Pfc. Ronald Quadt jumped into the chilly, neck-deep waters off the shores of Normandy, France, and waded onto the ravaged beach.
Bodies were washed up on the shore, some floating face down. Men crying from pain were all around that windy morning of June 6, 1944. Some never made it to shore; they drowned in the deeper waters, weighed down by their heavy equipment.
Quadt, then 19, had to contend with sniper fire as he and his Ana Tank Company scrambled to begin the mission to liberate Europe from the grips of Nazi occupation. The date would come to be known as “the longest day.”
“I was scared,” says Quadt, now 89 and living in Fort Lauderdale. “I wouldn’t say I wasn’t scared. But you learn to hold back.”
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Quadt was one of the more than 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops that landed on D-Day at five beachheads in France along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified shore. The bloody battles led to about 10,000 Allied casualties, with about 2,500 U.S. troops dead.
Friday will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, a brutal but seminal moment in the history of World War II. Within a year, the Nazis would be defeated and the fighting in Europe would be over. Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945.
After the invasion, Quadt moved through the French countryside with his company. He would survive capture by the Nazis and soon thereafter was liberated by the Allies. He took about 50 Nazis as prisoners after a firefight.
“The bullets sounded like mosquitoes,” he recalled.
For the French Consul General in Miami, Philippe Létrilliart, the day is especially meaningful.
“It means a lot for me because I have studied history, and because I’m from Normandy,” he said. “We thank the U.S. and all the Allies for giving us the opportunity to build a free and democratic Europe.”
After 70 years, many of the war’s youngest soldiers — ages 17-21 — are approaching their 90s. Their first-hand accounts still rivet their families, friends and historians. Four South Florida D-Day survivors recently sat down with the Miami Herald to share their stories.
U.S. Navy forces departed from Weymouth, England, toward the coast of France on D-Day. Among the fleets was the USS Barton DD-722, where 17-year-old Seaman First Class Charles J. Schaus first watched German shore batteries fire toward him from Omaha Beach.
“Our first assignment was to protect the ships in the transport area,” said Schaus, now 87 and living in Coconut Creek. “We laid smokescreen for the Battleship Texas and others that were firing on German shores.”
Schaus’s destroyer rescued 33 soldiers who were sinking after hitting a mine. Some were concerned about returning to another boat.
“They said, ‘That’s the worse place in the world because you’re a floating target,’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s better than drowning,’ ” said Schaus.
After the rescue, the destroyer turned to the skies and shot down a German bomber.
Schaus eventually wound up in the Philippines in the Pacific, getting into gun battles with Japanese kamikaze pilots. The naval crew kept a scorecard on the ship showing how many targets the Barton had taken down. Final tally: 20 planes, batteries or boats.
“You don’t think about things. If you’re on the guns, you’re on the guns,” he said.
The soldiers who stormed Normandy’s beaches arrived on 36-foot vessels with blunt bows that opened down to provide soldiers an exit ramp. These are the boats pictured in iconic, black-and-white images from that day, with soldiers huddled in anticipation, staring at the smoke-filled beach.
That morning, Seaman First Class Horace Clark drove his boat with 36 soldiers over the choppy waters to Utah Beach, which the Allies added at the end, the westernmost spot.
The 19-year-old New Jersey native had enlisted in the Coast Guard the year before. While stationed on the USS Joseph T. Dickman, Clark was charged with ferrying soldiers during the Normandy invasion.
Now 89 and living in Kendall, he recalls hearing bullets whizzing by as they neared the beach.
“I don’t know how close you have to be to hear bullets,” he says. “But I heard them.”
Still, fear didn’t cripple him.
“When you’re young, you’re not going to die,” he said. “That’s for old people.”
After the soldiers disembarked, as he and his three fellow crew members pulled away, the far end of the boat hit a Nazi mine in the water. It blasted a hole in the vessel, and the crew jumped overboard and swam for their lives.
“None of us got hurt,” he says.
He doesn’t remember how long he was in the water, but they eventually made it to a larger drop-off boat that had carried a tank.
For Clark, the episode serves as a reminder that even though Omaha Beach gets a lot of attention from Hollywood, there were many dangerous battles across Normandy’s shore that day.
Choppy tides and strong gusts broke against the Naval ship carrying Pfc. Isadore Friedman on June 7, 1944, one day after the Allied forces began the invasion.
Friedman, who carried nearly 60 pounds of equipment, climbed overboard onto the nets into a small boat. Wearing a dark yellow “Mae West” life preserver over his armor and carrying an M1 rifle, Friedman was given his first assignment — to secure safe passageway into Omaha Beach.
“The Germans had these big spikes at the beach, where we couldn’t use our landing barge but we had to get out,” said Friedman, who was about 100 feet away from the shore.
“We got off the boat and shot a rope into the beach. Somebody was supposed to peg it and we would pull ourselves in,” Friedman said, “but it didn’t stay.”
Meanwhile, the small boat he and his fellow Army soldiers were in began to sink.
“We all went down and two of the fellas didn’t come up,” said Friedman, now 91 and living in Tamarac. “I turned my pellets on [in the preserver] and I shot up. Somebody grabbed my rope and I pulled myself in.”
Friedman had no time to thank his savior. They hit the beach and scattered toward the concrete pillboxes on top of a hill.
“It was taken already, but it was still difficult because there were snipers shooting at us.”
The worst of the fighting at Omaha had happened the day before.
“I was fortunate I wasn’t there,” said Friedman, holding back tears. “I was one of those cats that had more or less close to nine lives.”
Even for those who endure and survive, war exacts a very real and permanent human toll.
Ask G. Holmes Braddock, the retired Miami-Dade County School Board member, who remembers his time as an Army medic on a hospital ship that would take wounded soldiers home. Throughout the invasion, he oversaw wards filled with men who had lost arms and legs from combat or trench foot. He wondered what it was like to be in the fray.
‘You can’t imagine what went on,” he says.
In Bedford, Va., a group of veterans will gather Friday to dedicate a statue of a lone soldier named “Homage.” The statue commemorates the Bedford Boys, 19 young men who were killed at D-Day. Four more died later, making Bedford the nation’s hardest hit community, proportionately, from D-Day.
Miami resident Ash Rothlein helped organize the effort to erect the monument and will be there for the occasion. He, like so many, has been recognized by the French government with the French Legion of Honor medals for their service.
On Friday, he will bequeath his to “Homage.”
“To me, that’s a representation of all those who perished that day.”