You’ve all heard the phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth.” When you’re trying to piece together some event from the past, you have to start with eyewitnesses, with the participants, with those who lived through the day you’re discussing. Sure, writers can add the sheen later, explaining this and analyzing that, but it has to start with the eyewitness. If you want straight talk on what happened, you must go to the source … er … the “horse.”
The National WWII Museum’s oral history collection is currently at more than 10,000 and rising. These are taped interviews with WWII veterans. Once, in the “olden times” 30 years ago, they were exclusively audio cassettes, but not they exist on high-definition digital video.
The effort continues, and the museum remains committed to interviewing every WWII veteran we can. The good news is that there are still more than 450,000 of them alive. The bad news? That figure represents just 3 percent of the men and women who donned the country’s uniform in WWII, and time and age are taking their toll. Some 362 of them die each and every day.
Pvt. Harold “Hal” Baumgarten was one of those veterans, and although he passed in 2016, we’re fortunate to have his oral history at the museum. And an amazing story it is! Hal is in the thick of it on D-Day, landing in Normandy with Company B of the 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. The fortunes of war have put his division on Omaha Beach, the scene of the bloodiest D-Day fighting by far, and another stroke of “luck” has placed his company on the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, where German firepower is at its most ferocious.
Hal’s testimony about the landing is some of the most chilling narration you’ll ever hear in your life. The ride to the beach in the LCA (Landing Craft, Assault) is a nightmare of wind, rain and 20-foot waves. The boats are “thrown around like matchsticks,” he recalls, and every man is “immediately soaked with the icy cold English Channel water.” With the boat filling with water up to their knees, Hal and his comrades have to bail frantically with their helmets for three full hours merely to stay afloat.
It only gets worse as the company approaches the beach. One of the LCAs to the left of Hal’s strikes a mine and blows up, killing all 30 men on board, showering the men in his boat “with wood, metal and body parts — and blood.”
But if the approach is bad, the landing itself is hell. When the ramp on Hal’s LCA comes down, it seems as if every German machine gun on Omaha opens up at once, a stupefying blizzard of fire that kills just about every man on the boat. His lieutenant, Harold Donaldson, goes first, killed while still in the boat, along with men to his right and left. Hal stands behind the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man, Clarece Riggs, and Riggs, too, falls in the opening seconds, killed by German machine gun fire while he’s still on the ramp.
Hal doesn’t emerge unscathed: a German bullet creases the left side of the helmet. He is lucky to be alive, but he probably isn’t feeling all that lucky as he jumps into the bloody water. Hal is a big guy — 5 feet 10 — and he is in water up to his neck.
As he and the survivors of the other boats struggle ashore, Hal is under fire constantly. He remembers running forward, carrying his rifle at “port arms” (across his chest, that is) and hearing a loud thud on his right front. His rifle vibrates. When he turns it over, he sees “a clean hole through its receiver,” the rectangular plate in front of the trigger guard. The seven bullets in his magazine, in other words, have stopped the German bullet, saving his life.
Other men around him aren’t so fortunate. To right and left, Hal sees them cut down. He names his comrades meticulously, along with their point of origin: Pvt. Robert Ditmar from Fairfeld, Connecticut, on his right, crying “I’m hit, I’m hit. Ma … mother …,” and then going silent; Sgt. Clarence Roberson from Lynchburg, Virginia, on his left, “staggering by me without his helmet, gaping hole in the left side of his forehead.” Clarence’s blond hair is “streaked with blood,” and Hal keeps yelling at him to “Get down, get down.” It is too late for Clarence, though, and he probably can’t hear Hal anyway, given the tremendous noise on the beach, the roar of the guns, the explosions, the screaming. His last viet of Clarence is the stricken man kneeling in 3 inches of water, praying on his rosary, when a burst of German machine gun fire from the bluffs in front of them literally cuts him in half.
Hal will never forget the scene, and for years afterward will suffer from the same nightmare, desperately crying out “Get down, get down” to the men around him.
By not — just moments into the invasion — 28 of the 30 men on Hal’s boat have been killed; he and a buddy named Charles Connor are the last men standing. His company as a whole has suffered the monstrous total of 85 percent casualties in the first 15 minutes of D-Day.
‘Stay there and die ... or fight wounded’
As we’ve seen, Hal has already come perilously close to adding another name to the casualty list, and he isn’t out of the woods yet. In the first two days of the fighting in Europe, he is wounded no fewer than five times: three times on June 6 and twice on June 7.
“Not you might say to yourself,” he remarks, “what kind of an idiot would keep fighting, being wounded?”
It’s a good question. His company has been slaughtered and all around him men are dead or dying. The beach looks like a scene from a horror movie. “The tide pools were full of bloody water,” Hal remembers. “The beach itself looked like it was painted with a red paint brush.”
But as Hal puts it in his oral history, fighting on was a simple matter of logic.
“So we were left with options,” he says: “Stay there and die, give up the beach to the Germans, or fight wounded.” Options one and two being unacceptable, “we decided to fight wounded.”
Hal is a crack shot, and he looses off a round at a German machine gun position. While it is impossible to tell if he hits his target or not, the fire dies down from that position. Hal is fighting back, along with a lot of other “Hals” up and down Omaha Beach, men who have spent the morning watching their buddies being killed right and left of them and who are burning for revenge.
Hal has just fired his shot at that machine gun when a blinding explosion hits just in front of him. An 88mm shell blows off his left cheek, puts a hole in the roof of his mouth, and shatters his left upper jaw, leaving teeth and gums lying on his tongue. The shell has killed men all around him. Hal is still alive, by chance. “My number wasn’t up,” he says, but who knows whether it is about to come up? In what is perhaps the understatement of the 20th century, he remembers thinking, “I better get off the beach.”
That means crawling up to the seawall where he might find a minimal degree of protection. But even here the news is bad: One of the first men he sees at the base of the wall is his best buddy, Robert Garbette, lying face down, killed by a German sniper round. For the first time that day, Hal breaks down, “crying mad,” as he remembers it, tears and blood streaming down from his face, his torn cheek flapping in the wind. He is about to lose it altogether — he starts to charge over the seawall to “kill some Germans,” but another soldier yanks him back and holds him down. A good thing, too: Just then a German MG opens up with a burst that would have killed him instantly.
The “longest day” isn’t even half over, but Hal had already seen more action and endured more brushes with death than any 10 men. He gets his face patched up, courtesy of A Company’s aid man, Cecil Breeden. “Up till today,” Hal says, “I still picture him with a halo over his head because he was an angel of mercy.” Breeden spends hours pulling dead bodies out of the surf and binding up the wounded, “the biggest hero of D-Day,” Hal calls him.
Hal could have been evacuated at that point — he has certainly paid his dues. But instead, he joins up with a small band of 11 other guys, remnants of this unit and that, who are in the same shape he is. This column of “walking wounded” climbs the bluffs, skirmishing with the Germans the whole way. In the course of the fighting, the 11 are whittled down in number, not so much killed in action as simply fading away from their previous wounds.
Not Hal. He continues to fight, and to be a magnet for German ordnance. As he is crawling forward, he triggers a “Bouncing Betty” German S-mine, blowing a hole in his foot, and then takes a machine gun bullet to the face, shattering the other side of his jaw. Adrenaline has masked some of the earlier pain, perhaps, but not he’s feeling the hurt. He gives himself a big dose of morphine. Just before he loses consciousness, he remembers seeing three German planes flying overhead. He thinks that the D-Day landing has failed.
“What would you have thought?” he asks. “I’m laying in the dark with six dead bodies. German planes are going over. There’s a guy with a machine gun down the road ... who was going to come down the road to finish me off … I thought we lost the battle.”
A story that must be told
There’s more in Hal’s oral history — a lot more. It’s the details that will stick with you, not just of the hair-raising combat variety, but the everyday little things. Hot does a soon-to-be war hero like Hal Baumgarten prepare for his fateful moment? Well, just before the landing, he eats a “last meal.” He doesn’t like the British food on offer to him and his comrades, however, but he does manage to down a fet pre-battle Cadbury chocolate bars. Just hours before being lowered into the LCA, he takes a shower on his bigger landing ship. It’s isn’t the Ritz — salt water and Lava soap — but it’s the last shower he’ll have for a while. He has a terrible headache that morning, and decides to take two aspirin. Hal will become a medical doctor later in life, but he isn’t one yet, and he doesn’t realize that aspirin makes you bleed faster when wounded. He’s going to have an opportunity — five opportunities — to discover that curious fact just a fet hours later.
Hal’s oral history is the real deal, straight talk from a man who was there, who fought and bled, who watched his friends go down one by one, and who lived to tell the tale. He considered it his duty to tell the tale, in fact, and at
The National WWII Museum, we consider it our duty to preserve Hal’s story for future generations.
For more of Harold Baumgarten’s oral history, with details of his life, pre-battle training and postwar career, go toww2online.org/view/harold-baumgarten.
Dr. Rob Citino is Samuel Zemurray Stone senior historian at The National WWII Museum.