Ed Kent’s voice cracks as he reads Dwight D. Eisenhower’s D-Day letter to the troops.
He stands in front of 15 people at a D-Day anniversary program at Cape May Lutheran Church on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but reciting the letter takes him back to when he was first handed the mimeographed document aboard a landing craft in the early hours of June 6, 1944.
The feeling of apprehension ... the salt spray on his face ... the roiling sea beneath his feet. Those patriotic words on that thin sheet of paper.
“Your task will not be an easy one,” he reads. “Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
“But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. ... Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength. ... Our Home Fronts have given us overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions. ... The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!”
The Cape May resident revisits these words from time to time; they are more than a historical artifact. They are a reminder of sacrifices made in the face of evil.
“You can imagine a 20-year-old boy reading that to himself,” says the 88-year-old man. “It gets to me today — I can’t read that without getting goosebumps.”
The younger Kent could hear the thunder of artillery in the distance. As the vessel drew closer to the beach, the sounds grew more distinct: the booming blast of a mortar shell, the pap-pap-pap of machine gun volleys, the sharp report of rifles fired in quick succession.
Kent knew what awaited him as he readied himself for the tug of the landing craft’s anchors, a signal that his M-7 artillery vehicle would soon disembark.
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While the Cape May presentation was sparsely attended — many of the audience members were themselves veterans — that didn’t diminish the importance of Kent’s story and the stories of men and women like him. And the passing of that generation has made the retelling more poignant.
Robert Heinly, the event organizer, said a second presenter broke his hip the night before and could not attend. It was an unfortunate reminder of an unavoidable fact.
“We will not have this invaluable living history resource much longer,” he said. “All we’ll be able to do is just read about it or view films on it.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, WWII veterans are dying at a rate of about 740 a day. Currently, there are about 1.7 million veterans remaining of the 16 million who served.
The realization that these first-hand accounts could disappear in a matter of decades has sparked an effort by local historians and the veterans themselves to preserve these stories for future generations.
Heinly, director of museum education at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, recruits veterans to serve as interpreters at the center’s WWII lookout tower near Sunset Beach. He also coordinates visits to school classrooms and other events where the men can share their experiences.
“Soon we won’t be able to hear first-hand from the people who lived it,” he said. “That makes it more imperative to take advantage of the opportunities we have.”
Real lessons can be taken from the veterans’ experiences, which have been a staple of Hollywood films, said Heinly, a retired school administrator and college professor.
“It sounds very trite, ... but those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it,” he said. “There’s an awful lot we can learn about World War II, whether it’s the folly of appeasement or the need for self-sacrifice.”
Kent volunteers at the tower each summer, climbing its 99 steps almost every Sunday.
“When I first started on the tower, I could run up those steps; now, I don’t know if I want to walk up,” he said. “It gets harder and harder all the time.”
But Kent still fares better than some visitors half his age. He does it to educate people about the wartime experience and is surprised how many — even some in their thirties — are completely unaware of what happened.
“What bothers me is the fact they don’t teach much of this in the schools anymore,” he said. “I’ve run into people who didn’t even know what D-Day is.”
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Another organization preserving these stories is the Atlantic Heritage Center.
Its Somers Point headquarters houses a dozen red binders of transcribed interviews, historical documents, photographs and audio recordings it has collected since 2007 as part of the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. The material the center gathers from local veterans is also kept in Washington, D.C., and some of it is available on the library’s website.
Sheryl Collins, one of the project’s lead volunteers, said at least a dozen of the nearly 125 veterans interviewed have died since the program began. If not for the project, Collins fears, their stories would have been lost.
“A lot of servicemen from every war do not want to talk about it,” she said. “But at the same time, I’ve had a lot of them say to me that this is cathartic. Nobody’s ever asked them about their involvement in Korea or Vietnam or whatever war they served in.”
The archives capture the accounts of many South Jersey residents who participated in the D-Day invasion from different vantage points.
Bernard Friedenberg, 90, of Margate, had served as a U.S. Army medic since 1942 in North Africa, but his first real contact with enemy soldiers was at Omaha Beach.
“I was right in the middle of it,” he told interviewers. “I asked for it — I got it!”
During the landing, Friedenberg was separated from the rest of his unit and started working on his own. He received a Silver Star for carrying, one-by-one, five men who had been injured by an anti-personnel mine. But one of the real heroes, he said, was a Catholic chaplain going among the dead and dying.
“(He was) completely ignoring the danger he was in,” he said. “I can safely say he was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.”
John MacNaughton, 87, of Smithville, was a U.S. Navy gunner’s mate who served as gunfire support along the Omaha and Utah Beaches during the invasion. His job was to escort each wave of the invading soldiers, providing cover fire.
“A lot of men never put a foot on the beach; they drowned in the water,” he told interviewers. “That was the first wave, but the second wave was just as bad.”
For the first 36 hours of the invasion, MacNaughton said, his crew never slept. When they weren’t firing at targets on the beach, his ship was patrolling for German boats and scanning the skies for war planes
Samuel Petrosky, 87, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., went off to war with his twin, Jacob. Their father sent them away with a letter asking they not be separated during their service. They landed in Normandy and spent most of the war together.
As a U.S. Army medic, Petrosky treated injured and dying soldiers. Because he was not in an armored company, he told interviewers he never saw “real heavy combat.”
“Compared to other GIs, we were very fortunate,” Petrosky said.
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As Kent’s landing craft approached the French coastline, it passed battleships bombarding enemy positions on land.
“I happened to think, ‘Wow, how small we are compared to that big battleship’,” he said. “And just in that instance, they fired a broadside and the whole battleship jumped sideways — I couldn’t believe such a huge vessel could be pushed sideways through the water like that.”
Then the anchors, which allowed the landing craft to winch itself back away from the coast after unloading, dropped and the artillery vehicles began to offload onto the beach. Kent watched from his position behind the driver as a sergeant above guided the tank into the surf, careful to avoid debris or depressions caused by exploding shells.
“I was guiding the driver, who couldn’t see very well through the bullet-proof slit,” he said. “If the sergeant said, ‘to the left,’ I’d pull (the driver’s) left shoulder. If he wanted to go right, I’d pull his right shoulder — so I actually drove the tank.”
Kent watched as a machine gun kicked up water all around the sergeant.
“I thought surely they had hit him, but he kept plowing through the water,” he said. “He lived a charmed life, at least to that time.”
The charmed life, for both Kent and his sergeant, ended 15 days later, on June 21 as the M-7 was firing into Cherbourg. Kent was stationed behind his 105 mm howitzer, awaiting the next firing position, when a shell landed immediately in front of the artillery vehicle.
“My machine gunner said, ‘The next one’s going to be right in here,’” Kent said. “But I figured, ‘They can’t hit us; we’re just a little tank up here.’”
Just as the firing position came through his radio, as Kent was reaching up to change the deflection of his gun sight, the next shell exploded above their heads.
“It came down and hit the sergeant six times,” he said. “I got hit once in my arm.”
The sergeant died. Kent had his arm broken and his radial nerve severed, and narrowly avoided amputation. He spent six months in a British hospital before being transported to the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall in Atlantic City, which served as a hospital during the war. He stayed in a converted hotel room for 10 months, spending mornings in physical therapy and afternoons at the beach.
Kent’s war injury continues to trouble him — he has trouble with buttons and zippers — but he considers himself lucky.
“I’m not complaining — it’s just a fact of life,” he said. “A lot of guys didn’t make it up that beach.”
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