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Omaha the Hard Way: Conversation with Hal Baumgarten

By Gene Santoro
2/15/2017 • World War II Magazine

IT’S AMAZING that Private Hal Baumgarten survived D-Day. The 19-year-old, a member of of Company B, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, was wounded five times. Evacuated on June 7, he had 23 surgeries that inspired him to become a physician; he also was awarded a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the French Legion of Honor. A 1994 visit to the Normandy American Cemetery prompted Dr. Baumgarten, now 89, to speak of the horrors he experienced; Steven Spielberg tapped his memories for Saving Private Ryan.

How did your D-Day begin?

At 3:30 a.m., HMS Javelin was anchored 11 miles out in the Channel, carrying Companies A, B, C, and D. The winds were 5 mph. The temperature was 50 degrees. It was pitch black. The waves were 10 to 15 feet, so we couldn’t go down cargo nets. We climbed over the ship’s railing into British LCAs and were lowered to the water by ropes and davits. The low-sided LCAs were thrown around like match sticks and filled with water fast. Every man was immediately soaked. Most were throwing up. Some were so sick they were lying on the floor. Our feet were frozen. We used our helmets to bail out water and vomit for three hours.

You didn’t you wear the special “first wave” jacket. Why?

A buddy warned me it would drown us. It was dark green canvas fastened by two straps that were hard to work, with six big pockets to take the place of army packs. Instead I wore my field jacket. I’d seen newsreels of the Germans making Jews wear Stars of David, so I took my Eversharp pen and drew a big Star of David on the back and wrote “The Bronx, New York” around it. They would have no difficulty identifying me.

Where did you land?

Dog Green sector, the smallest but most heavily defended part of Omaha Beach. We had to cross four rows of barbed wired and mined obstacles and face the bluff, where 450 Germans in pillboxes and trenches had MG42 machine guns, a 20mm gun on a swivel, 105mm mortars, and 88mm cannons.

How many GIs landed on Dog Green?

Only two companies—A and B—came in on target. Company A lost three boats to drowning. Company B had four boats left. Seven boats in all. One Company B boat hit a mine; we were showered with wood, metal, blood, and body parts. The British sailors got frightened—I don’t blame them—and dropped the ramps prematurely. The Germans opened up. Both company commanders were killed. All but one of the junior officers and all the sergeants but two were killed. That left 180 men of 720.

What went wrong?

We expected shell-shocked Germans and bomb-made foxholes. That didn’t happen. Our offensive support—the USS Texas’s shelling, the navy rocket launching barge, the Eighth Air Force bomb runs—missed the beach. The only weapons left were our amphibious tanks. Fourteen of them drowned, most with the crews. One was destroyed immediately by an 88. The last remaining tank was firing when I landed.

How did you make it to the beach?

Luck. The man in front of me was killed on the ramp. I dove in behind him and stood neck-deep in bloody water with my rifle over my head. I was five foot ten and 185 pounds. The average GI was five foot seven and 147 pounds. Fellas all around me were being pulled down by those jack ets soaked with 100 pounds of weight. Most drowned. Those bouncing up and down trying to get their jackets off were picked off by Germans. We were being wiped out. So we moved in with rifles at port arms, to the right of the tank that was firing. I saw men with their guts hanging out, men carrying flamethrowers whose fuel tanks were hit being cremated. Body parts and the smell of burning flesh were everywhere. Running through the obstacles, we saw mines tossing fellas into the air in pieces. We had 85 percent casualties in the first 15 minutes. Two from my boat team of 30 survived.

You narrowly missed being killed halfway up the beach.

Machine-gun spray came from the trenches; I heard a loud thud on my right side, and my rifle vibrated, like the bat does when you hit a baseball. There was a clean hole in its receiver plate; my seven bullets in the magazine saved my life. There was another thud to my left: that soldier was gone. I hit the sand behind the last row of obstacles. To my right a GI was hit in the chest. To my left, another staggered by with a gaping hole in his forehead and his blond hair streaked with blood. He knelt facing the wall to pray. An MG42 on my right fired over my head and cut him in half.

Then you were wounded.

In my right leg, by a machine gun. I fired up at that machine gun, and it stopped. But that was it for my M1. I was looking to my right when an 88 shell went off a few yards in front of me. It ripped off my left cheek to my ear along with the roof of my mouth, blew out my upper left jaw, and left my teeth and gums lying on my tongue. The guy next to me got it full in the face and died. I washed my face out in dirty water, did a dead man’s float on the incoming tide, and got to the seawall. A big Georgia boy from Company A pushed me down. “Stay here,” he said. “I’m gonna get help.” But the machine gun started, so I ran and picked up a rifle—they were a dime a dozen. Wounded guys in the water reached for it as I passed; I pulled up as many as I could. We ran toward our gathering point. A guy in front of me got shot in the head. “Why not me?” I kept thinking. Finally I got to the end of the seawall at the bluff and out of that MG42’s range.

Did you get medical help?

About 8 a.m., a medic bandaged me while shells landed around us. He did a great job: the bandage stayed on until I was evacuated. At 10, I looked across the beach: the tide carried in dead men, blood, body parts, burned-out boats. I saw a wounded buddy, instinctively ran to him, and knelt with my right ear to his mouth. Three pieces of shrapnel hit the left side of my head and the back of my neck. I grabbed his right hand, put it over my shoulder, and dragged him to the wall. The 104th Medical arrived and started giving IVs; a sergeant told me where to go to get evacuated.

Why didn’t you go?

I figured I was a dead duck. How were they gonna put me back together, with my teeth on my tongue? I didn’t know about plastic surgery. So I was deter mined to keep fighting. About 1 p.m., I left the beach with 11 other wounded guys. We had a firefight outside Vierville; the Ranger with us emptied his gun into three surrendering Germans. We got to the beach road and crossed into bocage. Shells started falling; I started crawling. Something hit my left foot. I had tripped a castrator mine: the bullet went between my toes instead of my legs. I took the shoe off, dumped out the blood, and put a beautiful bandage on. Later my second toe had to be amputated.

You hid in the bocage with six other GIs until midnight.

When they decided to move, I didn’t know if I could walk. We were crossing the road when an MG42 ambushed us. I was crouched, cradling that left foot, so I got a bullet through my left upper lip; it took out the lip and my upper right jaw. So I have no jaw; without a plate in my mouth, I can reach up with my tongue and touch my nose. They were all mortally wounded, moaning and dying. I was alone, lying on top of the Ranger. I was sure we’d lost the war. I gave myself a morphine shot and slept till 3 a.m. When I woke, a bright, tremendous moon lit an ambulance that was coming down the road. I had the Ranger’s submachine gun, and pulled the bolt back. It was an American ambulance.

 

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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