• A dwindling generation recalls D-Day
     | June 01,2014
    Photo by Candace Page:  

    Albert Sponheimer Jr., 89, of East Ryegate, is one of a fast-diminishing cadre of men who landed on Omaha Beach on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, during World War II. Sponheimer was an 18-year-old medic who won a medal for heroism under fire. He will return to Omaha Beach on June 6, for the 70th anniversary of the battle that opened the way into Europe for the Allied Forces

    EAST RYEGATE – This will be Albert Sponheimer Jr.’s final trip to the bluffs and ruined battlements of Omaha Beach.

    He arrived for the first time early on D-Day, June 6, 1944, riding a half-track onto a beach alive with German shells, carpeted with dead and dying soldiers.

    He was just 19, a terrified medic equipped with morphine, bandages and not much else.

    “Private First Class Sponheimer with complete disregard for his personal safety continually exposed himself to intense enemy fire as he rendered medical assistance to his wounded comrades,” the citation with his Silver Star would later read.

    Sponheimer will be 90 in September. Macular degeneration makes it difficult for him to read, a deep cough shakes his thin frame and he requires periodic platelet transfusions. He uses a walker to get around the hilltop home where he lives alone with his aging Labrador, Midnight.

    Nevertheless, he was determined to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the triumphant moment when Allied forces returned to wrest western Europe from Hitler’s grasp.

    “I’ve got to go in honor of the ones that didn’t come back,” he said in mid May. “Being a little Pfc., I don’t get invited up with the generals and colonels at the ceremonies, but we know what we did that day.”

    Sponheimer is one of a dwindling number of men who can say of D-Day, “I was there, I know what we did.” The median age of Normandy veterans is 92. This year’s commemoration is likely to be the last round-number anniversary in which they participate

    Despite the memoirs, oral histories and movies, something will be lost when their actual voices are stilled.

    Social studies teacher Paula Emery invites World War II veterans to speak to her classes at U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier. The eyewitness accounts of veterans carry a credibility and narrative power that books can’t duplicate, she said.

    “You want to make history real, as real as you can,” she said. “I can read and read and read, but until I experience it, I know I don’t know. A veteran comes in, and he was there! … Fifty kids will come up and just want to touch him.”

    “What I push is talking to the younger generation,” Sponheimer said. His voice rasped. A cough shook his upper body. “They read half-truths in the books. What they hear from me is the truth.”

    ‘I got a letter from his mother’

    At least half a dozen Vermonters found themselves that morning in the hell of Omaha Beach, the bloodiest sector of the battle.

    The late Kimball R. Richmond of Windsor was an infantry captain in the 16th Regiment. When his landing craft sank, he swam ashore “through a hail of machine gun bullets and artillery fire,” his citation for extraordinary heroism would later say. In the chaos of a landing gone awry, he assembled a hodge-podge of leaderless men and led them up the beach bluffs to capture an enemy strongpoint.

    The late Harry Adams of Essex was a staff sergeant in the field artillery of the 1st Division, the “Big Red One.” He and his corporal had fought together across North Africa and Sicily. At Omaha, they scrambled into the water from their landing craft. A German shell exploded in front of them, killing the corporal. Adams used the body of his friend as shelter from bullets as he struggled ashore. Sixty years later he still could hardly speak of it.

    Ed Parenteau of Derby Line was also there, a Navy enlisted man whose job was to lower the ramp on the vulnerable landing craft that ferried soldiers to the beach.

    “I guess I was too young to be scared,” he said a few years ago.

    Leonard Pilus of Essex Junction was another; a 22-year-old switchboard operator in the 294th Joint Assault Signal Company. On D-Day, he spent his first minutes on the beach “flat, flat, flat,” trying without result to claw a shelter in the hard shale of Omaha.

    Like many World War II veterans, he was silent about his experiences for decades after the fighting ended. Now, much of that day 70 years ago has receded into darkness, but some memories are indelible. A shell from a German 88mm gun landed a few feet away, killing the man next to him.

    “I got a letter from his mother after the war. He was a Southern boy, a church-going boy,” Pilus recalled last month. His voice slowed as if he were seeing the boy again.

    Pilus escaped from the beach with only a nick on his hand where it was struck by a rifle carried by a soldier who was blown on top of him. He spent the night in a trench he shared with the bodies of dead Germans.

    “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the Army,” Pilus said.

    ‘You become a robot’

    At 89, Sponheimer lives with a contradiction. Nightmares of D-Day awoke him for years. He wants to forget. Yet he is passionate about testifying. One room in his farmhouse is dominated by a big table stacked with unit histories, photographs and letters about D-Day.

    Before his health declined, he frequently acted as a battlefield guide for Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours, the company whose guest he will be this June 6.

    In June 1944, he was a 118-pound kid whose poor eyesight led the Army to turn him into a medic in an anti-aircraft battalion, rather than the gunner he wanted to be.

    As he came ashore, “All you could see was dead people,” he said. Shells landed all around his half-track. The crew bailed out. Sponheimer dodged around the beach, giving morphine to dying men, lighting one cigarette after another for the wounded.

    The tide was rising. He pulled bodies, alive, dead, from the surf and sheltered them behind a damaged tank until he realized the tank was a target.

    The noise made thinking impossible. The smell, “it would make you sick; blood, gunpowder, the dead,” he said. “You don’t work as a man, you become a robot.”

    Wounded men would ask for their mothers and beg, “Am I going to make it?”

    “You never told them the truth, you always told them they’re going to make it,” Sponheimer said.

    By midnight, troops had opened a road off the beach and the U.S. Army was moving inland. Sponheimer set up a makeshift aid station in a little white building at the edge of the beach. It’s visible in some of the iconic photos of the D-Day landings.

    June 6 was only the beginning of his war. Sponheimer’s unit fought across Normandy, entered Paris and survived the Battle of the Bulge.

    At war’s end, Sponheimer came home to New England and trained as a plumber.

    In 1962, he moved his family from home in Connecticut to Ryegate, where he worked as a plumbing foreman. For many years, the license plate on his truck read “D-Day.”

    As the grass outside his window turned green in the early May rains, he both dreaded and anticipated his trip to the old battleground and old memories.

    “It ain’t too bad yet,” he said. As June 6 approaches, “It gets awful for me. I can still see it and hear it. You don’t want to know.”

    Candace Page is a freelance journalist in Burlington.

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