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Remembering Walter Ehlers, who had been the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the invasion.
Ehlers died this past February at the age of 92. But his remarkable deeds in Normandy and his eloquence 50 years later deserve to be remembered today.
D-day, he once said, was “60 times worse than ‘Saving Private Ryan. ‘ ” Fortunately, Ehlers’s training and experience in previous landings in North Africa and Sicily taught him to advance right into the enemy fire and avoid becoming pinned down. As a result, his entire 12-man squad made it ashore without anyone wounded.
Yet he received the Medal of Honor not for his heroism on the beaches but for the subsequent fighting in the Normandy hedgerows. The landings themselves, despite the carnage, were one of the best planned and executed military operations in history. But with all the attention focused on establishing a beachhead, little thought was given to the hedgerows, just a short distance beyond. These thick barriers, which had grown up over centuries to separate farmers’ fields, gave the German defenders a great advantage and produced the worst American casualties of the Normandy campaign. Ehlers’s troops had received six months of amphibious training before the landings, but no preparation for the ferocious resistance they were to encounter in the hedgerows beyond the beaches.
On June 9, 1944, near Goville, France, Staff Sgt. Ehlers led his squad in taking out multiple German machine guns and mortars, sometimes single-handed. The next day his squad covered the withdrawal of their platoon and then, to cover his own men, Ehlers, in the words of his Medal of Honor citation, “stood up and by continuous fire at the semicircle of enemy placements, diverted the bulk of the heavy hostile fire on himself, thus permitting the members of his own squad to withdraw.” Shot through the back, Ehlers carried his severely wounded automatic rifleman to safety and then insisted on returning to his squad when his own wound was treated.
Like so many other Medal of Honor recipients, for a long time Ehlers didn’t talk about his actions. For 16 years his co-workers at the Veterans Administration, where he worked as a benefits counselor, didn’t know about his medal. They only learned of it because the White House called Ehlers at work one day and invited him to an event hosted by then-President Lyndon Johnson.
So many recipients of this country’s highest award for heroism say that they simply did what anyone would have done. And they all seem to mean it. “Many others,” Ehlers said, “were just as brave. I know my brother, Roland, was one of them. He was the bravest man I ever knew. My hero. Not a day goes by I don’t think about him.”
Like the fictional Private Ryan of the movie, Ehlers and his brother were separated for the D-Day landings, so as not to repeat the tragedy of the Sullivan family from Iowa, which lost five sons in the sinking of a single ship. Roland Ehlers never made it ashore. His landing craft was struck by a German shell and the entire squad was killed.
From the day he first learned of his brother’s death, Ehlers had nightmares. They ended when he spoke about his brother in public for the first time at the 50th anniversary of D-Day, with Queen Elizabeth and President Clinton listening. After that day, according to Ehlers, “the nightmares went away. I came to grips with his death.”
Ehlers’s whole speech is remarkable, but particularly these words:
“While we braved these then-fortified beaches to beat back Hitler and to liberate Europe . . . we fought for much more than that. We fought to preserve what our forefathers had died for . . . to protect our faith, to preserve our liberty. . . . I pray that the price we paid on this beach will never be mortgaged, that my grandsons and granddaughters will never face the terror and horror that we faced here. But they must know that without freedom, there is no life and, that the things most worth living for, may sometimes demand dying for.”
We can best honor the veterans of D-Day and of all America’s wars by remembering the sacrifices they made and by recognizing the debt that we owe them. Walter Ehlers —and all who fight and die for freedom—must rest assured “that the price we paid on this beach will never be mortgaged.”
Mr. Wolfowitz, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has served as deputy U.S. secretary of defense and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.
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