D-Day from both sides: Personal histories from American, German soldiers | VailDaily.com

D-Day from both sides: Personal histories from American, German soldiers

Wars are won by those who can throw the most men, money and machines at their enemies. There is no substitute for numbers.

Our family is blessed to count two Normandy warriors among our friends and relatives, one American and one German.

Eddie and Werner

Seventy-five years ago today, Sgt. Edwin F. Englehart, Uncle Eddie in our family, helped lead 183 men onto the Normandy beaches under withering Nazi fire.

Inside a German stronghold, Werner Braun was a young German soldier looking down his gun sights at the massive Allied invasion.

“When you talk about combat leadership under fire on the beach at Normandy, I don’t see how the credit can go to anyone other than the company-grade officers and senior NCOs who led the way. It is good to be reminded that there are such men, that there always have been, and always will be. We sometimes forget, I think, that you can manufacture weapons, and you can purchase ammunition, but you can’t buy valor and you can’t pull heroes off an assembly line.” Sgt. John Ellery, 16th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 1st Division

Decades later, Braun and I were sitting around a pub in Vail after winning a soccer game. Braun looked at a few of us, raised his beer stein and said, “I’m sorry I tried to kill your grandfathers.”

He did not kill Uncle Eddie. But of those 183 Americans with Eddie, 181 died. At Omaha Beach, Allied troops crossed more than 200 yards of open beach, and scaled 35 to 60 yards of cliffs while under brutal enemy fire.

From Normandy, Eddie fought through five campaigns including the Battle of the Bulge. Miraculously, he was mostly uninjured.

“I got through five campaigns with no major injuries,” Eddie said in an interview with his hometown paper in Delaware 25 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

He came home from the war and wore his uniform when he married Hazel Venatta, July 29, 1945. He taught music for 35 years at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Delaware. He was a musician, arranger, composer, teacher and dance band leader.

He did not describe himself as a soldier. He described himself as “lucky.”

“I’ve always said I never have the right to complain about anything. I don’t know why I was so lucky,” Eddie said in that interview 25 years ago.

A decade and a half ago I co-hosted a morning radio show. On a whim, I called Eddie on Veterans Day to ask him about Normandy and the other battles he fought and survived. For one of the first times in his life, he willingly talked about it — and did for almost two spellbinding hours.

Soccer soldier

As a soldier in the German army during World War II, Braun and other soldiers helped prepare for the impending Allied invasion by building obstacles to slow or stop Allied boats from making it to the Normandy beaches.

When D-Day was over and Braun was taken prisoner by the Americans, he had to help pull all those obstacles out of the water and cut them apart.

“For the rest of the war I built soccer fields. That was better,”  Braun said.

After the war, Braun left Germany and immigrated to the United States, eventually landing in Vail. He said it reminded him of what was best about his homeland.

Fighting raged after D-Day

Fighting around Normandy raged for months after D-Day. Between June and August 1944 about 225,000 Allied service members were killed, wounded or went missing: 134,000 Americans, 91,000 Britons, 18,000 French civilians, and several other soldiers mostly of Canadians and Polish descent.

The Germans lost more than 400,000 soldiers in Normandy. At the German cemetery where many are remembered, a sign in English and French reads, “With its melancholy rigor, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.”

Normandy veterans are now in their 90s and today’s ceremonies could well be the last they’ll be able to attend, Robert Dalessandro, deputy secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission said in interviews.

Neither Eddie nor Braun will be there. They both lived long, full lives that are over. After so much fighting and hatred, they rarely raised a voice or hand in anger. They’d seen the worst of war. Peace is better.