By Sheila R. Cherry
Associate Editor, Bayside Gazette
OCEAN PINES—Local veterans, Navy Quartermaster Elmer Muth and Army Air Corpsman John Sauer were among 156,000 military service members from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, assigned to invade France’s northern Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. The United States joined its allies in the successful, but tragic, “Operation Overlord.”
In recent interviews, and through their own written accounts, the two veterans discussed their experiences from before, during and after their roles in the historic invasion, credited with striking such a devastating blow in liberating France from German Nazi that it was referred to as the beginning of the end of World War II. The Normandy coast was segmented by the Allies into five infantry “beaches;” two were assigned to the Americans (Utah and Omaha), two to the United Kingdom (Gold and Sword) and one to the Canadians (Juno). The “D” in D-Day is a military designation thought to be nothing more than a temporal reference (as in “M” for minute, “H” for hour, “D” for day)
Elmer Muth, was a Navy quartermaster, second class, said the mission was highly secretive because the Allied forces were trying to keep details on the exact landing points from Nazi propagandist “Axis Sally.” He recalled, “We had our jobs to do. The unknown was tricky to cope with.”
In his recounting of the events of that battle, Muth noted his landing craft tank was launched immediately upon arriving in England on April 2, 1944, and was quickly brought up to full complement. The early arrival gave the crew time to assimilate and begin sharpening their skills, he said.
But that came to an abrupt halt as the month of June approached, he said. “We received orders to depart in convoy from Plymouth to Portsmouth, from where we would leave for the invasion,” Muth said.
He gave a timeline of the lead-up to the event. They departed Plymouth, England during the early morning on April 28, after German E-boats sank three LST’s that had been on maneuvers the night before, leaving several acres of bodies in the water from the aftermath of the E-boat attack.
“The death toll was 747 soldiers and 197 sailors,” Muth said. “This incident was kept from the public until after the war. That night would be referred to as the ‘Night of the Bloody Tiger.’”
Shortly after arriving in Portsmouth, they experienced nightly bombings by the Germans. On one such occasion, and unknown to them, delayed action mines were dropped interspersed with the bombs.
The following morning, a delayed action mine exploded under Muth’s ship, blowing a mooring fish and seaweed twenty feet into the air and narrowly missing him.
“A short time later a naval repair ship arrived. Repairs were made swiftly, enabling us to proceed to Normandy as scheduled,” where the ship was loaded with machines and personnel, he said.
“It was obvious that we were just a few hours away from the invasion,” Muth said. At 3:30 a.m. on June 4, all the LCTs began to assemble in formation. But three hours later, General Dwight D. Eisenhower postponed the invasion by one day because of bad weather conditions.
The LCT’s were again underway at 3:30 a.m, Muth said.
“Promptly at 0515 hours, the huge naval bombardment of the Normandy coast began. Battleships and light and heavy cruisers opened a barrage of red hot charges that could be seen flying through the air,” he said.
Then the unknown became known.
“As we approached the beach, the water erupted where live ammunition was landing. Our first casualty occurred as one of the soldiers lost four fingers while he was shouldering his rifle.
“We gave him a shot of morphine, wrapped his hand, and put him in a bunk. He never disembarked at Normandy. We beached on what we thought was Dog Red Beach, our assigned area. I am convinced we didn’t know which area it was because of poor markings
“Upon beaching we lowered our ramp. The first bulldozer received a direct hit as it was halfway off the ramp, so we retracted our ramp, leaving the bulldozer there. We moved further down the beach until we came upon a damaged LCI, which was burning.
“We managed to enter the beach on her port side, offering us protection from the 88’s. The beach was littered with men, living and dead, and operative and inoperative machines that hindered our unloading of our remaining cargo and men,” Muth said. He recalled that by 10 a.m. questions of whether the mission would be successful arose.
“By noon we had made some headway,” he said.
His unit was the sixth wave of boats moving toward the beach where concussions from the huge German 88 millimeter guns shook the craft and rattled in their ears. What made the huge guns even more horrifying: “They were so accurate,” Muth said. Closer to shore, destroyers were scouring the beach with five-inch guns. The military crew continued unloading two armored bulldozers designed to clear the beach of mines, and thirty-five Army signalmen and their vehicles.
All of the men were at their battle stations with the task of powering and steering the craft as directed by their Skipper, Richard Zelden, who barked out orders through a voice tube while completely exposed enemy gunfire.
“To this day I fail to understand how he escaped being killed. Apparently, the good Lord was with him,” Muth said.
A damaged and burning landing craft infantry unit provided some protection as Muth’s team managed to enter the beach on the boat’s port side.
“The beach was littered with men, living and dead, and operative and inoperative machines that hindered our unloading of our remaining cargo and men,” he said. A Navy Coxswain jumped aboard his vessel after his landing craft vehicle for personnel sank.
“We would later return him and our injured soldier to their parent ships,” Muth said. “Retracting for the second time, we were hailed by the Captain of LCT 612; his craft had been disabled. LCT 612 had sustained three direct hits in the engine room, causing it to flood and knocking the boat out of action,” Muth said.
“Our Skipper ordered the crew to secure the anchor in its cradle and unshackle it so the cable could be used as a tow line to haul LCT 612 one-and-one-half miles from shore, out of the line of fire.
“On June 27 our officers and crew received a Letter of Commendation from our Flotilla Commander William Leide for this action,” he said.
The commanding officer William Leide in a June 27, 1944 letter wrote to the commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, recommending that the commanders and crew of LCT 613 be awarded a military citation “for seamanship and coolness in successfully towing U.S.S. LCT 612 to safety, in spite of heavy fire from German artillery and small arms,” thus avoiding further injuries to personnel and keeping the Axis forces from being able to salvage the craft, Muth said.
The recommendation was never acted upon despite many entreaties to make that happen during the lifetimes of the crew and commanders, he said.
Following the battle, Omaha Beach was so littered with debris that for a few days operations were impossible. Unloading of cargo was done on the neighboring Gold Beach, where British infantry was assigned.
Over the next several months larger ports became available to unload cargo and LCT 613, which had entered into action on June 6, departed for England on October 4. “In its five-month tour working the Normandy beaches, LCT 613 had made a total of 106 trips from ship to shore. During this time the boat required nine trips to the beach for repairs,” Muth said.
After spending several days in the Dartmouth shipyard, the crew was transferred stateside for further assignment.
After his military service, Muth took full advantage of the GI Bill, which paid for a Bachelor of Education and a master’s degree in industrial arts. He taught in a Wheaton Maryland high school for 12 years and worked as a school administrator until 1982. Muth is a widower with two daughters, although one has also died. He raised horses in Howard County for 28 years and his hobby now is boats, he said with a deck boat moored to a ramp just outside his Ocean Pines home.
John J. Sauer, served in the 116th Infantry of the Army’s 29th Division, Company F — one of 19 Army divisions that participated in the Normandy Campaign.
When he was a 19-year-old in Baltimore City, he working for a defense contractor, but his friends had gone to war.
When he asked his boss how he too could join the war effort, his boss said, “Just don’t come in to work.” After following that advice, he was drafted and initially assigned to the Army Air Corp.
Soon afterward, he was reassigned to an infantry division and sent to the White Cliffs of Dover, England for training on boarding ships and landing craft.
“They didn’t tell us anything; they just trained us,” he said.
In his account of D-Day, Sauer said his unit was headed for Omaha Beach when it hit a sandbar that the crew tragically mistook for the actual beach. Thirty men plunged into 18 feet of water loaded with gear and drowned.
Sauer was the lone survivor, having saved himself by dropping his rifle and scuttling along the sea floor until he ran out of breath. When he surfaced for air, he saw someone clinging to a steel structure known as a “Czech hedgehog” and crying. It was a war correspondent who could not swim.
When Sauer got the journalist safely to the beach, he went back to retrieve the man’s typewriter.
It was shortly after his return to the beach that Sauer was hit by shrapnel from an 88-millimeter gun blast from the elite German 352nd Infantry that was entrenched on high bluffs above the beach.
He woke up on a hospital ship where he was nearly arrested, he said. The hospital ship’s wards were divided in to three sections: critical, self-inflicted, and minor injuries. He had been moved to the “self-inflicted” ward due to overcrowding, he said. Citing the official record at the time, Sauer said, “Within ten minutes of the ramps being lowered, [the leading] company had become inert, leaderless, and almost incapable of action.”
“Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded. It had become a struggle for survival and rescue,” he said.
American casualties at Omaha were around 3,000, most within the first few hours. Ten days after his release from the hospital, Sauer was assigned to a unit sent to liberate a concentration camp near Nuremburg, Germany. At 3 a.m. the group was awakened and marched two miles, arriving at the camp by 4 a.m.
The highest ranking officer of the troop was a sergeant; as a private, Sauer was second in command.
As he told Allan G. Kastner in his account of the concentration camp assignment, Sauer said, “As they marched along the five or six hundred feet of road from the camp gate to the crematorium, they found bodies piled eight to ten feet high on each side of the road” “The stench of death was everywhere,” Sauer said. “The defenders of the camp were all in their teens. John said, ‘There wasn’t a soldier among them; they were all kids.’”
Suddenly a siren wailed, and the liberators were told that signified another gassing was about to take place. Fortunately for five hundred people, including clergy, Poles and Jews, the rescuers arrived in time to save them.
The unit remained at that site for another two months to “mop up” the area. After returning home, John guarded German prisoners in Philadelphia, Pa., for three weeks to complete his service obligation, Sauer said.
For his heroic actions during the Normandy invasion, John received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He also received a Good Conduct Medal, Expert Infantry Combat Badge, and Europe-Africa-Mideast Campaign Ribbon. France awarded him the French Legion of Honor for participating in the liberation of that country.
But Sauer was not finished saving people. After his military service, he served for 30 years on the Baltimore City Fire Department, where he received a commendation for saving five people. He was one of six survivors of a building collapse, where he was trapped for 14 hours, and was named Baltimore Firefighter of the Year in 1976. He also delivered seven babies during his career.
John and his wife, Joan, will have been married for 65 years. They have five children, 11 grandsons, and three great-children, Sauer said. He served for 30 years in the Color Guard of American Legion Post 166 of Ocean City, which had dubbed him “Captain Emeritus.”
The full accounts of Muth’s and Sauer’s war stories, along with other “Veteran’s Stories,” can be read on the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines Web site at http://www.opvets.com.
Gentlemen, on this D-Day, we thank you for your service and for your histories.