(Jan. 9, 2015) “I really don’t like to talk about this part of the invasion, because it’s awful gruesome,” John Sauer said.
Sauer, 90, sat calmly in his easy chair in a modest apartment at the Gull Creek Retirement Community in Berlin. His voice was grave, but clear, with a hint of a Baltimore accent.
“I’ve never told anybody about it,” he said. “I’ve told them about different things, but I never told them the gruesome part of the invasion – how bad it was. I think the people should know.”
Sauer was one of the 24,000 American, British and Canadian troops who landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day.
Born in Baltimore City, Sauer originally received an exemption from the draft due to his duties at the Glenn L. Martin Company.
“I worked there building airplanes,” he said. “All my friends were leaving and I was the only one there, so I asked the supervisor, ‘What do I do that I can’t work anymore?’ And he says, ‘if you don’t come in for a couple days you’re fired.’ So that’s what I did.”
Seven days later, Sauer received his draft notice. He reported to a basic training facility in Florida, but initially was not assigned to a specific service branch.
“I went to the rifle range one day and I hit 19 bull’s-eyes out of 20, and the Marine guy says, ‘We want you on the Marines,” Sauer said. “But they wouldn’t take me in the Marines because I wore glasses. So I ended up in the Army Air Corps.”
After basic, Sauer spent seven months at the Royal Air Force Burtonwood base in Warrington, England, training and awaiting further orders.
“One morning they lined us all up and they said, ‘When I call your name, I want you to step forward and then I’ll tell you what,’” he said. “And then he said, ‘You are now in the 29th Division in the Army.’”
The 29th moved to the White Cliffs of Dover and, for two months, the unit repeated the same task, climbing onto landing barges by rope. Ironically, when the invasion actually occurred, the 29th would walk from the hulls directly onto the awaiting barges.
The first wave of attacks on the Normandy beaches came in the form of rocket fire. Sauer, then 19, was in the second wave.
“It was cold, black, really bad rain, and you couldn’t see the shoreline,” Sauer said.
Each man was outfitted with a 60-pound pack, a 12-pound rifle, and a bandolier of bullets and grenades.
“When we were coming into shore the landing barge hit a sandbar, and the guy dropped the gate and 29 men just walked off into the water and I didn’t see them anymore,” Sauer said. “Most of them got drowned or shot.
“After I got off the boat, I got rid of my pack and my rifle, and I walked on the bottom of the water to go to war,” Sauer continued. “I was in about 18 foot of water and I walked until I ran out of breath and then I went up, and I was about 100 feet from shore.”
Sauer reached the shore of Omaha Beach. What he saw next, he said, he would never forget.
“The water was full of blood all around because of all the wounded,” he said. “It was solid red. You had to crawl on all the men to go into the shore, and you could hear the men groaning like they were hurting and shot. You had to crawl over them because you couldn’t walk.
“They gave it a good name: they called it ‘Dog Red Beach,’” Sauer continued. “That was the bloodiest part of the 3,000 men that died that day. It was terrible with the bodies in the water. I never will forget that.”
Trying to advance, Sauer was stopped by a Marine corpsman. Fearing sniper attacks, the corpsman told Sauer not to move until he saw smoke.
“The smoke came and then I crawled up to the beach, and then I got hit on the back with shrapnel,” Sauer said. “I moved up a little more and I got hit on my right side [just above his eye]. The next thing I knew a shell came in and it blasted the ground 20 feet from me, and it blew all the shrapnel around. And it hit me [on the forehead] and knocked me out. I don’t remember a thing after that.”
Two days later Sauer woke up, his head bandaged, on a hospital ship.
“I didn’t remember nothing,” he said. “Eisenhower came on the ship and gave us all Purple Heart medals, and Gen. [Charles H.] Gerhardt gave me the Bronze Star because I had rescued somebody. It was a reporter and he couldn’t swim, so I got him to shore in all my doings.”
Sauer is unsure if anyone else from the 29th survived that day.
“I never saw another man [from the 29th],” he said.
Ocean Pines will honor veterans of the Normandy landings during a flag-raising ceremony at the yacht club on Saturday, Jan. 10 at 11 a.m. A reception at the club follows.
Sauer said he volunteered to participate in the ceremony “to praise the 3,000 men who were heroes of the war.”
“If Eisenhower wouldn’t have formed D-Day and done the invasion we’d be speaking German now,” Sauer said.
Ocean Pines resident Elmer Muth, present during the 6th wave at Normandy, will also take part in the ceremony.