The Walter Ehlers' Story 06/09/2004 Command Sergeant Major Jimmie W. Spencer, USA, Ret. Director, Noncommissioned Officer and Enlisted Affairs This is the story of seven June days in 1944 in the life of Walter D. Ehlers. For his bravery, he would receive the nation’s highest military honor. To understand the impact of those seven days -- June 4 to June 10 -- this is his story. Ehlers, born in Manhattan, Kan., joined the Army in 1940 with his brother Roland. Four years later, they were both noncommissioned officers and veterans of two amphibious landings – North Africa and Sicily. After the fighting in Sicily ended, their unit, the 1st Infantry Division, was sent to Dorchester, England, about 35 miles from Weymouth. Ehlers, then a noncommissioned officer, said, “We had more amphibious training.” The reason for the six-months of rigorous training was the arrival of so many replacements for men who had been wounded or killed in the fighting in those two campaigns. “They had ever seen combat before. We had to train them” for what would be the invasion of Normandy. Along the southern coast of England and Wales, amphibious training centers were established. The major base was at Slapton Sands, south of Dartmouth. Its topography resembled Normandy’s coastline. During this time, “I was separated from my brother. I went to L Company and he stayed in K.” The reason for the separation was to spare families the loss of two or more brothers in a single incident. The War and Navy Departments were reacting to the shock over the news of one Waterloo, Iowa, family’s loss in the Pacific. In 1942, five brothers – the Sullivans – died when the light cruiser Juneau they were serving aboard was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. On the night of June 4, “we were on LCIs, heading for the assault on Omaha Beach. The 116th Infantry Regiment was attached to us.” Aboard the crowded transport, the “soldiers were scared; their leaders were scared” not knowing what would be happening in a matter of hours, Ehlers said. The delay of a day because of bad weather did not help to allay the soldiers’ fears. Walter’s older brother would be in the second wave. “The first wave got pinned down” and soon Walter and his men “joined the chaos on the beach. We didn’t have any exact orders as to who we were to be with,” but “we landed where we should be.” His men followed the newly promoted staff sergeant into the water when the Higgins boat they were in grounded on a sandbar. “We were about 100 yards out. I was up to my neck in water. For some, it was over their heads.” But, Ehlers said, they all had their weapons. It was clear to Ehlers that they had to keep moving to stay alive. The Germans “were firing all around us. We’d drown if we stayed in the water. We’d be dead if we stayed on the beach.” The bulk of the 16th Infantry Regiment and the 116th were to the east on Omaha Beach. “All we did was follow the beach master, telling us to follow the path.” The path was blocked by barbed wire. “Two bangalore torpedo men said they were pinned down.” Ehlers and his soldiers were firing toward the bluff “trying to move the Germans out of the way." One of the bangalore torpedo men was wounded before he got off his round at the wire, but the second one hit the obstruction, blasting it clear. Now on the top of the bluff, Ehlers saw an America soldier trying to force a satchel charge into a German pillbox. The soldier was killed before he could get to the Germans. Ehlers then “immediately got into the trenches” that connected the German positions. Four Germans surrendered and the rest fled. When night fell, he slept by the hedgerows. “I got all 12 men off the beach without a casualty.” Ehlers said 50 percent of the first wave became casualties, as did 30 percent in the second wave. His older brother died in the second wave attack. “I just think God was with us.” For his actions on June 6, Walter would receive the Bronze Star with Valor Device. The next evening, Ehlers and his platoon from E Company pulled back during a German counterattack. The American lines ran -- zigzag -- he told author Flint Whitlock in his book, “Fighting First.” To avoid shooting U.S. soldiers, he withdrew. Later, Ehlers and his men were on a night patrol when they captured several German soldiers. In a satchel that one of the Germans had dropped were maps of the second and third lines of defense away from the beaches near Goville. They took the satchel back to battalion headquarters for closer examination. With daylight, soldiers from Ehlers regiment pressed the edges of those lines that ran through the hedgerows. Although his squad was in the lead crossing an open field the morning of June 9, the unit to his left began taking fire. He yelled: “Come on guys we got to get to the hedgerow to get some cover.” This was a situation that could not remain static as Germans began firing from another hedgerow. “I went down to the hedgerow where I heard the machine gun” and came upon a patrol on the other side of the hedgerow. “I shot all four before they could shoot me.” Ehlers was firing from a small opening in the middle of the hedgerow. The .30 caliber machine gun was still firing. The three Germans “couldn’t see me” as he continued crawling along the hedgerow. He took out the first machine gun next with his rifle. “I was exposed but they didn’t see me.” Ehlers then opened up on a second machine gun next across the square field and eliminated it. “They were exposed.” After hearing more noise, Ehlers scrambled up an embankment. There he found two mortar positions, “protected by the crossfire of two machineguns,” Medal of Honor’s citation reads. His squad was moving up with him. “I had the men fix bayonets.” The Germans “became horrified when they saw the bayonets. We shot over 10 of them.” The Germans made no effort at surrendering. The squad continued moving down the hedgerow toward another mortar position and took it out. Ehlers was covered by the squad, advancing on the third machine gun nest. “When he was almost on top of the gun, he leaped to his feet and, although greatly outnumbered, he knocked out the position single-handed,” the citation reads. The assaults on the German defenses continued into the next day when Ehlers squad moved into one of the rectangular-shaped fields formed by the hedgerow. “We didn’t know the Germans were there,” obscured but in a rough “U” formation. Ehlers and his men were still advancing when their company commander “passed up the word to withdraw.” Ehlers stood “up firing in a semicircle and the automatic rifleman saw what I was doing and supported me. I saw three guys setting up a machine gun nest. I got hit in the back and shot the guy in the hedgerow.” The soldier with the Browning Automatic Rifle was also shot in the back. “I got the wounded automatic rifleman” and “then I went to get the weapon.” As Ehlers told author Larry Smith in his book “Beyond Glory,” “the bullet hit my rib it went into my pack, hit a bar of soap, which turned it straight through the back of the shovel. It went through the edge of my mother’s picture.” He had his wound dressed. He refused to be evacuated. In December 1944, after recovering from another combat wound while fighting in the Hurtgen Forest, “I read about the Medal of Honor in Stars and Stripes.” When he arrived at the command post to report back to duty, a colonel came up to him and said, “Sergeant Ehlers, you’re supposed to be back in the states getting the Medal of Honor.” Ehlers answered that he had read about it in Stripes. A few days later, he was commissioned a second lieutenant at a press conference. Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner said to him after the ceremony, “You handled the press troops better than any one else,” so he deserved the promotion. Among his other decorations are the Silver Star for his actions in Germany, Bronze Stars for service in Africa and Sicily, as well as Normandy, and three Purple Hearts. Ehlers returned to the United States in October 1945. “A lot of things happened in my five-year stretch in the Army.” Ehlers retired after 29 years with the Veterans’ Administration and later worked eight years for Disabled American Veterans. His son “just spent eight months in Bosnia” as a major in the Army National Guard. The Brotherhood of Soldiers at War The TRUE story of TWO Brothers. Walter and Roland Ehlers Manhattan, Kansas (1940) Growing up in Kansas during the depression wasn't easy, about the only things one could count on was family, friends, and faith. The Ehlers family didn't have a lot of personal possessions, but they learned to get by, trusting in each other and the faith that held them together. Young Walt Ehlers decided to join the Army on October 4, 1940. His older brother Roland decided to join with him, and so it was that both men found themselves training for war in the Pacific when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Early in 1942 Walter and Roland shipped out with their division but not to the Pacific. Instead they were assigned to combat in North Africa. From North Africa to Sicily, through 3 major campaigns over almost 4 years, the two brothers remained together. Then, during the fighting in Sicily, Roland was wounded and sent back to Africa for treatment. Walter continued to serve until his unit was sent to England to train for a major offensive. While preparing for the invasion of Europe, Roland rejoined the unit...and his brother Walter. It was to be a short- lived reunion. Click on Thumbnails For Larger View D-DAY JUNE 6, 1945 As the men of the 1st Division were training for D-Day, the company commander called Roland and Walter in to meet with him. He told them that for the first time, they would be separated and placed in different units. He told the young soldiers there was only a fifty-per cent chance that they would survive the pending invasion, and that Walter would be transferred to Company L as a squad leader. Walter went to his new unit and worked hard to prepare his men for the coming invasion. He and Roland managed to get together one last time in Southampton to talk about their family and wish each other luck. They both knew they would be participating in the impending landing. "We'll meet up on the beach," they promised, then went their separate ways to join 170,000 other soldiers as they loaded the ships that would take them across the channel to attack Normandy. The First Division landed at Omaha beach. Walter's craft hit a sand bar and the men had to jump into water over their head to make their way to the beach. A few hundred yards further down the beach Roland's Company was also landing. There was no time to worry for each other, each brother having responsibilities of their own to attend. Walter began to lead his squad off the beach. They were taking fire from enemy bunkers on the bluffs overlooking the beach, and Walter knew the only chance of survival was to keep his men together and attack the high ground. He led them by his example. After a 6-hour battle to reach the hills, they finally broke through the German defenses. Walt's courage and leadership that day saved his platoon and earned him the Bronze Star Medal. Then, as night fell, he went looking for Roland. In the darkness and devastation of D-Day at Omaha, it was difficult to find anyone, but at last Walter found Roland's Platoon Sergeant. He asked about Roland, and was told only that his brother was "Missing In Action". Worried, Staff Sergeant Walter Ehlers returned to his squad and the fighting that still lay ahead. In the days that followed, the fighting moved inland as the brave soldiers who had landed at Normandy worked to dislodge the enemy from their fortifications among the hedgerows, dense thickets and rows of vegetation that separated farms across the country side. The fighting was bitter, dangerous, and very costly. By June 9th Walt Ehlers' squad was far ahead of most other Allied troops, and Sgt. Ehlers himself was at the head of his men. In an early morning attack his company was pinned down in an open field by fire from machine-gun nests and two mortar pits. Without orders Sgt. Ehlers jumped to his feet and headed towards the first machine-gun nest. Suddenly a patrol of 4 enemy confronted him. Quickly the Sergeant killed all four, then proceeded to advance on and single-handedly destroy the machine-gun nest and its crew of eight enemy. He called to his squad to move up and join him as he turned his attention towards the mortar pits that threatened to destroy the company. Before continuing the advance he gave an unusual order...."Fix bayonets". Later he recounted, "It had a psychological effect on the Germans. They looked horrified and started running." Ehlers knocked out that position, then his men started taking fire from yet another machine-gun nest. Again, at a point ahead of everyone else, Sergeant Ehlers advanced on and single-handledly knocked out that enemy position. By the following day Sergeant Ehlers and his platoon were so far ahead of everyone else they were literally surrounded by Germans. The platoon was ordered to withdraw, and Sergeant Ehlers' squad assumed the responsibility of covering the withdrawal of the rest of the unit. Sergeant Ehlers and his BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man stood back to back to draw enemy fire upon themselves and rain effective fire against the enemy to cover the safe withdrawal of the platoon. First the BAR man was shot and wounded, then a rifle round struck Sergeant Ehlers in the back. Ehlers turned quickly and saw the sniper that had wounded him and was able to kill the enemy soldier. Then, despite his own wound, he carried the stricken BAR man from the battlefield before returning to recover the badly needed BAR. The medics began treating Sergeant Ehlers' wound and quickly learned that the bullet had hit him in the side, glanced off a rib, and exited from his pack. Inside that pack was a picture of Walter and Roland Ehlers' mother, and the bullet had torn away the edged of the folder it was in. Sergeant Ehlers refused to be evacuated. His wounds treated and bandaged, he returned to his squad. He later said he didn't want any of his men to be hurt or killed, and he felt his obligation was to be there to lead and protect them. By July, after a month of fighting, Sergeant Ehler's squad was holed up in an abandoned farm house when he received an unusual visitor. It was the company commander from his brother Roland's company. He came bearing sad news. Roland had died at Omaha beach. As his landing craft approached a mortar round had hit the ramp instantly killing the older brother. Walter was devastated. He saluted the officer and said, "Okay", then found a place of privacy to weep unashamed. Over the coming weeks Sergeant Ehlers continued to do his job, leading his men. He was wounded three more times and sent to the hospital twice. Then he learned he was to receive the Medal of Honor. It was presented in the field in Paris on December 14, 1944 by Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee. Then the young hero was flown home for celebrations in Manhattan, Kansas and Christmas with his family. But it bothered him to think of his men spending Christmas in the field, facing the dangers of a desperate enemy. He requested and received permission to return, finishing the war with the men of his battalion. Said Mr. Ehlers at a patriotic event in Pueblo, Colorado in 1995: "Liberty is worth fighting for, and sometimes worth dying for." "I'm no Rambo. Because of my training, it was just automatic not to run but to attack." "Roland and I were good buddies, he was always kind of looking out for me. He was MY hero." Walter D. Ehlers 1 2 3 4 5 1)Walt Ehlers returns home after receiving the Medal of Honor. 2) In 1995 Mr. Ehlers joins "Pueblo Chieftain" Promotions Manager Paulette Stuart in honoring rescue workers from the Oklahoma City bombing disaster. 3&4) Walt visiting his brother's grave site in Kansas. 5) Roland's marker with fresh flowers left by his brother, Walter. The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to EHLERS, WALTER D. Rank and organization: Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army, 18th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. Place and dare: Near Goville, France, 9-10 June 1944. Entered service at: Manhattan, Kans. Birth: Junction City, Kans. G.O. No.: 91, 19 December 1944. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 9-10 June 1944, near Goville, France. S/Sgt. Ehlers, always acting as the spearhead of the attack, repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy strong points exposing himself to deadly hostile fire whenever the situation required heroic and courageous leadership. Without waiting for an order, S/Sgt. Ehlers, far ahead of his men, led his squad against a strongly defended enemy strong point, personally killing 4 of an enemy patrol who attacked him en route. Then crawling forward under withering machinegun fire, he pounced upon the guncrew and put it out of action. Turning his attention to 2 mortars protected by the crossfire of 2 machineguns, S/Sgt. Ehlers led his men through this hail of bullets to kill or put to flight the enemy of the mortar section, killing 3 men himself. After mopping up the mortar positions, he again advanced on a machinegun, his progress effectively covered by his squad. When he was almost on top of the gun he leaped to his feet and, although greatly outnumbered, he knocked out the position single- handed. The next day, having advanced deep into enemy territory, the platoon of which S/Sgt. Ehlers was a member, finding itself in an untenable position as the enemy brought increased mortar, machinegun, and small arms fire to bear on it, was ordered to withdraw. S/Sgt. Ehlers, after his squad had covered the withdrawal of the remainder of the platoon, stood up and by continuous fire at the semicircle of enemy placements, diverted the bulk of the heavy hostile fire on himself, thus permitting the members of his own squad to withdraw. At this point, though wounded himself, he carried his wounded automatic rifleman to safety and then returned fearlessly over the shell-swept field to retrieve the automatic rifle which he was unable to carry previously. After having his wound treated, he refused to be evacuated, and returned to lead his squad. The intrepid leadership, indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness displayed by S/Sgt. Ehlers in the face of overwhelming enemy forces serve as an inspiration to others.