June 5, 2014

D-Day veterans remember their day in history

They were once young soldiers, medics and sailors.

They were once young soldiers, medics and sailors.

But seven decades after they participated in D-Day, they have become old men.

Now in their 90s, their day in history was June 6, 1944, when the Allies invaded western Europe along the Normandy coast in France. It was the largest amphibious invasion in military history and led to Germany’s surrender less than a year later..

Some of their voices have shrunk to whispers, sometimes breaking at memories. Their ears no longer hear the sounds of battle but their flashbacks are vivid.

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Ralph Fiebach was commanding a mine sweeping mission off Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.

Bob Rogers guarded an airbase in England.

Dale Gregory parachuted into the French countryside, right into enemy fire, was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans.

Sam Seminoff was a private in the 358th Engineering group whose mission was to get above Omaha Beach and lay steel runways for fighter planes.

Grover Forrest Adams arrived on the beach an hour after the invasion began. He was a medic in the 116th Infantry, 29th Division.

A farm boy from Cowley County, Adams had never seen anything like what he saw that day on Omaha Beach.

“There was this one G.I. on the beach that looked so peaceful, like he was asleep – though half of his body was gone,” Adams said, as his voice broke. He paused before talking again.

“It is something that has stuck with me all these years.”

‘Kind of a letdown’

The 101st Airborne, Wichitan Dale Gregory’s division, suffered incredible losses during their mission on D-Day. Only a sixth of the men reached their destination.

In the early morning hours, Gregory said he was dropped south of the Douve River in France. German soldiers walking patrol on the river’s dike fired on him and other men in his unit. In the gunfire, Gregory remembers a carbine was wrenched from his hands.

His right hand was spurting blood. He reached with his left hand to grab his first-aid kit and discovered his left wouldn’t work.

While a fellow paratrooper tried bandaging Gregory’s hands, German soldiers took them prisoner. He was marched to a medical station then to a field hospital – all the time with his arms above his head.

“I trained for 18 months as a 16-millimeter mortar gunner,” Gregory said. “When we were dropped, we couldn’t find the equipment chute with the mortar in it. I threw a grenade, but we had been instructed not to engage the enemy any more than protecting ourselves.”

Three days after D-Day had begun, German doctors wanted to amputate Gregory’s hands, telling him blood poisoning was beginning to set in. Gregory wouldn’t let them.

On June 10, he and 20 other POWs were loaded on horse-drawn carriages as American troops advanced. There were no horses, so the prisoners pushed the carts themselves.

On June 11, the prisoners escaped. French citizens hid Gregory in a slate mine. And on June 12, American soldiers came across prisoners and took Gregory back to Omaha Beach then on to England for recovery.

“I had trained all that time and I look at it as a failure – being hit and being taken as a prisoner,” said Gregory, now 90. “It was kind of a letdown.”

No time to think

Grover Forrest Adams, now living in Manhattan, has never wanted any personal glory, although he did receive a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for his actions.

Adams, now 90, was the leader of his medical unit as it landed on Omaha Beach. Amidst the sights and sounds of battle, the medics carried no weapons and had to rely solely on their Red Cross insignia and their instincts to protect them.

Adams lost four of his 12 men when an artillery shell exploded as the men went into a compound to rescue soldiers who were injured and pinned down.

On that day, Adams said he did not have the luxury of thinking.

“Better to be a doer than to think,” he said.

“There were never any moments when I didn’t think I wouldn’t make it. I was told on the ship going overseas that I would come home by the good Lord himself. I never doubted that for a second. I went through all that war and never received a wound.

“The mind is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it helps us forget. I don’t recall anything else about the war.”

Sweeping for mines

Wichitan Ralph Fiebach, 96, remembers sweeping for mines to clear the landing area on both Omaha and Utah beaches.

“We had to sweep the bombardment channel in front of the beach to be ready for the 6 a.m. invasion,” Fiebach said.

Originally from Coffeyville, Fiebach remembers, “Before going into the Navy, the biggest body of water I had seen was in my bathtub.”

Off the coast of France, in the early morning hours of June 6, there were moored mines, magnetic mines and sonic mines.

“You are so busy when you do mine sweeping, we were running a channel that was about 1,500 yards wide and marked with buoys so that the bombarding ships could see where to go,” Fiebach said.

“It took us about a 3 1/2 hour-run to mark it with buoys. We were doing this in the black of night with the Germans firing star shells over you and trying to see what was going on.

“The only reason we survived is that the beach batteries knew something bigger was coming, and they were trying to save ammunition.”

Loyal French

Wichitan Sam Seminoff, 90, remembers climbing off a ship from a rope ladder onto a landing barge. He carried his rifle and a 60-pound duffel bag.

He later was dumped into the water short of the beach.

“The water was deep, it was over my head,” Seminoff said. “I had to swim as much as I could with the rifle and pack. I made it OK but had to stumble over dead bodies. That really got me.”

The supplies for the landing beach hadn’t arrived, so the soldiers lived in foxholes for a couple of days.

“The K-rations didn’t last long,” he said. “The Germans were strafing the beaches so we went into the woods. We were crawling over dead Germans at that time.

“I shall always remember the loyalty of the French as they saw we were coming in. They would bring food out to us.”

It turned out, Seminoff said, that the Germans had fallen back so far the runways he had been sent to build were no longer needed. He was sent on to Antwerp, Belgium, to help repair railroads.

As he was riding in the back of a troop carrier, a bomb exploded, killing a lieutenant from Kansas and seriously injuring the driver.

“Those of us in back were pretty well protected by the canvas canopy,” Seminoff said, “ although it did affect my hearing.

“We did what we were supposed to do and there were those of us who came back. Many of them didn’t. I think about it every time there is a Veterans Day.”

‘Darned lucky’

Wichitan Bob Rogers, 90, was in England when hundreds of planes took off with paratroopers inside. He trained with the 101st Airborne and had expected to go on that mission.

“Right at the last minute, they said they needed some guys to stay here to guard the airfield,” Rogers said. “They thought the Germans might try to come back in and shoot up the place. I was kept there.

“But nothing happened during the night. The planes came back pretty beat up.”

Ten days later, he was sent to Omaha Beach. On July 18, he was wounded in the head. His helmet was blown off. He temporarily lost vision in his left eye and his hearing was affected.

“I didn’t feel like I was a hero,” he said. “I felt darned lucky to get out of there.”

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