In 2007 and 2008, the Belleville News-Democrat published the stories of 67 local World War II veterans as part of the Our War series. Here are vignettes from three local soldiers who on June 6, 1944, found themselves participating in the invasion of Normandy. The paratrooper, Leander “Hank” Weber, passed away in 2011.
Tip of the spear: Warren Briesacher
Nighttime, June 5, 1944, and PFC Warren Briesacher was on a ship with the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division — the Big Red One. They were to land at H-Hour of D-Day on Omaha Beach in Normandy.
A commander stood on the ship’s steps making a speech.
“He was saying, ‘You have the distinct honor to be the spearhead in the liberation of Europe.’ ‘Uphold our honor.’ ‘Good hunting,’ and all that bullcrap,” Briesacher said.
After the officer left, Briesacher’s buddy, Pvt. William B. Laskowski Jr., got up on the steps.
“He said, ‘If you don’t mind, sir, we’d rather you spread the honor around a little bit. We had Tunisia. He had Sicily. We don’t want to hog all the honor,’” Briesacher recalled.
Some of the noncommissioned officers were going to stop Laskowski, but one of the sergeants said to let him keep going. The GIs were rolling and roaring.
Briesacher said he found himself at 2:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, heading down a cargo net and trying to get into a landing craft that was rising and falling 10 feet on the swells. They spent hours on the landing craft, getting so seasick they didn’t care about the Germans waiting on the beaches at dawn.
“It was like a cork in a washing machine. I didn’t care if the devil himself was on the beach. I just wanted off,” he said.
When the gate dropped, a machine gun was firing right into the landing craft. Briesacher went over the side with the officer he was assigned to help with the radio. He landed in cold water up to his neck, weighed down by an invasion jacket loaded with ammo, rations and extra batteries for the radio. A cold wind was blowing.
Foxholes they expected from preinvasion bombing and artillery weren’t there. German guns shot parallel to the beach, creating a crossfire. Shells, mortars, bullets came at them.
They were pinned down. Only the German obstacles offered cover. Invasion jackets soon littered the beach. So did the wounded. So did the dead.
He saw the Allies’ secret weapon, a submersible tank, head to the bottom because they’d never been tested in rough seas. He saw National Guardsmen with the 29th Division massacred, their blue and gray patches everywhere.
“I asked an officer why they were putting green troops in the spearhead.”
He saw a British destroyer pull in close to try to protect the infantry.
“He was blazing away at the German flashes of gunfire. They threw everything at him. It amazed me he didn’t run aground.”
Briesacher crossed flat, open beach. Then the sand and pebbles pushed up by the tides offered some cover. Men started piling up behind them as more troops landed.
His regimental commander, Col. George Taylor, said, “There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
He crossed an anti-tank moat. Then signs stating “Achtung: Minen” warning of the foot mines and “Bouncing Betties” that jumped into the air before exploding.
They saw some Germans retreating, so they followed their path.
They eventually made it up a draw and that night were outside Colleville-sur-Mer. The detailed invasion plans — as thick as a metropolitan phone book — had called for them to be off the beach and up the hill by midmorning.
Briesacher doesn’t know whether he shot anyone, either that day or anytime during the war. He was always aiming at smoke and flashes. He was nearly out of ammo that night.
One of Briesacher’s strongest memories from D-Day came while looking down at the beach when there was a terrific explosion from an artillery piece being brought ashore. A roll of marking tape was thrown up by the explosion, and that tape — curling, unraveling, floating down— stuck with him.
Days later Briesacher found out his buddy Laskowski, who satirized the officer’s pep talk, died during the invasion.
“He had all these plans for us,” Briesacher said. “We were going to go to school at Notre Dame together. He said, ‘I’ve got this big house up there’ that his family had left him.”
Paratrooper to POW: Hank Weber
When allied landing craft arrived at Normandy on D-Day, Leander “Hank” Weber was already there.
A member of the 101st Airborne Division, Weber parachuted into Nazi occupied territory at 1 a.m. on June 6, 1944 — or about five hours before the main force hit the beaches.
After the paratroopers cleared the French coast, Weber said his plane began taking ground fire and was enveloped in black smoke. The unit commander was bent over at the waist at the door of the plane when Weber asked him if he was all right. The commander said he was — just as the jump light came on.
“He told me to get the hell out of there, so I jumped, Weber said. “I was the first one out of our plane, but I think I was supposed to be the fourth.” The disorganization was common.
“Those planes were going 90 miles an hour, so even a few seconds difference when you jump out could make a big difference in where you landed,” Weber said.
Like many units, Weber’s was miles away from where it was expected to be. Supposed to control bridges to Normandy to prevent German reinforcements’ access to the coast, Weber’s squad found it was too far inland. Still, it landed and assembled its howitzer, which some paratroopers began to fire while others went to help soldiers who were wounded during the drop.
“We were supposed to just give them first aid and then move on,” Weber said. “But some of them were pretty bad and we didn’t want to leave them.”
Some of the paratroopers had lost limbs or had severe wounds from ground fire and flak suffered as they floated to earth. Able-bodied men drug the wounded to a ditch where they tried to patch them up as best they could.
Unfortunately, that ditch in Gourbesville near Ste. Mere Eglise, was soon surrounded by Germans. There was no escape. Facing superior numbers, members of the artillery unit were forced to surrender when the sun came up.
“They took away our weapons and emptied our pockets,” Weber said. “One of the Germans said ‘The war is over for you’ in bad English.”
Men from the unit were lined up against a wall and machine guns were trained on them when a German officer arrived and began shouting orders in a language Weber and the other men didn’t understand. The German soldiers turned away their machine guns and the men breathed a sigh of relief.
Weber spent the rest of the war in Stalag 12A.
Aftermath: Bill Carriel
He spent two days picking up bodies, and parts of bodies, from the beach in Normandy.
Bill Carriel, 83, of Belleville, landed on the beach the morning after D-Day with the Army’s 32nd Medical Depot Co. based out of Fort Knox, Ky.
“There were bodies all over the place,” he said. “We picked them up and carried them up to a place along the road. We had to take one of the dog tags off the body and leave the other one with the body. We put raincoats over the bodies, but I don’t really know what they did with them after we picked them up.”
His company attempted to make shore on the first day but was pushed back by intense fighting.
“They put us in lifeboats to get to the beach,” he said. He was 19 years old. “Then, they said, wait a minute, they didn’t have enough land captured. We didn’t carry guns, so we turned around and went back to the ship. I remember standing on the ship, waiting, watching the planes all going over. There were hundreds, thousands of them.”
When the company made it to shore to begin its grisly task, Carriel jumped out of the lifeboat and onto an unexploded hand grenade.
“Thank goodness it didn’t go off or that would have been the end of it for me,” he said.
The days he spent picking bodies off the beach and out of blood-tinged water didn’t affect him as much as he thought it would, he said.
“I don’t know why it never really bothered me. We had a job to do, and we did it. You didn’t have time to stop and cry for every body,” he said. “Some of the bodies were missing body parts and you could tell what killed them. Others just had small bullet holes. I remember I saw an arm sticking out of some rocks and I pulled on it, thinking it was attached to a body, but it was just an arm.”
The medical depot company followed the front line through France, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
“We didn’t carry guns. There were a couple of guards with us, but we didn’t carry guns. Which was OK with me because I don’t think I could have shot someone anyway, so I was in the right unit.”