It’s been 75 years since George Siegfried slogged his way onto Omaha Beach. But the memory of that historic day never leaves him.
“It was unbelievable,” the 95-year-old Army veteran said from his Bayport home on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. “We made it in, but how many died on the beach to do that?”
By the time Siegfried and his 149th Engineers Combat Battalion landed on Omaha Beach in occupied France about 8:30 a.m. on June, 6, 1944, the small-arms fire was nearly quieted, the German bunkers on the hillside were wiped out and large-artillery fire had moved into the near distance. Bodies were strewn on the beach; others floated in the water.
The dead were young men just like himself — some barely out of high school, with no time to figure out what their lifetime dreams might have been. Their hopes died on that beach. And many of those who survived D-Day would die on battlefields across Europe.
Many didn’t know what war would be like. Siegfried was an Army technician fifth grade. “At that level, you don’t know what the big picture was,” he said. “You’re trained to do what you’re told. Or else.”
The Allied assault on Normandy’s beaches, the largest amphibious invasion in history, sealed the doom of Nazi Germany. Omaha Beach, which stretched over 6 miles, was the largest of the five landing areas and had the highest number of casualties — 2,000 U.S. troops were killed, wounded or went missing on D-Day, earning it the name “Bloody Omaha.”
Just 20 years old when he jumped out of the landing craft into the water, Siegfried didn’t know enough to be nervous or scared.
“At that age, you think you can do almost anything,” he said.
But the toll of war was stark. He watched as crews lined up bodies in rows on the beach. They removed guns, ammunition and dog tags and prepared the bodies for burial, Siegfried recalled.
“I was no hero,” he said. “We just did what we had to do. That’s what we were trained to do.”
Siegfried’s job was to rebuild the roads that were destroyed and the bridges that were blown up, making way for the trucks and artillery that would follow. He spent a month on Omaha Beach as his battalion waited for their time to move. “We played a lot of pinochle,” he said, a smile spreading across his face.
But eventually his battalion moved, doing the job it was trained to do. There’s not much else to say, according to Siegfried.
“I did as much as I could have done,” he said.
He laid his large working man’s hands atop his cane, tapping it on the carpet.
Like most of his generation who came home from the war, Siegfried doesn’t talk much about it. “It is what it was,” he said, while his granddaughter, Elise Haupt, and her father, Greg Haupt, sat across from him and listened.
Marge Johnson, his “significant other” of 20 years, nudged him to fill in the gaps. “You think about it,” he said. “You think about it quite a bit. But that’s the way it was.”
The Germans surrendered in May 1945 and Siegfried was back in Minnesota in December of that year, after two years, nine months and 26 days in the Army. Of course they all counted the days, he explained.
“I came back looking forward to getting on with life,” Siegfried said. The woman he thought he would marry had sent him a “Dear John” letter, he said, pointing her out standing next him in his uniform in an old black-and-white photo.
He didn’t dwell on it then, and he certainly doesn’t now more than half a century later. With the help of the G.I. bill, he enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, but lasted only a semester.
“I had a lot of fun,” he said. But he quit. “I wanted a car,” he explained. And he went to work in his father’s construction business.
And he got busy with life — getting married, raising six kids, taking over his father’s business. The war was behind him.
Not until years later, when D-Day anniversary documentaries were played and commemoration ceremonies made headlines that he allowed himself to think about being part of something bigger and among those considered the Greatest Generation. “I was a small part of it,” he said.
Looking at his granddaughter, he said that now it’s her generation’s time.
He doesn’t spend much time thinking about the D-Day anniversary as it comes and goes each year, and never had any desire to return to the Normandy beaches like other veterans.
“As time goes by, you just think ‘Am I going to be able to get up in the morning? Will I make it through the day?’ ” he said, breaking into a laugh.
Most of his fellow World War II vets have died.
“All in all, I’ve enjoyed life as anyone could expect to,” Siegfried said. And then he paused again. “I might go to the Legion for chicken dinner tomorrow.”