D-Day + 70: Honoring Wisconsin’s Heroes by Kevin Hampton

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!  You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

–   General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a letter to the Allied forces prior to D-Day

General Eisenhower addresses paratroopers prior to boarding their transports for the Normandy invasion. Library of Congress.

General Eisenhower addresses paratroopers prior to boarding their transports for the Normandy invasion. Library of Congress.

General Eisenhower addresses paratroopers prior to boarding their transports for the Normandy invasion. Library of Congress.

Seventy years ago today, the pivotal campaign of WWII took place along the coast of Normandy, France.

Known almost universally as “D-Day,” Operation Overlord was the largest seaborne invasion in history. Using the oral history collection from our archives, we are able to preserve the stories and accounts of Wisconsin’s heroes that took part in that historic event. The story of Milwaukee native Martin Gutekunst, gives insight into the mindset of those young heroes so many years ago.

Gutekunst, who was only 27 at the time, served as a radioman with the 2ndBeach Battalion on Utah Beach. In preparation for the invasion, he remembered receiving the now famous letter from General Eisenhower the night before the invasion. “They had to cancel the first invasion date and, well, there, of course, just before boarding the ship, we were in the staging area and we got the famous message from Eisenhower. And that seemed to calm everybody. Very good morale. So then we boarded the LST for our journey to France…”

Troops approaching the beaches in landing craft. National Archives.

Troops approaching the beaches in landing craft. National Archives.

Troops approaching the beaches in landing craft. National Archives.

By the next morning, hundreds of thousands of allied sailors and soldiers were in position, waiting off the coast of Normandy. Despite the massive preparation for the invasion and the extensive training the units received, coordinating the landing of thousands of men in each wave on the beaches was a complicated task and undoubtedly not everything played out the way it was planned. In the landing craft of the 2nd Beach Battalion, Gutekunst remembered the approach to the beach.

Troops approaching the beaches in landing craft. National Archives.“We circled around and then peeled off at the right time. There was a little conference between the men on the boat and the officers…. And we were discussing about going in, because everything seemed wrong according to the pictures we had looked at the day before. And history has proven that was right. We were at the wrong spot.”

Once they made it to the beaches, the Beach Battalions were tasked with clearing the German obstacles. The troops had landed at low tide so that the obstacles were clearly visible, however that meant the troops had farther to go up the beach exposing themselves to additional enemy fire.  “We had a long walk from where we got off the LCVP until we got to the area where we started to having to blow up the obstacles. You know, they were wicked looking things. I remember so well how many there were and how much we cleared away when we got through.”

Helmet worn by Martin Gutekunst on June 6, 1944 on Utah Beach. Martin Gutekunst Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Helmet worn by Martin Gutekunst on June 6, 1944 on Utah Beach. Martin Gutekunst Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

One of the things that Gutekunst remembered the most was the noise of battle. “On D-Day, there was tremendous noise…. It was so noisy that the radio wouldn’t work. Couldn’t use the radio. So the officer told me to help string wire from one obstacle to another for the explosions.”

When asked what he was feeling or thinking while being under fire for the first time, he said, “To be honest with you, I never knew what to expect, so I just took everything as just part of my job. And I never gave it much thought as to what was going on. Besides, I was sort of numb by the whole thing.”

After the beachheads were secure, Gutekunst’s battalion remained on the beaches, clearing obstacles for a month before being sent back to England and the United States for more training. In 1945, Martin shipped off to the Pacific to take part in the landings at Okinawa and to prepare for the proposed invasion of Japan.

As we reflect on the sacrifices of those heroes 70 years ago today, and all WWII veterans, it is important to remember the duty we have to preserve these stories and share them for generations to come. To learn more about Wisconsin’s veterans and their stories, search our collections online at http://bit.ly/1lbdgNq, or visit our Research Center located on the 3rd floor of 30 W. Mifflin Street in Madison.