UNTIL THE VICTORY IS WON
The Story of One Group of Heroes from D-Day to the End
In early June of 1944, armies of the United States, Britain, and Canada gathered in England. Their mission was to invade the coast of France on D-Day, fight their way to Nazi Germany, and destroy its evil heart.
Among the Allied forces was a small group of ordinary soldiers. They were men of E Company, the 16th Regiment, United States 1st Division. These men became heroes on 6 June 1944. This is their story.
Lt. John Spalding
Before our country was at war, while Europe was in flames, the United States hastily began building an Army. In October of 1940, all males from the ages of 21 through 35 were required to register for possible military service. At local draft boards, men who passed the exams were given a number. Thousands across American had the same number, and they were drafted when it was picked out of a glass tank in Washington, D.C.
Sixteen million men registered. A million of them were drafted. John Spalding wasn’t one of them, but he joined the Army anyway. He kissed his wife and young son goodbye, and left his home in Owensboro, Kentucky. Ten months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Soon Japan, Germany, and Italy all declared war on the United States. The Second World War, as a global conflict, had begun.
Germany was America’s strongest enemy, and we were their weakest opponent. America needed years to amass and train enough soldiers for a direct attack on the Nazi heartland. John Spalding spent those years far front line frontline as part of the great build-up. Meanwhile, combat soldiers of the 1st Division helped stop Nazi aggression by invading two continents.
The first D-Day was the invasion of North Africa on 7 November 1942. Then came the invasion of Sicily on in July 1943. In the fall of 1943, the 1st Division was secretly shipped from Sicily to England to join the gathering forces. Despite the secrecy, the soldiers knew in their bones that the big one was next. Fresh troops joined the division as reinforcements and replacements for soldiers killed in action. One of the new men was Lt. John Spalding. For him, the war was about to begin.
Sgt. Phil Streczyk
Phil Streczyk was a warrior: the most daring fighter his men and officers ever knew.
He was born near East Brunswick. New Jersey, and was one of ten children. Like many kids during the Great Depression, Phil worked full time from an early age. He dropped out of school after the 8th grade to earn money and help his family.
By the time Streczyk was 21, he was a truck driver. Then his draft number was picked and, after months of training, he was shipped overseas. In Tunisia, North Africa, Streczyk won his first of many medals. His men were trapped and Streczyk risked his life by crossing into the open and attacking the enemy with grenades. He took out two enemy guns and, for his courage, Streczyk was awarded the Silver Star. He mailed it home to his mom.
Streczyk sometimes scared his own men as much as he scared the enemy. “One time in Africa,” Clarence Colson remembers, “Streczyk got hold of a German motorcycle, and he came riding that thing like a wild man. Maybe he figured the Good Lord was watching over him, but he just didn’t seem to care. We had an awful time keeping a helmet on him. When someone would start shooting at us, everyone would keep their heads down, taking little peeks out of the foxholes. Streczyk would be popping up like a robin.”
When the 1st Division reorganized in England, soldiers were shuffled into 32-man sections so that a team could fit in one small landing craft.
Lt. Spalding was the commanding officer of the 1st Section. Sgt. Streczyk was second-in-command. The new men listened carefully to everything the sergeant said. He was brave and, more importantly, he had stayed alive.
Pvt. Vincent “Diggy” DiGaetano
In 1941, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and so was Vinny DiGaetano. The Dodgers won the pennant and then lost the World Series to the hated Yankees from the Bronx. Two months later, on Vinny’s 18th birthday, the Japanese bombed Peal Harbor.
Vinny wanted to rush off and volunteer for the Army as a paratrooper, but his father said no. The draft age had been lowered to 18 and the Army, his father said, would get him soon enough.
It took a year. In the meantime, Vinny got a factory job making gyroscopes for bombers. Then, on his next birthday, an Army induction notice arrived. It was too late to be a paratrooper. The Army needed riflemen for the infantry, and that’s what draftee DiGaetano would be.
Basic training was in Texas, a long way from New York. DiGaetano had never seen a gun before in his life. He never had orders screamed in his face by lunatics with stripes on their shoulders. After many miserable months in the heat and dust, amidst more kinds of snakes than Vinny knew existed, Pvt. DiGaetano was shipped to England. There he was given the Red One shoulder patch, told to sew it on, and was assigned to Spalding’s section.
Fitting in with a veteran unit wasn’t easy. “I was very lonely,” Vinny says. “I didn’t know anybody. The other guys had been through North Africa and Sicily and I was just from Brooklyn.”
As one of the biggest of the new guys, Vinny got stuck with a job nobody else wanted. Heavy flamethrowers were used to flush the enemy out of pillboxes (concrete gun emplacements). It weighed more than 70 pounds and shot a long, bright flame. Waving it around was like saying, “Hello. Mr. German. Shoot me please.” Vinny would carry a flamethrower on D-Day.
Pvt. Bowen was a medic. He could stop most wounded men from bleeding to death. Infection was a major danger. Dirt, even bits of cloth threads, in a wound could cause as much damage as the bullet itself. Pfc. Buck was the runner to carry messages. Dzierga and Bieder were grenadiers: they had grenade launchers that could snap onto their rifles. Sgt. Colwell and his men would carry bangalore torpedoes to blow gaps in the wire barriers.
Sgt. Colson was in charge of the mortars. Colson’s main gunner, Pvt. Sims, and another soldier would carry the mortar guns and ammo. Pfc. Tilley and another man would carry BARs (Browning Automatic Rifles, a type of light machine gun). Sergeants Peterson and Blades were bazooka men. Pvt. Reese was Peterson’s assistant and, like all the other men in the section, he’d carry ammunition, his rifle, and other supplies.
There were many training exercises on the Dorset coast of England. Then, one day in May 1944, the training was over.
On 11 May, soldiers were sealed off from the outside world. There’d be no more evenings in pubs or suppers with local families. One officer, Lt. Duckworth, just had time to marry an English girl before the camp gates were locked.
No one knew the date of D-Day. Waiting was terrible. Everyone was on edge. Lt. Spalding couldn’t sleep at night. He was supposed to lead men in combat. He was responsible for their lives. He hid his fear and tried acting tough until his superior, Captain Wozenski, chewed him out in front of everybody. Spalding could only pray he would prove himself when it counted most.
Mail was allowed in, but not allowed out. Sometimes letters made the men feel worse. Fred Bisco got one from his girlfriend back home. She couldn’t wait for the war to be over and had found someone else, so the letter said goodbye. Fred was heartbroken and his friends were outraged. What were they fighting for if this was the thanks they got? Vinny DiGaetano received a letter from his sister. Their father was dead: he had been on his way to work and suffered a fatal heart attack. DiGaetano asked for permission to call home, and the request was denied.
From 25 May, no one would get any more letters: all incoming mail was impounded until further notice. Then the soldiers were told the biggest secret of World War II. They would be making a full-frontal assault on a beach in Normandy, France. Their beach was code-named Omaha.
The plan was simple. In the middle of the night, the invaders would leave the transport and be carried 11 miles in landing craft. As close to shore as possible, the ramps would go down. Soldiers with heavy loads would wade through freezing water that was studded with mined obstacles. On the beach, they would face hundreds of yards of open ground broken only by barbed wire and dotted with landmines. Enemy machine guns, artillery, and mortar would keep the Americans in crossfire with every step.
There was no other way to invade, but the 1st Division veterans wondered why they had to be the ones to do it. The United States Army had eight million people in uniform, and 75% of them would never be in combat. Why couldn’t all those other guys do their share? Instead, on 31 May, the gates of the camp swung open. To the sergeant’s cadence of “Hup, two, three, four” the 1st Division soldiers marched to Portland harbor. The dock swarmed with men and vehicles as E and F Company boarded the troop ship Henrico. Then, on 5 June, at about 6:00 p.m., the ship weighed anchor and joined the huge convoy bound for France.
Capt. Ed Wozenski gave his men a final briefing. Their mission was to destroy a German strongpoint on top of a hill overlooking Omaha. Then they’d push through the Germans in a village called Colleville.
D-Day was tomorrow. 6 June. H-Hour was 6:30 a.m. Reveille onboard ship would be at 3:00 a.m. “‘Now the fine people of the air force have promised,” Wozenski said, “to blast the strongpoint with 186 tons of bombs. Don’t depend on it. Remember Sicily?” Heads nodded. For the new guys, the captain told how trigger-happy American gunners shot down our own planes, loaded with paratroopers. E Company ended up facing a German tank attack alone. He didn’t mention his own heroics: how he let a German tank rumble over his foxhole then jumped up and blasted it from behind with a bazooka while calmly shouting orders. “Only have faith,” Wozenski went on, “in what you have in your own hands, your weapons and communications. One more thing: First son-of-a-gun on top of that hill set off a yellow-smoke flare. Everyone else, look for that signal.”
It would be a short night, and the captain advised everyone to get some sleep.
H minus three and 40 minutes / 2:50 a.m.
Eleven miles off the invasion shore, transport ships dropped anchor. Soldiers were roused tor assembly. Soon sergeants shouted the order, “pick it up and put it on.” Everyone started loading up.
At the last minute, Pvt. Fred Reese had an idea. He grabbed a big roll of toilet paper and stuck it under his helmet.
H minus three to two / 3:30 to 4:30 a.m.
The sea was very rough. Waves were three to four feet high, some even reached six feet. Pfc. Wally Bieder was one of the first men down the side and into the landing craft. He held the bottom of the rope ladder for the other solders as the craft bucked up and down. Lt. Spalding took his place at the front of the craft, behind the ramp. Next to him was Sgt. Fred Bisco.
When all the men were aboard, equipment was lowered from the ship’s deck by rope. Pvt. Vinny DiGaetano saw the flamethrower come twisting down. The craft banged and scraped against the side of the ship and a careless hand or foot could be smashed to a pulp. He grabbed the weapon and strapped it to his back.
Fully loaded, the craft circled until finally the order came: “All boats away!”
H minus one and 15 minutes / 5:15 a.m.
It was sunrise. If you were a commander looking down from a helicopter, you would expect to see five neat columns of landing croft moving like slow arrows that would reach shore precisely at 6:30 a.m.
But if you bad looked down at first light, you would see boats in clusters and veering off course. In the words of historian Samuel Eliot Morison: “You would have assumed that something was going wrong, and you would have been right.”
H minus one / 5:30 a.m.
Amphibious tanks were supposed to protect the infantry. Thirty were launched in a rougher sea than the tanks were designed to handle. One after the other floundered in the high waves and sank to the bottom of the English Channel.
H minus 40 minutes / 5:50 a.m.
The coast erupted as a fleet of navy warships opened fire. Two ships pounded Easy Red and the strongpoints above the beach.
H minus 30 minutes / 6:00 a.m.
Four hundred and eighty bombers were scheduled to hit the coastal defenses with 1,285 tons of bombs. Due to heavy cloud cover, aircrews could not see the targets. There was a risk of hitting landing craft so bombardiers were ordered to delay bomb drops by thirty seconds. The bombs fell on schedule but they landed far from the beach. Some hit French farms three miles inland.
Meanwhile, within thick walls of concrete and iron, German gunners checked their weapons and waited.
H minus 15 minutes / 6:15 a.m.
In the growing light, Spalding got his first glimpse of shore. He peered around the ramp and was hit with a wave of cold salt water. His feet slipped hut he caught himself before he crashed into Sgt. Bisco. All the men were drenched from the sea spray and the cold morning mist. Seawater pushed islands of vomit around the landing craft floor. Some men had begun throwing up from the time they entered the craft. The Army had issued “Bag, Vomit” but these were full. Soldiers jammed in together spewed on each other.
H minus three minutes / 6:27 a.m.
When landing craft were five hundred yards from shore, the final phase of the bombardment began. Hundreds of rockets were launched at Easy Red. They arched impressively through the air and fell short, exploding in the water. As the bombardment ceased, the sound of the navy guns died away. The soldiers then realized that the navy, air force, and amphibious tanks had accomplished nothing. Across the water another, more terrible, sound was heard.
It was the sound of enemy guns.
H-Hour / 6:30 A.M. / Omaha Beach
Dog Green, Dog Red, and Easy Green sectors
Onshore, from high and low in the cliffs, the German gunners opened fire. The ramps of landing craft went down and Americans began to die.
Pilots desperately tried to escape the enemy crossfire. They fought, and died, to get the troops ashore anywhere they could. Combat engineers worked with tremendous courage but they could not clear obstacles in the water. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of cordite. A thousand American soldiers were caught in a deadly storm of fire and iron. Death was everywhere. Horribly wounded men screamed for help. Medical corpsmen were shot down. Men in deep shock and tears, men without equipment or weapons, struggled in the endless fire on Omaha beach.
Officers were dead, and soldiers were leaderless. The infantry was scattered in the wrong places on the long shoreline. Survivors who made it across the sand were stopped by barbed wire. Unable to move forward, the exhausted and traumatized men looked back to die water. They saw the devastating power of the German guns and knew that no one could escape alive.
The Nazis had created the closest thing to hell that American soldiers ever faced. But, here and there at small spots along the four-mile Omaha shore, the fire was less hot. It was at these places that too few soldiers must do the work of a thousand men.
Easy Red sector
Bullets cracked against the boat’s metal sides as it zigzagged between the obstacles. It was the only boat in sight. The landing craft scraped ground, the ramp went down, and Lt. Spalding shouted that he’d go first.
Spalding Jumped into waist-deep water. His heart was racing, pounding, as he stepped forward with legs that moved slowly as in a nightmare. An artillery shell exploded somewhere close and a geyser of water sent waves up Spalding’s side. The sweat on his skin turned ice-cold but he thought, I can do this, please God, I can lead these men. Two hundred yards of white-capped waves rose and fell to the shore of Omaha beach.
Behind him, the last soldiers jumped from the landing craft. The men spread out. It had been drilled into their heads. If you get hit, don’t take a buddy with you. Each man struggled alone and fought to control his fear.
And then the ground disappeared.
The boat had landed on a sand bar. Before Spalding could shout a warning, the water closed over his head.
Everywhere, men were tailing in the water. DiGaetano inflated his life preserver, but it was attached to the flamethrower on his back. Trapped under water, he held his breath and frantically sawed through the straps with his knife.
Reese dropped his rifle as he fought to the surface. He gasped for air and was blinded by wet toilet paper. It streamed out from under his helmet where he had put it earlier. Somehow, he didn’t lose his glasses as he pulled gobs of tissue off his face.
Heavy packs and weapons pulled men under. Sims yelled. “‘I can’t make it!” Colson shouted to him. “Dump the gun! Get in alive! Come on!”
Soldiers dropped equipment to save themselves and help each other. DiGaetano saved one man and yanked him on to the floating flamethrower. Together, they used it as a raft.
Spalding lost his carbine and managed to swim. He heard Piasecki call for help, and the lieutenant and Streczyk pulled him to shallow water. There, behind obstacles of wooden stakes, some men collapsed and wretched violently, too weak to go on. But the beach was worse than the water. From all sides came the roar of guns. The soldiers were now in the middle of the enemy trap. A hundred yards ahead, barbed wire strung along a short ridge blocked the way.
Sgt. Curt Colwell and his squad made it to the wire-capped ridge. They set off bangalores and the blast added to the pounding din of gunfire. When the debris settled, there was a wide gap torn in the barbed wire. The first men rushed through.
Spalding dropped onto the ground in front of the ridge and took cover. Reese jumped over him and thought the lieutenant was dead. Bullets were whining by, some so close Spalding could feel them pass. His eyes were on the men still coming in. Everyone was too waterlogged to run and it looked like they were moving into a very strong wind.
DiGaetano sloshed out of the surf. Exhausted, he left the flamethrower bobbing on the incoming tide and flopped on to the beach. A bullet landed between his legs, sending up a little geyser of sand. Vinny stumbled to the safety of the ridge where Streczyk yelled, “Go get that flamethrower!” DiGaetano dodged bullets and staggered back with the heavy weapon.
A shell screamed down like a giant knife cutting through paper. The shell exploded and a metal fragment sliced into Pfc. Tilley’s right shoulder. Sgt. Phelps picked up Tilleys BAR, and helped his friend move forward.
A bullet hit Pvt. Roper in the foot and he fell. He tried to get off his boot but his trembling hands couldn’t undo the laces on his legging. Spalding helped him and Bowen gave first aid.
Beyond the wire, more than 100 yards away at the base of the slope, were demolished houses that looked like ancient ruins. The men, including the wounded, had taken diver there behind the stone walls. A field of landmines had slopped the advance. Streczyk said it couldn’t be crossed. He took Gallagher with him and went to find a way out.
Bruce Buck charged up the beach, holding his rifle in front of him. He registered the yellow blur of an enemy tracer bullet just as it struck the rifle stock above his left hand. The stock shattered, and wood and metal fragments hit his eyes. He stumbled and dropped down beside Spalding.
There was no sign of E Company. Buck painfully washed his eyes with canteen water. Spalding worked the antenna out of his radio and tried to contact Capt. Wozenski but the radio was dead. Spalding looked down and saw that the mouthpiece had been shot away. Shaken and too dazed to notice that Buck was wounded, Spaulding put the useless radio back on his shoulder, and went through the gap in the barbed wire. Bowen bandaged Buck’s eyes.
Spalding looked back to the beach. On the water, more boats were coining in. Some were in flames. Then, in the distance, he saw American soldiers mowed down by machine gunfire. Spalding could only watch it happen until he decided not to look back anymore.
Spalding and his men were the only soldiers off Easy Red. There were enemy gunners to the left, to the right, and up above. The men had very few grenades, no mortar; most of their heavy weapons were at the bottom of the English Channel. Some of the soldiers had no weapons at all.
Then things got worse. Out of nowhere, enemy machine gun bullets made a row of dots in a stone wall. Someone knew that invaders got ashore.
Colson, Sims, and Ramundo spread out beside a wall at the base of the slope. Enemy rifle fire was all around and getting stronger. Colson had picked up a Browning Automatic Rifle to replace his lost mortar. He scanned the hillside for a way out. Ramundo looked back to the water. He saw soldiers trapped on the beach, far from the gap in the barbed wire.
Ramundo shouted, “I’m going to get the company!” Colson hollered back, “Don’t go down there, Ramundo, stay here! They’ll come through!”
But Ramundo took off. There was gunfire and Colson didn’t need to look to know what happened.
On the other side of the wall, Gallagher jumped down next to Spalding. He told the lieutenant there was a path that looked okay. It was a trail through the minefield for German gunners. Krauts were all over the place. The path ran up through a gully so men would have some cover, but there were trip wires.
Spalding gave the word: We’re going up.
Sgt. Blades, who got a bazooka ashore, went first. Behind him were Phelps, Slaydon, and Curley. Lt. Spalding was next and he kept his eyes on the crest of the slope. Behind him, he heard Sgt. Bisco keep repeating, “Lieutenant, watch the ground.”
Sgt. Blades spotted an enemy gun just off the path, and he fired his bazooka and missed. The enemy gunner opened fire. A bullet struck Blades’ left arm. Bullets hit Ray Curley and Joe Slaydon. Phelps moved up with the BAR and was shot in both legs.
Streczyk, Dzierga, and others rushed in from the side. A single German threw up his hands and scooted down the slope on his backside. Streczyk shouted questions in German. The enemy prisoner answered in Polish. He was one of many men from occupied countries in Hitler’s Army.
Streczyk switched to Polish. Stan Dzierga joined in. The prisoner said there were other soldiers close by. They all loved Americans, he said. When the bombardment began, the group voted not to fight, but German sergeants made them do it.
The gunner had been alone in a one-man foxhole. Streczyk whacked the prisoner on the head and yelled, “So why are you shooting us now?” The gunner was scared and kept insisting he had not shot any Americans.
Biedier and Piasecki had gone after a second machine gun nest. Bieder launched a grenade and missed. He didn’t miss the second time, and he and Piasecki brought back a prisoner. Bieder’s stomach turned when he saw Ray Curley. There was a lot of blood and Wally could only think, Well, at least you’re going home, pal.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Colson charged ahead up the path. He stopped just below the crest of the hill and motioned for Sims. Above was a pillbox. Colson saw an enemy soldier just as he tossed down a grenade. Clarence dropped to the ground and braced himself, but the German forgot to pull the pin. When the grenade didn’t go off. Colson yelled for Sims to follow him with clips of fresh ammo. Then Colson leapt forward, firing the BAR from the hip.
The sergeant moved and shot so fast that Sims had trouble keeping up. Colson ran through a trench, spraying bullets at the pillbox, keeping enemy soldiers away from their guns. As soon as the sergeant ran out of bullets, the private would slam in a new clip. Colson’s finger never left the trigger. He got within a few short yards of the pillbox when the enemy waved a white rag on a stick and surrendered.
Prisoners were turned over to Sgt. Blades who guarded them with a trench knife. Bowen would stay with the wounded. Reese and others took their weapons and ammunition. Spalding picked up a German rifle to replace the carbine he lost in the water.
Streczyk set off a smoke flare. A column of thick yellow smoke billowed into the air. Come and find us, Streczyk thought. We can’t fight this war alone.
There was now a very small crack in the fortress of Nazi Europe: one narrow, safe path led up from Omaha beach.
Fox Green sector / About 8:00 a.m.
On the western end of Fox Green, the fire was very hot. And in that fire were nearly all the soldiers who should have been on Easy Red.
According to plan, nearly 400 men should have landed side by side as a fighting force. Instead most of E and F Company were scattered for 800 yards in a murderous crossfire on the wrong section of Omaha. Scores of soldiers became casualties before they’d even left the water.
Some were hit as they stopped to help the wounded. Others, a few at a time, made it to the protection of an embankment where barbed wire and machine gun fire trapped the survivors. There was no way forward and no going back. Sgt. Larry Fitsimmons saw two men advance a few steps and get blown into the air by a land mine buried under the sand. Lt. Duckworth turned to say something to Capt. Wozenski and Duckworth was shot dead.
All around Wozenski, soldiers hugged the ground for dear life. Then through the haze, hundreds of yards to the right, the captain saw yellow smoke. Someone had made it off Omaha and was signaling them. There was a chance to get off the beach
Wozenski got his men moving to the side rather than forward. He took out his trench knife and pressed it into mens’ backs to see if they were still alive. If they were, Wozenski kicked them and yelled, “Let’s go!” Then he stood in the open, firing his carbine at the closest German pillbox. The machine gunners turned their fire on him as his men escaped and ran toward Easy Red. “Big” Ed was right behind them.
Easy Red sector
On Easy Red sector, many more soldiers had landed. They were follow-up troops to the first assault wave. Most of G Company made it off the beach. So did H Company, but they hit the minefield and lost a number of men.
The path began to draw scattered soldiers like water into a funnel. The men who landed near enough saw Americans on the slope, fighting their way up the craggy hillside. And as German prisoners were marched down the hill, the invaders saw the face of the enemy and saw that he could be beaten.
As a few men led the way, hundreds followed. But thousands more had no idea that progress was being made. Easy Red was one mile long. There was no communication. Radios were lost in the fire-swept turf. Some of the heavy equipment was saved from the water and brought to shore at great cost. One man of the 1st Division, John Pinder Jr., made two trips bringing radios ashore and was severely wounded both times. On his third trip carrying equipment, he was hit once again and killed.
Officers bravely rallied their men by example, and by pushing and shouting. Colonel George Taylor is remembered for yelling above the gunfire: “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach: the dead, and those who are going to die. Now let’s get out of here!”
But nearly all the soldiers on Easy Red, and the whole of Omaha beach, were still trapped by the enemy’s fire.
H plus three / 9:30 a.m.
The top commanders were at sea, 11 miles from shore. Information that reached them sounded like complete disaster. General Omar Bradley was commander of the U.S. First Army and he had to make a decision. Another assault by U.S. troops, on the beach codenamed Utah, had landed against little enemy opposition. Follow-up soldiers bound for Omaha could be sent to Utah beach instead. But troops could not be evacuated. Without reinforcements, and a break in the deadlock, all of the troops already on Omaha would eventually be killed or taken prisoner.
The decision would haunt General Bradley for the rest of his life, but he gave the order to press on. Something had to he done to help, and Bradley called on the big guns of the navy.
About 9:00 a.m.
How do you like the war so far, lieutenant? On top of Easy Red, Walt Bieder was watching Spalding. Bieder had seen new men crack up under enemy fire. The lieutenant was scared, so was everyone, but Spalding kept his cool and Bieder was impressed.
Spalding was thanking God for putting angels on both his shoulders. He was not only still alive: he was leading the best soldiers on earth. His daze had lifted, and Spalding now felt invincible, invulnerable. If he had said this out loud, Bieder would have said, Enjoy the feeling while you can, sir.
Men took turns on point, checking out suspicious areas. Streczyk and Gallagher blasted another machine gun nest and ended up with two prisoners. Sgt. Bisco went ahead and spotted a minefield. He made sure everyone knew: Don’t step on patches of dead grass. That’s a giveaway that Herman the German has been planting land mines. One of the soldiers seemed close to puking again. Bisco put a hand on his arm. “You’re doing really good kid,” the sergeant said. “Thanks, sarge,” the man croaked out and tried to make his hands stop shaking.
Then, dead ahead, Spalding saw the German strongpoint.
It was maybe 50 square yards of concrete, steel, and guns. Two big pillboxes and four concrete-and-steel shelters overlooked the beach with artillery, mortar, machine guns, and riflemen. A maze of trenches ran from one end of the strongpoint to another. The whole thing might have 40 German soldiers. Maybe more. And they were very busy firing on the beach.
The strongpoint was the company’s D-Day mission. Instead of 200 men and air force bombers, Spalding had fewer than 30 men and there wasn’t a bomb crater in sight. A direct assault was impossible. The attack would have to be cat-and-mouse, and Sgt. Streczyk was King Cat.
Underground near-by, German soldiers played cards in a bunker. The men were reserves for the gun crews and waited for orders. Instead, they heard American voices just outside.
Suddenly, bullets flew into the bunker, sparking off concrete and ricocheting wildly all over the place. A voice outside yelled, in German and then in Polish, for everyone to give themselves up.
What was going on? The soldiers went to see and were taken prisoner.
Sgt. Streczyk reloaded and ran into the first trench. Spalding watched the prisoners and yelled for Colson. The lieutenant still had the German rifle and decided he didn’t like it. As Colson’s squad came up, the lieutenant asked a man to trade weapons. The man flipped on his carbine’s safety lock and traded it for the German rifle.
Enemy fire came from the left, near the road. Spalding shouted for Piasecki and Bieder to get over there.
Then everything started to happen at once.
In a trench. Sgt. Streczyk was moving fast and thinking faster. Gallagher, Peterson, and others were right behind him. DiGaetano got his flamethrower roaring and sent a 15-foot flame into the gun slot of a pillbox. Smoldering Germans ran out the back and surrendered. Its fuel tanks empty, DiGaetano tossed the flamethrower aside as Streczyk swatted his back and yelled. “Good going, Dig!”
In a trench in front or Spalding, 14 Germans were cornered. One of them starting tossing grenades, and then the ground began to shake.
The guns of battleships and destroyers had gone into action. Shells landed as Piasecki, Bieder, and their squad were locked in a firefight. Several Germans were shot. Others ran for the road where they were hit by the navy’s fire. Few survived.
Down in a trench, Spalding made a mistake that nearly cost him his life. The lieutenant nearly stumbled on the body of a dead German and somehow couldn’t believe they had killed him. Then he went around a corner and was lace to lace with a German rifleman. Spalding pulled the trigger of the carbine. Nothing happened. The safety was still on. Before the surprised German could react. Spalding reached for the catch but hit the ammunition clip release instead. The ammo clip clattered to the ground. Spalding turned to run but Sgt. Peterson suddenly appeared with his bazooka. The enemy soldier quickly dropped his rifle and put up his hands.
Overlooking the beach from behind a steel shield, German gunners fired another shell. Seconds later it exploded hundreds of yards away and among the American troops. The gun crew had been shooting all morning. Lifting and loading shells was hard work and they were ready for relief. Through the drifting smoke, the Germans may have seen Wally Bieder. He aimed the grenade launcher on his rifle, and pulled the trigger.
The German gunners’ work was over.
Turning the Tide
Down below on Easy Red, no one knew about the fight up above. Soldiers, engineers, and medical personnel only knew they could move without being shot. The base of the hill was crowded with troops and vehicles: tractors, tanks, bulldozers. More troops were landing. Combat engineers bulldozed paths through the dunes, loose rock, and barbed wire. Mines were cleared and anti-tank ditches were filled.
Doctors set up an aid station near the ruined house where Spalding had landed. Bowen helped get the wounded men down the slope. Buck, Slaydon, Curley and the others were given treatment.
By 11:00 a.m., General Bradley received the first encouraging reports. One read: “Men advancing up slope behind Easy Red. Men believed ours on skyline.”
Sgt. Streczyk saw Capt. Wozenski and about ten other soldiers coming up the slope. Grinning from ear to ear, he ran down to meet them and stepped square on a landmine.
Wozenski froze but nothing happened. Streczyk said. “It didn’t go off on my way up either.”
At the strongpoint, Spalding set off a smoke flare to warn the navy gunners. Huge shells were passing over Spalding’s head like airborne jeeps and sooner or later one was bound to fall on top of his men. Twenty German prisoners stood in a group. Most were scared. One was an arrogant Nazi who kept sneering. Another German had escaped and was trying to be a sniper. He was a very bad shot and kept hitting the trees.
Wally Bieder marched the prisoners down to the beach just as Capt. Wozenski and other soldiers of E Company were coming up. When Bieder returned, he heard Spalding telling the section to move out. Captain’s orders. The small village of Colleville, above Fox Green, had been captured by G Company. Now the Germans were trying to take the village back. Spalding’s soldiers were to join the fight.
Spalding picked up more men on the march. They were strays from battered units including a medic, Pvt. Jessie Hamilton. DiGaetano stuck close to Reese. Vinny didn’t have a weapon. Reese had a rifle and Streczyk told them to share.
Outside Colleville, the men took up positions along hedgerows, blocking a lane into town. Confused Germans were swarming all over. Confused and cautious, too cautious to use a road.
DiGaetano peered through the brush, and thought he saw a German creeping toward them in the field. Vinny nudged Reese and said, “Hey, Elmo, I see something.” Reese handed over the rifle. DiGaetano took aim just as an enemy soldier saw him. As had happened to Buck, there was a loud b-r-r-r-r-t-t-t-t as enemy machine gun bullets ripped apart the rifle’s wooden stock. It turned to splinters in Vinny’s hands. A grenade sailed through the brush and exploded. A hot metal fragment tore into DiGaetano’s thigh.
The men fired wildly and kept the Germans back. Jesse Hamiltiin crawled over and told DiGaetano to go down to the beach for a doctor. Vinny refused, he would never go back there again. The grenade fragment wasn’t in very deep, and Hamilton cut it out with a knife. DiGaetano bit a stick to keep from hollering. The worst part wasn’t the pain; it was having his pants around his ankles. Word quickly spread and guys started laughing and saying “Diggy” got hit in the butt. Someone said it was too big for the Germans to miss.
Very funny, guys, DiGaetano thought.
There were hundreds of metal and wood splinters in Vinny’s face, hands, and arms. The medic pulled the worst of them as best he could.
The rifle gone, Reese decided he’d get something to eat. He opened a ration can just as enemy bullets hit the hedgerow, showering dirt, leaves, and twigs over him and his meat and vegetables. He tossed the can aside.
Enemy fire was coming from all directions. Friendly fire was falling too. Navy shells were hitting Colleville. Through the smoky haze, Spalding saw a runner darting toward their position. He was an American, bringing a message, but the enemy shot him down.
Then they got Fred Bisco and he never saw it coming. He was moving behind some brush and lifted his head at just the wrong moment. There was a horrible fusillade as Bisco tumbled flown dead and all his friends, everyone, shot back in rage at an enemy no one could see.
The soldiers held their ground into the evening. They had help without knowing it, from their allies. The British and Canadian assaults drew enemy counterattacks miles away from Omaha beach. If the Germans hit Colleville in force, Spalding’s men and other Americans would have been swatted aside and the village recaptured. Instead, our allies chewed the German counterattacks to pieces.
Along the hedgerows, around 8:00 p.m., the ammunition was nearly gone. When Spalding was down to his last six bullets, he organized a retreat. One by one, everyone crawled along the ditch until they reached the makeshift company command post.
Soldiers looked around for buddies, and wondered where everyone was. Then Capt. Wozenski was heard to cry out in angry grief. “Where are my men? Where was the support we were promised?”
At that moment, the terrible cost of D-Day was bitter as defeat. Spalding thought of Ramundo and Bisco. He tried to push it from his mind and focused on the fact that he had done his job.
Streczyk made the rounds, checking on men whose day began 18 hours ago. Some soldiers would keep watch while others tried to get some rest.
Medics asked men for their blankets to keep the wounded men warm on the beach. Fred Reese scrounged some food. The breakfast that morning of a salami sandwich, apple, and coffee seemed like a different lifetime. As Reese drifted into a restless sleep in a foxhole he was thinking, All the jobs in the Army and I had to get one where I get shot at. Here we go. . . .
Daylight would bring another day of war.
Back home in the States, President Franklin Roosevelt told our nation that the invasion had succeeded. And then the president said a prayer. Here are excerpts:
Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard, by night and by day, without rest until the victory is won.
The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace.....They yearn but for the end of battle, for their safe return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants into Thy kingdom.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; and Faith in our united crusade.
In March 1945, four and a half million Allied soldiers struck the Nazi heartland. They had crossed the Rhine River to finish the job begun on D-Day.
June and July 1944 had been spent blasting through Normandy, hedgerow by hedgerow. Then came August and the great Allied breakout. The enemy was chased from France and, by mid-September, the 1st Division stood on Germany’s border. The country’s great river, a barrier that protected its heart for centuries, lay 50 miles away. But the enemy recovered its strength as they defended their homeland. Autumn rain turned to winter snow as the Americans were battered to a stalemate. On 16 December, the German Army launched a major offensive and smashed through the American line. In a great winter battle, the attack was stopped as a salient, or “Bulge.” The enemy was defeated, the Bulge was flattened, and by 2 February, the 1st Division was on German soil and fighting to the Rhine.
The casualties, and flow of replacements, never stopped. Replacements weren’t only needed for battle casualties. No person can long endure the horrors of war. The U.S. Surgeon General warned that the maximum combat the human mind and spirit can withstand was 200 days. Most men broke much sooner.
The 1st Division was in combat for 443 days from North Africa to the end. From D-Day alone, the division suffered 15,000 men killed, wounded, missing in action; and 14,000 nonbattle casualties in the soul-shattering inferno of war.
That was the price for freeing the world. On 8 May 1945, Berlin had fallen and Germany surrendered. The Nazi government, enemy of human life and freedom, had been wiped from the face of the earth.
1ST SECTION, E COMPANY, 2ND BATTALION, 16TH
REGIMENT, 1ST DIVISION, V CORPS, FIRST ARMY, 21ST ARMY GROUP
Section Leader: Lt. John Spalding, Kentucky
Assistant Section Leader: Tech. Sgt. Phil Streczyk, New Jersey
Staff Sgt. Curtis Colwell, Kentucky
Staff Sgt. Grant Phelps, New York
Sgt Fred G. Bisco, New Jersey
Sgt. Hubert W. Blades, Delaware
Sgt. Kenneth Peterson, New Jersey
Sgt. Joseph W. Slaydon, North Carolina
Sgt. Louis J. Ramundo, Pennsylvania
Pfc. Walter E. Bieder, Ohio
Pfc. Bruce S. Buck, Nebraska
Pfc. Raymond R. Curley, New Jersey
Pfc. Stanley A, Dzierga, Massachusetts
Pfc. Richard J. Gallagher, New York
Pfc. Warren S. Guthrie, Ohio
Pfc. Edwin F. Piasecki, Illinois
Pfc. Richard M. Rath, Pennsylvania
Pfc. Alexander Sakowski, Connecticut
Pfc. Virgil Tilley, Tennessee
Pvt. William B. Brown, Illinois
Pvt. Vincent T. DiGaetano, New York
Pvt. Donald E. Johnson, Ohio
Pvt. Robert E. Lee, New Jersey
Pvt. Raymond L. Long, Maryland
Pvt. Carmen M. Meduri, Pennsylvania
Pvt. Elmer F. Reese, Pennsylvania
Pvt. James O. Renfroe, Tennessee
Pvt. William C. Roper, Alabama
Pvt. Charles Scheurman, New Jersey
Pvt. George H. Bowen, Kentucky
Pvt. Richard Sims, Alabama
Note: Streczyk is Strees-zik. Bieder / Bee-der. Dzierga / Jur-ga. DiGaetano / Dee-Guh-tano. Piasecki / Puh-secki.
Seven soldiers in Spalding’s section were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor. The men were John Spalding, George Bowen, Richard Gallagher, Ken Peterson, Curt Colwell, Clarence Colson, and Phil Streczyk.
After D-Day, decimated units were combined and rebuilt. Spalding’s section became a rifle platoon which he led until 27 September. On that day, he was wounded by enemy artillery. Spalding was patched up, assigned a new platoon, and his D-Day soldiers never saw him again. During the winter Battle of the Bulge, the strain of command grew worse and worse. John became indecisive, afraid the wrong decision would get one of his men killed. At night he had nightmares, battle dreams, until he stopped sleeping altogether. In February, Spalding was in such awful shape that he could not go on. He was evacuated to the United States with a severe respiratory infection and combat exhaustion. The Army wanted Spalding to train troops but he refused because he now had an intense hatred of guns. After the war and his discharge from service, John entered politics and was elected to the House of Representatives. He died in 1959.
Joe Slaydon recovered from his wounds on D-Day and rejoined E Company. On 20 November 1944, during a German counterattack in the Hürtgen forest, he was badly wounded a second time. No longer able to be a soldier, Slaydon was sent home and discharged. He died in North Carolina in 1969.
Bruce Buck spent two months healing after D-Day before being sent back to the frontline. He was platoon runner during the fierce battle of Aachen. “I was the one Streczyk always sent back to the command post for ammunition,” Bruce remembers. “I would load as many bandoliers of ammo as I could carry around my neck and shoulders. Then I’d run from the command post up the hill. There was an open space, and the Germans would shoot the heck out of everything, trying to shoot me. And I just had to make a run for it, that’s all I could do. I got the Silver Star out of that deal.” He stayed in Germany as part of the occupation forces until his discharge in October 1945.
Stan Dzierga got a package when he was in basic training. It was from a girl named Fran, a friend of a friend, and inside was a box of cookies and a wallet. Stan was carrying the wallet and a prayer book in his breast pocket when he was hit with a piece of shrapnel. It went through the book, but the wallet stopped the chunk of metal before it reached Stan’s chest. A later injury took Stan out of combat, and he was assigned to duty in France where he trained cooks and clerks to be riflemen. Stan and Fran corresponded throughout the war and were married when Stan came home.
On 2 August 1944, the 1st Division advanced so quickly that it collided with a retreating German Army. During the wild fight, Stan Dzierga saw an armored gun clanking straight for him. Dzierga screamed a warning and was about to shoot when the driver waved and yelled. “Hiya, Stan!” It was Streczyk herding prisoners to the American lines. No one ever thought Pliil Streczyk was afraid or had a breaking point, but his end came in the Hürtgen forest. Through thick mud and miserably cold rain, the 16th Regiment attacked through minefields and under artillery shells that burst in the treetops. The air was filled with lethal shell fragments and tree limbs that could smash a man like a club, or pierce flesh like a spear. Dick Gallagher and many others were lulled in the endless firestorms. In four days, around mid-November, the regiment advanced just two miles at a cost of 1,000 casualties. As shells were exploding, Streczyk suddenly shouted words that no one could understand. His body shook uncontrollably as Curt Colwell and others grabbed their great friend and hugged him to the ground until they could get him away to safety. He was evacuated to a hospital in the states. Phil slowly recovered, but battle dreams and painful wounds were now part of his life. Streczyk became a builder, moved to Florida, and raised a family. He died in 1957.
Curt Colwell took over the platoon after Streczyk was gone. Later, Colwell was wounded and Wally Bieder took over from him. Curt went back to coal mining after the war. About all he ever said about it was, “We slept on the ground and we ate when we could.” His wife could only cry with joy that he came home. The family went to church and. when they returned, someone had stolen Curt’s medals.
Ed Wozenski devoted his life to serving his country. He retired from the Amy as a brigadier general in 1972 with two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, and numerous other medals from the United States, Belgium, and France. Everything about “Big” Ed, including his wisdom and compassion, was larger than life. His tremendous energy came from something his father told him just before he passed away: “There are so many more things to be done.” For Wozenski, that phrase became a credo to live by. Just before Ed’s own death in 1987 he said those same words to his brother Joe. Then Ed added that he was at peace with God.
Clarence Colson saw more than 400 days in the dust of Algeria and Tunisia; the ravines of Sicily; across France, Belgium, and deep into Germany. When the war was over, he just wanted to get back to his family’s farm and forget it ever happened. He married the girl who lived down the hill and never told her or anyone else about the war. His few good memories were of liberated villages where joyful people hugged and kissed the marching soldiers, of Capt. Wozenski, and their mess sergeant, Eddie Vaughn, who drove through enemy fire to deliver their Thanksgiving dinner. It was a cold turkey sandwich and cold coffee but no food ever lasted better. But most memories still bring pain. He never could forget how Lou Ramundo was shot, or the day in November 1944 when an enemy mortal shell hit Richard Sims. Clarence recalls, “We just got dug in and a shell exploded. I hollered to Sims. He didn’t respond. So I jumped over to his foxhole to check and I said, “Sims! Are you all right?” Then I saw that he was hit and he was dead.”
Ken Peterson came home after the war with the Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and Purple Heart. He was wounded during the Bulge, treated, and sent back to Germany where he was wounded a second time. “Pete” joined Passaic’s fire department and retired as chief in 1990. He died at New Jersey’s State Fireman’s Home in 1998.
Fred Reese couldn’t believe his eves. It was early 1945, and there stood Ray Curley. He had sneaked out of a hospital in England and hitched rides across Europe to find E Company.
“What are you doing?” Reese said. “I thought you were home already!”
“Nah,” Curley said. “I wanted to be with you guys.”
They would wish he hadn’t. Across the Rhine River, on 30 March, while running down an alley in some German town Ray Curley was machine-gunned in the back and killed. Reese tried to get the gunner but was badly shot up himself. Evacuated to a hospital in the states, Fred was home on leave on 14 August 1945. He was walking to a grocery store with his parents when two 12-year-old girls ran up to Fred and threw handfuls of rice in his face. That’s how he learned that Japan had surrendered and World War II was over.
Vinny DiGaetano worried his family. They received a telegram just a few days before Germany surrendered, saying he was wounded in action. Weeks passed with no letter from him. His sister contacted the Red Cross and an Army chaplain tracked DiGaetano down. Vinny had been hit by a Screaming Meemie, German mortar that screamed through the air and then went silent just before it exploded. The blast blew DiGaetano four feet in the air and he landed deafened and paralyzed. As Vinny recovered in a hospital the Army told him he was shipping out soon for the invasion of Japan. By the time the chaplain showed up, Vinny didn’t care who was worried about him. He had been wounded four times in the war, and he knew he’d never survive another day of combat. Then word came that there would be no invasion. The U.S. had dropped a new weapon, the atomic bomb, and Japan had surrendered. Vinny came home a changed man. A cousin who served in the Signal Corps dropped by one night. He had made recordings of Screaming Meemies and he played the tape at a family gathering. Vinny went berserk at the sound and he had to be restrained from tossing the cousin out the window. Word got around that Vinny was nuts. His girlfriend married him anyway. Then she woke up screaming one night because Vinny, in his sleep, had his hands around her throat. DiGaetano began seeing a psychiatrist and it helped him find peace. Having survived World War II, he now takes every day as a gift.
Walt Bieder was never wounded and never missed a day in combat from Sicily to German-occupied Czechoslovakia. There in, May 1945, the 1st Division linked up with our Russian ally advancing from the east. The Russians were so impressed with Bieder's endurance that they gave him a medal. "I nearly cracked one time but I caught myself", he says. "I was sitting in a foxhole and we were getting shelled. I started to shake and I just said, 'STOP!' and I got hold of myself quick. I don't know how I did it. When you get shelled day after day, it kind of gets to you." After Germany surrendered, Walt had enough service points to go home. Like most returning soldiers, Bieder felt out of place in his own hometown. Few people understood what soldiers had experienced. Walt was on the street on 14 August 1945 when everyone just went wild. Japan had surrendered and the whole city began to party. Bieder never once lost control in combat, but he lost it now. He started crying and screaming, "Fools! Get down on your knees and thank God! Thank the boys who did it and say a prayer for the ones who aren't coming back." Today, Walt lives near Washington, D.C. and a memorial to the honored dead of the 1st Division. Walt has only been there twice because the memory of fallen buddies is almost too much to bear. "So many names," he says, "so many good men."