Seventy years ago on June 6, an Allied force of 156,000 troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, during the largest seaborne invasion in U.S. military history.
Mines, barbed wire and heavy fire from German gun placements were only a few of the obstacles as soldiers landed, charging up the 50-mile stretch of beach through chaos and smoke.
German soldiers firing from concrete fortifications known as pillboxes tried to fight back the assault as soldiers fought their way on shore.
“Things you wouldn’t believe that happened, you don’t even like to talk about but it happened,” recalled World War II veteran Robert Kreager, 88, who lives in White Pigeon. “That was a bad day, no question about it.”
Kreager enlisted at age 17, following two older brothers into military service. A construction machine operator with the Army’s 238th Engineer Combat Battalion, Kreager was in the third phase on one of the five landing sectors, code named Utah Beach.
Riding in a tank landing ship or LST, they crashed through the surf carrying troops and equipment as artillery shells criss-crossed overhead, the Navy shooting one way and the Germans shooting back, according to Kreager.
“I crawled out of that boat, but we couldn’t get up that far,” Kreager said, “It was about 11-foot of water when we went in. Utah Beach wasn’t an expected place for us.”
Air patrols from the Free French Air Force’s Lorraine Fighter Group had used smoke to obscure the view of Allied ships and confuse German artillery.
The smoke combined with strong currents caused the first landings at Utah Beach to arrive more than 2,000 yards south of their intended target.
Upon landing, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., assistant commander of the 4th Division and eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt, realized the mistake. After a reconnaissance of their unintended location he was able to coordinate the attack on Utah Beach, famously declaring “We’ll start the war from here!”
Gen. Roosevelt would later earn a Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
By nightfall on June 6, 1944, more than 23,000 men had landed and fought on Utah Beach. Nearly 200 men died there.
Kreager made it to the beach unharmed, his battalion lost 12 soldiers.
“People laying everywhere,” he said. “The ones in the water is what bothered me.”
Though Allied casualties on D-Day numbered more than 10,000, the fighting on those five beaches and the invasion of Normandy would mark one of the biggest German defeats of the war.
After Utah Beach was taken, Kreager worked with the infantry for two days while he waited for a bulldozer.
He spent the rest of the war at the front with the infantry clearing roads of blockades, mines, and the dead that had been left behind. He built bridges and covered railroad tracks.
At the Battle of the Bulge, Kreager and his company helped the infantry lay 5,000 mines. He made it through the war without ever having to fire a shot.
“Never had to shoot nobody and never wanted to either,” Kreager said. “That’s all I did was run that dozer.”
Seventy years later, Kreager sat a table inside his home and reflected on his service during the war.
In his hand he held a cap with “D-Day Veteran” inscribed across it’s front. Five small bronze stars shined atop a European, African, Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon, representing the number of campaigns he served in during the war.
"I was the youngest in our battalion, in our whole outfit,” Kreager said. "There was two of us at that age ... and of course we were full of ’go get em’.”
It took Kreager awhile to get over what he saw during the war. He remembered the nights he would jump out of his bed thinking a bomb had exploded nearby
He remembered friends he lost during the war, and in the years since.
“It’s just like a family really after you get to know them all," Kreager said, “Most of them all passed away now.
“I got a nephew that asks me about it all the time, about D-Day, because he watches these movies,” Kreager added. “Movies don’t show you everything.”
Kreager took a moment before looking back down at his cap and smiled. “The infantry was a hell of a place to be.”