D-day veterans provide unique in-school history lesson on Normandy invasion
June 13, 2014
CHANTILLY, Va. - Nearly 25,500 days have passed since World War II's longest day, but 70 years to the H-hour of the Allied Force's Normandy invasion, men who participated in the landings at Omaha and Utah Beaches sat with middle school students and reflected about their aerial, amphibious or naval ordeals that June in 1944.
At Chantilly's Rocky Run Middle School's World War II Oral History Day, more than 100 servicemembers from the World War II, Korean and Vietnam eras were invited to sit face-to-face with junior high school students and answer questions about their military adventures.
Former Army Air Corps B-17 gun turret engineer and gunner Jerry Wolf's pre-D-day adventure held his roundtable of students spellbound. On May 28, 1944 during a pre-invasion sortie, Wolf and his crew's bombing mission to Magdeburg, Germany, never returned to the United Kingdom.
On D-day, Wolf was held as a prisoner of war, but he knew the Allied invasion was imminent.
"[We were bombing] oil refineries; we bombed Berlin four times," 90-year-old Wolf said of his pre-D-day missions. "We knew D-day was coming, but I was on a [POW] train going to Stalag Luft IV. In the newspapers the Germans had, we picked up that there was an invasion, and we also knew something was going to happen."
An afternoon panel presentation featuring Normandy veterans brought a group of Soldiers and Sailors to a jam-packed school theater to hear how June 6, 1944, progressed from land to sea in the English Channel.
Navy Deck Officer Donald Wells witnessed the invasion of Utah Beach from the USS Barnett. Seventy years later, he told Rocky Run faculty and students about his battle concerns.
"We landed troops from the fourth division, which included Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., on Utah Beach," Wells said. "I had some concern about the German Luftwaffe flying over and giving us trouble, but as long as it was dark, I felt safe."
Rolf Valtin, a member of the intelligence section of the Headquarters Company, 16th Regiment of the 1st U.S. Infantry Division (The Big Red One), arrived on Omaha Beach an hour and a half after the first wave. He told the audience the true credit for the Allied victory goes to the first Soldiers who landed and died on French soil.
"I want everyone to know that when you're a staff person as I was at regimental headquarters, though you're in combat, you don't do the actual fighting," said Valtin, who was a German immigrant and interrogated Axis prisoners of war. "The credit belongs to what we call the doggies - the infantrymen who were the real assault people."
Representing Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall's retiree council was Frank Cohn. Born in Germany, Cohn came to the United States during his teenage years and served in the Army and fought in Europe at the Battle of the Bulge.
"This is a big deal event ... the World War II population is shrinking fast," Cohn said. "Everyone who commented had enjoyed the event tremendously, and we all felt honored by the reception and the conduct of the students. I had five student groups and one classroom session, and I was pretty well worn out by 3 p.m."