“War is hell,” said World War II veteran and Wadsworth resident Ken Peace on Tuesday, lamenting his service in the Battle of the Bulge, the 1944 conflict fought in the wake of the Allied forces’ successful D-Day invasion of Normandy,
He heard about the infamous D-Day, remembered today on its 75th anniversary, by word-of-mouth, but the veteran soldier’s reflections on his time in service paint a picture of how the soldiers of that era felt an obligation to finish a gruesome war.
“No one wants it and you just have to do what’s necessary,” the 94-year-old said.
“They gave me and a bunch of other 19-year-olds a machine gun and sent us right into the thick of things. We were scared but we had to clear that out, focus on our training, and accomplish the mission at hand.”
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, also known as D-Day, Operation Overlord, and the largest amphibious operation in world history. The plan sent roughly 160,000 troops across the English Channel on June 6, 1944.
That was preceded by an air and sea assault that deployed more than 6,000 vessels.
By the end of August, more than two million Allied troops were on the ground in France. While the exact number of casualties remains disputed, White House archives estimate that approximately 10,000 Allied soldiers died in the initial invasion: 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British and 946 Canadians.
“It’s nothing many of us have wanted to talk about for a long time,” Peace said. “We know what we did. God was with us in those days. He was with us when buzz bombs were exploding right in front of our faces. You just had to remember that. You had to remember your training and you had to remember who was loving you and thinking about you back home.”
Charles J. Samic, father of Wadsworth’s American Legion Post 170 Commander Ron Samic, had an up-close view of the Normandy invasion from his Naval ship and later worked in Hiroshima in the days immediately after the dropping of the atomic bomb.
A plaque honoring the elder Samic, who died in 2017, sits in the parking lot behind Post 170’s building at 129 Main St.
“He’s like many other dads, never talked about the war,” said Ron Samic, a 32-year U.S. Air Force veteran. “But I got to go and be a guest speaker at one of their reunions after I returned from serving in Operation Enduring Freedom. I got to hear all the other guys talk about what happened, the kamikaze attacks, being in the harbor of Normandy, Okinawa, and in the mouth of Tokyo Bay when they dropped the atomic bomb.
“You don’t think in the moment,” Samic said of the mindset of soldiers approaching a battle like D-Day. “You execute in the moment. It’s what you’re trained to do. The door of that carrier falls down and you run in the direction you’re told, even if there’s a million bullets flying right back at you. I can’t even imagine.”
Samic and Post 170 Vice Commander Al Whitacre said the Great Depression played a major role in preparing future World War II soldiers for the scarcity and battle-hardened realities of global conflict.
“Think of the guys who had to go back on that beach and gather the bodies,” Whitacre said. “That wasn’t just a job at Normandy. Someone has to do that after any battle. Most of those boys grew up in tough environments. It was an environment that’s hard for younger people today to comprehend.
“You had to grow up quicker. There wasn’t really a choice as far as that goes.”
The Normandy invasion was initially planned for May 1944 but was pushed back due to a lack of available landing crafts. Inclement weather nearly forced another delay but Gen. Dwight Eisenhower made the final decision to push ahead. Allied forces slowly inched their way further into Normandy, culminating in a German counterattack on Aug. 8. A week after that, the Allies finally claimed victory and moved toward Paris, which they liberated on Aug. 25.
From D-Day though Aug. 21, more than 226,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded or declared missing in action. Between 13,000 and 20,000 French civilians lost their lives while Germany reported more than 240,000 casualties and 200,000 captured, according to The White House.
Medina County resident Donald Carl Harris, 21, lost his life on June 2, 1944 during D-Day preparation missions that involved the bombing of two French towns. His death notice was published on the front page of the Gazette on Aug. 1, 1944.
He is one of 9,387 Americans buried in France at the Normandy American Cemetery, which also includes a Garden of the Missing inscribed with the names of 1,557 additional soldiers. The remains of roughly 14,000 troops originally set to be buried at the site were eventually returned home at the request of their families.
Nelson T. Hart, a member of Brunswick’s American Legion Post 234, provided research on Harris.
“Donald was born May 26, 1923 to Frank A. Harris and Lucile E (Simmons) Harris. He lived in Granger Township in 1940 and the census at the time showed him attending high school,” Hart wrote in an email. “He enlisted in Cleveland on Feb. 22, 1943. After basic training, he was assigned to the 489th Bomb Group, Heavy which was formed and trained at Wendover Field, Utah, flying B-24 Liberator Heavy Bombers. In April 1944, his unit was stationed at Halesworth Airfield, Suffolk, England. He was further assigned to the 846th Bomber Squadron of the 489th. After several weeks of practice, the unit had its first combat mission on May 30, 1944.
“Donald Carl Harris had just turned 21 and had attained the rank of Staff Sergeant (SSG) when on June 2, 1944 his unit went to bomb the towns of Bretigny and Creil, France in preparation for D-Day. It was on this mission that SSG Harris lost his life.”
Dave Taylor, commander of Medina’s American Legion Post 202, is a licensed World War II historian and agreed with his Post 170 counterparts in regards to the Great Depression molding young men of the time into ideal soldiers.
“The biggest example the men on that beach gave us is that country comes before self,” he said. “We struggle with that today as a society. They went overseas and they left a country that had just spent a long time picking itself back up. Walking into a battle like that, the same thing goes through a soldier’s head that’s gone through every solder’s head since the beginning of time up to present day: ‘I need to uphold my part of this and I can’t let my buddies down.’
“You get into that mode and when the shrapnel is flying, the rifles are firing, and the enemy artillery is coming down as it was on D-Day, every one of those guys thought about not letting their buddies down.”
Peace, sitting in his room at Wadsworth’s Altercare retirement home, looked at pictures of his wife and family as he described how he and countless others felt leaving loved ones behind to beat back the rising tide of global fascism.
“I married my wife, kissed her, then went into the Army,” he said.
“It felt like I kissed her, blinked, and the next second I was in uniform, but we had to do it. It’s what needed to happen.”
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