The Ritchie Boys and D-Day

       I have just returned from a trip to France which included almost a month in a Brittany village and a tour with Road Scholar.  Because of my interest in World War II, the highlight of the tour was the two days dedicated to learning about the Normandy Landings on D-Day.  We visited Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery, the Caen-Normandy Memorial museum, and several other places significant to D-Day.
       One evening a few days before we visited the D-Day beaches and by prior arrangement, I was able to present my talk, “Discovering the Ritchie Boys,” to interested tour members.
       In preparation for the talk and because I knew this group was interested in the landing of the Allies in Normandy, I did a bit of additional research and added that perspective to my prepared talk. Of course, the dependable Dan Gross came to my aid with information.  He told me that at least a dozen IPW (Interrogators of Prisoners of War) teams came ashore during the first few days of the Normandy landings.   Some even parachuted into the French countryside the night before.  Jumping from a plane, in the dark of night, into the middle of German occupied territory must have been a terrifying experience.  Gross added that two Ritchie Boys, members of US Airborne units were killed on D-Day and are buried in the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
      A few days after my talk, I walked among row upon row of white crosses and Stars of David at the cemetery and searched for the markers of Walter Stippich of the 82nd Airborne and Walter Gunther, Jr. of the 101st Airborne, Ritchie Boys who died on June 6, 1944.
        Stippich and Gunther were among the 13,100 American paratroopers who made night drops behind enemy lines early on D-Day, 6 hours before the assault began on the beaches. Their mission was to block approaches to Utah and Omaha Beach slowing the movement of German reinforcements and to capture causeway exits off the beaches enabling the progress of US troops away from the beachheads and into the countryside. The efforts of these airborne units were only partially successful due to scattered drops and high casualty rates, including 338 killed, 904 wounded, and 1,257 missing or captured.
       After D-Day, as the Allied assault moved off the beaches, American units often included men trained in interrogation who would be able to question any German prisoners taken.
       Ernest Wachtel, a Ritchie Boy (profiled in blog post “An Honest Man” on August 10, 2014, ), remembers coming ashore on D-Day + 3 at Utah Beach, one of the original invasion points. He wrote me about the fear the commanders had that the Germans would use mustard gas against the soldiers as they had done during WWI.  This deadly gas severely burned lungs and any exposed skin and caused horrific suffering.  As a result, his group and many others were ordered to have their gas masks “at the ready” and wear army issue long underwear that had been coated with a protective layer of chemicals. Ernest said the special long underwear was so hot and confining that they were soon “perspiring profusely and started to smell like ripe cheese.” He was relieved after a few days when his unit was told that the US Army Command had decided no mustard gas would be used and the soldiers could remove their special gear. Sometime later, Wachtel was assigned to General Patton’s Third Army mobile headquarters and worked under Herman, the hero of Immigrant Soldier.
      Visiting the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer and walking among the grave markers was an intensely emotional experience. Aided by grave numbers supplied by the American Battle Monuments Commission, I was able to find the graves of both Walter Stippich and Walter Gunther, Jr.  I was surprised to see that both of them were laid to rest under Christian crosses.  It was interesting to learn from our guide that, during and immediately after World War II, any military dead whose dog tags did not indicate a religious preference (C for Catholic, P for Protestant, or H for Hebrew/Jewish) were automatically interred under a white cross at American cemeteries.  Also, it is known, as explained in Immigrant Soldier, that some Jewish soldiers changed the religious preference to Protestant on their dog tags as protection against mistreatment or execution in the event they were captured by the Nazis, a fear that proved all too real.
      Our tour group participated in a special ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery in which two men who had served in the United States military laid a wreath at the foot of a sculpture representing the youth of America rising from the sea.  As I listened to a trumpet rendition of “Taps” after the wreath was laid, I thought of the thousands of young lives sacrificed on D-Day and throughout World War II.


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