Apart from the ashes I scattered upon Latimore Creek, the stream in Central Pennsylvania where my father first took me trout fishing, his remains rest at Florida National Cemetery. I remember the long cortege our family joined the day we arrived there — car after car, the line trailing slowly when it moved at all, other families also waiting their turns at one of the shelters where a brief ceremony would honor their dead. 

Until then it had not struck me how suddenly the veterans of World War II were leaving the rest of us. On that day, however, Feb. 27, 2004, I was seeing before my eyes the departure of a generation to whom our debt is incalculable. Long library shelves are filled with accounts of their sacrifice and their valor, and yet many of their individual stories are surely gone, never to be known and told.

So it is with Louis Richard Koenig. Upon his return from Europe, Dad just wanted to get the war behind him and hurry on. He went though Gettysburg College on the GI bill in three years, an MBA program at New York University in one year. Hardly ever did he talk to me about the war, and it seemed he didn’t want a lot of questions. 

I have nevertheless tried to piece together bits of his experience from the little he told me and others, together with histories and military records. His is one story among those of the more than 100,000 men in the Allied forces who 80 years ago landed on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day.

Dad went onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 as a sergeant in the 203rd Engineer Combat Battalion of the 6th Engineer Special Brigade. His amphibious training had started along the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida, then moved to the coast of England. He left behind him a job in Camden with the Radio Corporation of America, at the time a promising start for a high-school grad whose South Jersey family had been hammered by the Great Depression. His job in Europe was to supervise cargo movements, build bridges, free the path forward of German explosives, and generally join in the attack on enemy emplacements . You might say he carried a shovel in one hand and an M1 rifle in the other. He was 20 years old. 

Questions persist.

***

What was it like, that June 6?” 

A GI writing to his parents about D-Day on Omaha Beach noted “wrecked trucks, tanks, small boats, life jackets” … “a man’s head” … “intestines strung out 15 feet in the sand.” 

I have no letter that Dad wrote, and I shall never know all that he did that day. I do know he went through some forever moments. That was something he talked of. He was freeing coastal waters of German mines. While he himself was in water, a mine went off unexpectedly, and the shock waves threatened to instantly trip other mines close by him. One moment passed, then others. Whether Dad had a prayer to say, I have no idea, but at some point during the continuing stillness he knew the danger had passed and he might yet get back to New Jersey in one piece.

He also mentioned the thundering, ear-shattering noise amid the chaos as German guns on the cliffs and Allied guns at sea boomed at each other. “I looked up and thought this is just like the movies” he told the three youngsters who were my sisters and me. It was his way in those days, a dismissive quip without any attempt to play up the drama.

Toward the end of his life, my daughter sent him a piece she had written for her university paper saying what it meant to her to see Omaha Beach during a semester in France. Just writing the thank-you note was an effort for Dad. Further on, when speech came to him only rarely, there were instances when he would strangely startle. My stepmother, his second wife, and by this time his caretaker, gave me her explanation. “He’s hearing the explosions.” 

“What about the days following the landings?”

Dad got beyond the beach early, perhaps as early as June 7 or June 8. He was hauling machine guns and bazookas several miles into rural France toward what, in his telling, was “Bosie’s farm,” a term I have belatedly realized was likely his rendering of “Beaucy Farm.” Dead Germans lined the roads. Live Germans kept firing. An Army Ranger, hollering, told Dad he had moved too far too fast.

That much Dad would speak of with some gravity, but only that. Once as he was trying to sleep in a barn at Bosie’s, he became aware that a “little guy” on watch duty — Dad himself being all of 5’6”, 130 pounds — had gone into a panic. Dad took his M1, left the barn, and sat with the guy through the night. It was an incident that made for another joke on himself: He couldn’t find his boots in the dark and so did watch in his stocking feet. 

Here I’ll add a little story of my own. I once visited Normandy with my son, and we looked for Bosie’s. We never found it, but we learned what D-Day still meant to people in that vicinity. We entered a bar, we two American strangers, to inquire about Bosie’s and explain the reason for our search. The bartender said he knew nothing, but he immediately stopped working to phone someone who might. That person also knew nothing but in turn took the time to phone still another. These attempts to be helpful came 59 years after the liberation.

Crossing Belgium, how did that go?

I have a list of the places that Dad passed through: Hannut, Jauche, Havelange, and so on. The one I know something of is the village of Spontin. While I was in high school, I became aware that once in a while Dad got letters from there. My French teacher did the translation. Years later, I traveled to Spontin to meet the letter writer, a Julia Lallement. She was elderly and quite frail, but we talked for hours. A friend of mine who spoke more French than my few words had come along with me to help. 

Madame Lallement and her husband, who was deceased before my visit, came to know Dad during his time in Spontin. She mentioned a son who had died of an infection some time earlier. (Did she see in Dad a little of the son she had lost?) She phoned her translator, a Dutch mariner who over the years had rendered Dad’s correspondence into French. He told me he thought he knew Dad as if he had met him, and I came to understand why once Madame gave me a look at Dad’s letters in the original English. She knew things I didn’t know about Dad’s post-war years, his ups and downs both. She had been a confidant.

It was winter then, but nothing like the winter that followed D-Day, not according to what I’ve read about the cruel cold during the Allied advance. Dad once said there were times he didn’t much care whether he ever woke up again, death seeming no worse than the frigid night. It was the only remark about his hardships in Europe I ever heard.

And Germany?

Roetgen, Kelz, Ziegenhain, and the rest — Dad moved on. Somewhere in Germany he took a hit, but just where he didn’t say when he confided the experience to my stepmother. She has sent me notes of what he told her: “shelling back and forth … next thing I knew I was draped over a fence … groggy … scraped on face … hurt in chest.” 

Shrapnel? Dad underwent some sort of surgery on his chest upon his military discharge. I never knew about any of this until recent years, never knew to look for scarring and would not have seen it under the chest hair.

Dad’s last day in Germany was June 13, 1945. Over the preceding two months, Germany had surrendered on all fronts, and Hitler had been found dead in his bunker, having, by the generally accepted account, put a gun to his head. 

The return home went through France. I must assume Dad still had with him the item that decades later he took from an old shoebox at the Florida home where he was living in retirement. It was a gift for me: the map provided to GIs ahead of D-Day so that if they survived the beaches they might find their way around the countryside above. It is on this map, now framed in my office, that I see “Beaucy Fme.” 

Somewhere among the boxes in my basement I also have the leave of absence that granted Dad a few days in Paris. “Did you know I went to the Sorbonne”? was the line later said in jest. He had somehow found his way into a university building to sleep.

***

After the war, Dad started a furniture business in small towns amid Pennsylvania farm country and sustained it by working day and night. His right-hand man for 34 years was one John Breighner, a farmer’s son and the salt of the earth. How Dad first met John, I never thought to ask, but it must have been the experience of their generation that if you encountered enough people about your own age you couldn’t help bumping into somebody who had done something heroic. John would have been 21, if that old, when he joined the 101st Airborne Division. The 101st parachuted behind German lines the night before D-Day, and later during the German counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, it was the acting commander of the 101st whose written reply to a German solicitation for surrender consisted of one word: “Nuts!”

In the last months of his life, while Dad was up north for a few days with my family, he and I went out to John’s farmhouse in Adams County. We knew this was the good-bye. Though failing fast by then, Dad rallied for the visit, and it could not have gone better. It ended as I prepared to drive home, when John stuck his head through the open window on Dad’s side of the car to say “Take care, fella.” I don’t know how to express the weight those three words carried at that moment.

That day there were no words said about the war. Nor were there in years past when Dad and John would take me with them during their fishing trips upstate. John passed four years after Dad did.

In the household of my youth, memories of the war had only a sometime and muted presence. Like Dad, my mother mostly kept the war to herself — she smothered it — until the day she died. Most of what I know of her sorrow, I learned not from Mom but from the searches I’ve done.

Before Dad came into her life, Mary Louise Waltersdorf, as Mom was then named, got word from her fiancé that their wedding must be delayed because he was to ship out early. Came Oct. 22, 1944, and he was navigating a B-24 bomber over Burma. What I’ve read of such missions is that they targeted ports and railroad bridges used by Japanese forces. What I’ve read of the B-24 is that it was called the “Flying Coffin” by its crews because it was so difficult to exit when crippled. This particular B-24 came under attack by Japanese fighter planes and crashed into the Gulf of Martaban. Mom was 23 at the time, her fiancé 24. His body was never recovered.

Mom was a coloratura soprano, a true talent. Right after the war in the Pacific ended, she took a leading role in an operetta performed under USO auspices for American troops of occupation in Japan and the Philippines. One of my sisters believes Mom was yearning even then to see her first fiancé among all those young men’s faces.

It wasn’t until after I left home that I started to learn about World War II, that is, to learn from books. Even as a kid, though, I could grasp what was essential for both Dad in Europe and Mom in Asia. They had been called to duty. They did it. Afterward, they weren’t the type who would go on and on about what they had done. 

Part of their character, their dignity, and their example were the silences they chose to keep to the very end.

Richard Koenig is the author of the Kindle Single No Place to Go, an account of efforts to provide toilets during a cholera epidemic in Ghana.

One thought on “Richard Koenig: Looking back at Normandy”

  1. The service from your father is honored by sharing his story and your memories. Thank you for providing them and sharing them.

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