplies and ammo, but when we got the camp, we found the German army was made up of young boys and old men,” he said.
Sauer returned to his native Baltimore after the war and spent 30 years as a Baltimore firefighter. He has lived in Ocean City for the last 30 years and has been an active member of the American Legion Post 166 including 25 years as the captain of the Color Guard.
Another long-time local resident and D-Day hero is Elmer Muth, who had an equally compelling story about the fateful day nearly 65 years ago. Like Sauer, Muth spent the weeks leading up to the invasion in England training and retraining for every detail of the pending crusade.
“On June 2-3, our craft was loaded with machines and personnel,” he said. “It was obvious that we were just a few hours away from the invasion.”
Muth said at 3:30 a.m. on June 4, all the LCTs were brought out from the Portsmouth harbor to assemble in formation, but at 6:40 a.m., Eisenhower ordered all boats to return to Portsmouth harbor. D-Day had been postponed because of unsuitable weather conditions again, adding the anxiety of the troops in the boats waiting for the invasion.
On the morning of June 5, all LCTs were ordered underway again at 3:30 a.m. Once assembled in convoy form, the boats started proceeding toward the Normandy beaches.
“The channel crossing was uneventful, however, we did observe an airman’s body, apparently the casualty of a bombing raid,” said Muth. “At daybreak, the most profound and memorable day of my life was to begin.”
Muth said his wave reached the line of departure with 16 minutes to spare, and as the vessels moved toward the beaches, they had to pass the battleships and cruisers close-hauled. Concussions from the huge guns shook the boats and rattled the crew’s ears, adding to their discomfort and trepidation.
“As we approached the beach, the water erupted where live ammunition was landing,” said Muth. “Our first casualty occurred as one of the soldiers lost four fingers while shouldering his rifle. We gave him a shot of morphine, wrapped his hand and put him in a bunk. He never disembarked at Normandy.”
Muth said his LCT beached on what they though was Dog Red Beach, their assigned area, although they weren’t convinced they were in the right place because of the poor markings and all of the confusion. When they did beach the vessel, the crew lowered its ramp and began unloading a bulldozer, but the bulldozer received a direct hit halfway off the ramp and the crew left it where it was and retracted the ramp, only to look for a better place to come ashore.
“We moved further down the beach until we came upon a damaged LCT, which was burning,” he said. “We managed to enter the beach on her port side, offering us protection from the big 88s. The beach was littered with men, living and dead, and operative and inoperative machines that hindered our unloading of our remaining cargo and men.”
Muth and the crew of the LCT he was on during the invasion were not finished for the day. They later returned their injured soldier along with a Navy coxswain whose ship had been sunk to their parent ships. Then, they were hailed by the captain of another LCT, which had sustained three direct hits from shells, and improvised to use the anchor line as a tow devise to tow the disabled vessel out of harm’s way. Later, on June 27, the officers and crew of Muth’s LCT received a Letter of Commendation from Flotilla Commander William Leide for the heroic actions.
Muth said conditions on the beach made the mission of his vessel, LCT 613, difficult, but not impossible.
“Omaha Beach was so littered with debris that, for a few days, operations were impossible, so we were ordered to unload all future cargo on the neighboring British Gold Beach,” he said.