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A Hero’s Legacy

By Amanda Kim Stairrett | 1ST INF. DIV. PUBLIC AFFAIRS | February 27, 2014

Walter D. Ehlers was often asked, “What was it like on D-Day?”

It was a question most asked of veterans who were there, he said on the 50th anniversary of the invasion. That sixth day of June in 1994, Ehlers once again stood on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, and talked about the train up, invasion and its lasting legacy.

Walter and his older brother, Roland, were not new to battle. The farm boys from Kansas fought side by side in North Africa and Sicily. They lived and they’d seen a lot. Still, Walter said he was amazed when they arrived in England to train for the looming invasion. He described rows and rows of tanks, artillery guns, trucks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers and warehouses of supplies lining England’s lush fields. Boats packed the harbors so close Walter said “we could have walked their length stepping from craft to craft.” “I suddenly appreciated the United States’ support of the war effort,” he said. “We were the men on the front line, but the hard work of our mothers and fathers, sisters and brother still at home made this tremendous military operation feasible. We came on our feet, but we brought their hearts – and prayers – with us.”

Waiting back home in Kansas for the Ehlers boys were their parents and three younger sisters, Leona, Marjorie and Gloria. The middle Ehlers son, Claus, was fighting in the Pacific theater.

Claus, a Ranger-trained sergeant who served in Company C, 19th Infantry Regiment, died in August at his home in Elkhart, Ind. He was 94.

Leona, the eldest sister, and Walter, the youngest brother, were close, separated by just two years. “Walt” and Leona liked to argue. They’d get bored, pick a topic and debate the pros and cons, she said this week from her home in Manhattan. Leona will turn 91 in April. Her brother would have been 93 in May.

Who most often won?

“Probably my brother,” Leona said, chuckling. “He didn’t like losing.”

Shortly before the Omaha Beach invasion, Walt and “Role” attended a briefing and learned from their commander one would have to transfer to another company, Walter recounted in a 1998 interview with C.E. Kirkpatrick, V Corps historian, for the Bridgehead Sentinel.

“As a result of the Sullivan brother tragedy, they wanted to separate brothers in the organization so they wouldn’t all get knocked off at the same time,” he told Kirkpatrick.

Two years before, five brothers of the Sullivan family were serving together when their cruiser was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. The U.S. War Department soon introduced a policy aimed at preventing further sweeping losses for military families.

The policy was depicted in the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan.”

And so the Ehlers brothers, both noncommissioned officers, were separated, Walter serving in Company L of the 1st Infantry Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment and Roland with Company K.

Standing on Omaha Beach 50 years later, Walter recalled waving to Roland as the briefing ended. The youngest and oldest Ehlers boys would finally be separated in war and make the landing from separate ships.

So what was it like on DDay?

“The dead and wounded Soldiers, the wreckage, the ability of the enemy to cause so much damage made us realize that this war – with its noise of mines detonating, airplanes’ continuous roar, mortar and artillery shells bursting on the beach, rifle and machine gun fire ripping holes in the sand and splashing in the water – this war was far from over,” Walter said.

Sadly, he went on to say, it was the end of the war for a great many brave men – men like Role.

“Walter Ehlers lost a brother on the D-Day beach there, and that’s, well, they said that’s what made him so mad, so he tried to win the war all by himself,” George K. Folk, a former captain in the 1st Inf. Div. who was also part of the invasion that day, said in a 1999 interview with a historian.