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The Longest Day, revisited

Sixty years later, Rogue Valley vets detail WWII operation

Looking down from about 15,000 feet above the English Channel, 1st Lt. John Barth banked his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane to get a better view of the inspiring sight below.

It was a carpet of boats, recalled the Medford resident. Thousands and thousands of boats. Big ones, little ones. A mass of boats.

What a fantastic sight ' you'll never see anything like that again, added the retired financial planner.

Spread out below him 60 years ago today was the largest armada in history, with more than 5,000 vessels carrying some 160,000 Allied soldiers, mainly Americans, and thousands of vehicles in the D-Day invasion to liberate Nazi-occupied northwestern France and push farther inland.

It was June 6, 1944 ' a date which became known as the Longest Day. Nearly 9,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded that day.

— The Allies threw every war machine they could muster at the Axis ' 5,300 vessels, nearly 1,000 tanks and some 12,000 aircraft.

Barth is among five local D-Day veterans interviewed by the . Each witnessed the historic event from a different perspective ' the sky, the ground, the sea.

And each knew that this day could be the decisive turning point of the war. They also knew the opportunity to change the war was built on the shoulders of countless veterans who had served from Adak to North Africa, as well as citizens who had been sacrificing back at the home front.

1st Lt. John Barth

Barth, who turns 82 on Monday, was born in Kansas and raised in Southern California. He had never been in an airplane before joining the Army Air Corps. Receiving his pilot's wings in December 1943, he arrived in England late in February the following year.

Before leaving the States, he married his sweetheart. He and Phyllis, his late wife of nearly 60 years, would have 12 children.

Upon arriving in England, Barth flew nearly every day escorting bombers until early June.

Then they grounded us so we knew something was up, he said.

His unit group flew throughout D-Day, patrolling the skies from dawn to dark. He flew between 12,000 and 15,000 feet, periodically dodging ack-ack from German 88-mm Flak 42 antitank guns.

Our job was to make sure there was no interference from German aircraft, he said.

His 2,000-horsepower plane had the firepower: the Thunderbolt's armament included eight .50-caliber machine guns, each with 425 rounds per gun, and two 500-pound bombs.

You could sure chew something up with that plane, Barth said.

After D-Day, Barth flew out of France for a few days, then was sent to a small town in Germany where his 9th Air Force unit used a small air strip.

On Sept. 6, 1944, he and two other pilots were walking to their planes when a land mine exploded. He lost his right leg at the hip and his right thumb.

The war was over for me, said Barth, who returned to the States on Christmas Eve.

Sailor Louis Bruno

Looking out on the soldiers struggling to get ashore that morning was Machinist Mate 2nd Class Louis Bruno, now 79 and living in Phoenix. He was aboard the deck of the U.S.S. Borum, a destroyer escort.

We were in the first wave, coming within 1,100 yards of Omaha Beach, said the retired brick layer hailing from upstate New York. You could have walked across there on those ships.

But we were in the lead ' I didn't turn around to look behind us, he added.

He did glance up at Barth and the air crews above, however.

The sky was just covered with airplanes, he said.

It was the water he kept an eye on. Several ships, including Borum's sister ship, the U.S.S. Rich, were sunk by undetected mines.

You'd see these mines breaking loose and bob up to the surface, he said. But our gunnery crew would cut loose with the 20mm (machine gun) and blow 'em up.

The ships, even the lowly barges, were also capable of striking Nazi strongholds inland with their long guns and rockets.

I remember these barges that fired these rockets, he said. Oh, man, it was like Roman candles on the Fourth of July. It was one hell of a show.

His crew saw three American bombers destroyed. One exploded in mid-air, the second hit the beach and the third plunged into the sea.

But the Yankee airpower wasn't seriously challenged.

About 4 that afternoon, two German planes came over the horizon, both fighters, he said. But they were only there a few seconds. Our fighters chased them away.

After D-Day his ship was deployed to the Channel Islands, where it was hit by German coastal batteries but survived.

Bruno, who has been married to his wife, Ruth, for nearly 60 years, has never forgotten the sight of those D-Day forces.

I always felt we just couldn't lose that day, he said.

1st Lt. Bill Seibert

A half-hour before the main invasion, Lt. Bill Seibert was already on Utah Beach. A platoon commander with the Army's 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, his mission was to remove the German-built beach obstacles known as tetrahedrons.

It was so quiet ' there wasn't a sound when we first got there, said the Medford resident, a retired architect who is now 87.

A Florida native whose battalion was activated March 1, 1943, at Camp White, now the site of the veterans domiciliary in White City, Seibert and another soldier were weighted down with blasting caps as they waded from the landing craft into waist-deep water.

We were hoping that no shell dropped on us ' that would have been it, he said.

Shells began to drop as his unit removed beach obstacles. One shell hit the mine sweeping unit.

With the mine detectors destroyed, Seibert and his men used their bayonets to gently probe for the deadly mines. They also blew a hole in a concrete wall the Germans had erected to stop enemy tanks.

Snipers began zeroing in on the advancing troops. One bullet zipped past Seibert's head, punctured the helmet of a nearby soldier and plowed into the leg of another.

When the rest of the Army started coming in, they really started shelling the beach, he said. It became a continuous barrage.

But Seibert's luck held. When he stepped on an anti-personnel mine, he wasn't injured but several other men were wounded.

Seibert, who returned to Medford to marry Jean Lydiard, a woman he met while at Camp White, was only injured once in the war: He scratched his hand while opening a wooden crate filled with cans of British soup D-Day night.

I guess my guardian angel was looking out for me, he said.

Pvt. Eric Hamrin

Even before Seibert arrived in Normandy, Eric Hamrin of Central Point was already there.

Shortly after midnight, the draftee climbed aboard a rumbling C-47 transport plane at a remote airfield in the English countryside.

Now a retired manager of Jackson County Vector Control who turned 83 Saturday, Hamrin was a member of the 507th Parachute Infantry, part of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. That division and the 101st were among some 10,000 American paratroopers jumping that day, although many were shot in the air or injured upon landing.

When the C-47 slowed to about 105 mph at 2:20 a.m. some 2,000 feet over Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French village liberated by the Allies, Hamrin bailed into the darkness below.

We were supposed to be about 800 feet and five miles away, said Hamrin, who was born in Sweden but raised in Southern California. But the pilots, who were a baptism of fire from all the antiaircraft stuff, just kept going up and faster.

You were glad to get out of the plane because it was a target, he added. But when you were out, you sure wished you were back in.

He landed on top of a two-story house and slid off, and was knocked cold by the roll of telephone wire the communications technician was carrying when he landed.

But he recalled he awoke clearheaded with the passwords when he met another soldier in the dark.

Flash, he said.

Thunder, the other soldier replied.

Welcome, Hamrin said, completing the password as he eased off the trigger of his M-1 rifle.

Shortly afterwards he was the target of German automatic weapons fire, an experience that continued until the war ended. But he never shirked his duty, receiving a Bronze Star for valor with two oak leaf clusters and a Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster.

A day after D-Day, he was hit by shrapnel in the lower back and posterior. Yet he continued laying out communications wire as he braved enemy fire.

His first Bronze Star citation indicates he distinguished himself that day with heroic and meritorious service ... and disregard for personal safety.

Later, on Feb. 8, 1945, in Belgium, he received another Bronze Star when a unit's communications were knocked out, putting several men in jeopardy. Hamrin and two other men moved forward to repair the lines as a German 88 blasted away.

His two comrades, too shell-shocked to complete the mission, were left behind, the citation reads. Hamrin continued across the river despite the heavy mortar barrage and accomplished his task.

Hamrin, who was promoted to corporal during combat, jumped again into the Rhine River Valley in Germany toward the end of the war. He was also shot in the leg during the Battle of the Bulge.

He survived hand-to-hand combat with fixed bayonets.

I didn't have any great expectations ' I just did what I was supposed to do, said Hamrin, who has been married to his wife, Wanda, for 53 years.

Sgt. Jerry Sessions

Jerry Sessions, 87, of Ashland, was an M-1 toting mess sergeant on Omaha Beach on D-Day with the Army's 1st Division, 16th Infantry, D Company.

A retired truck driver who came to Ashland in 1945 immediately after the war, Sessions wasn't too keen on talking about what he experienced on the beach that day.

He can tell you about stepping off the landing craft into neck-deep water, about seeing corpses all around, about the sound of bullets and shrapnel zipping through the air.

A salty fellow when he isn't talking about Mildred, his late wife of 50 years, the Arkansas native had worked on ranches, farms and soup kitchens before donning an olive drab uniform.

He figures he arrived at Omaha Beach at daylight.

I've tried to wipe my mind clear of all that, he said. There was no way you could get off that beach without stepping on a dead person. There was bodies all over the place. You had to step on them to get anyplace.

Everywhere you looked there was dead people or people shooting at you, he added.

He stopped talking for a moment, lost in a memory he has tried to forget.

Our division was always the first sons-of-bitches there, he said. They didn't give a damn how many were killed.

Nobody knew where we were going or what the hell we were going to do, he added of D-Day. We just wanted out of there.

His unit pushed onto the beach, eventually getting to solid ground where dinner was served that night.

We chowed on C-rations, he said.

He figures his unit marched a million miles before the war ended, crossing France and Germany.

I was the happiest guy in the world when the war was over and I was finally out of the Army, he said. There was nothing glamorous about it. It was war.

Eric Hamrin, 83, of Central Point parachuted onto French soil on D-Day. He received two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his service during the war. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli