Berks WWII veteran pays homage to D-Day and Winters

By on May 24, 2017
World War II veteran Dick Biehl, 94, of Berks County reflects on his D-Day experiences during a visit to the Winters Leadership Memorial at Veterans Plaza in Ephrata. Photo by Donna Reed

World War II veteran Dick Biehl, 94, of Berks County reflects on his D-Day experiences during a visit to the Winters Leadership Memorial at Veterans Plaza in Ephrata. Photo by Donna Reed

When you’re 21, life events take on a clarity that morph into vivid memories as the decades pass.

Often, those memories are joyous ones of early adulthood ­ graduating college, striking out on your own, adventures with friends, the first days of a career.

But more than seven decades ago, in the 1940s, young men and women attained adulthood with the extraordinary backdrop and stunning experiences of World War II.

Those young people would grow into maturity to be known as the Greatest Generation. With the passage of time and the reality of the human condition, their numbers are dwindling rapidly. But for those who still walk among us, the stories they relate can literally take us back to a time we have only studied but which they experienced on the most visceral of levels.

A personal pilgrimage

A few weeks back, on a sunny and warm late April day, a member of that Greatest Generation made a pilgrimage to visit a brother he only met once but with whom he shared the most visceral of experiences — the Allied invasion of Normandy some 73 years ago.

The paths of Dick Biehl of Berks County and Dick Winters of Ephrata crossed one-on-one only once, back in 2003, when the latter was a speaker at an event at Lebanon High School.

“He shared the stories of his men,” said Biehl. Maj. Richard Winters, as locals surely know, led paratroopers from Company E, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, during the first D-Day landings.

But their participation in the June 6, 1944 invasion made them brothers in arms with the 156,000 Britons, Canadians, and Americans whose heroic efforts turned the tide of World War II in the European Theater.

“D-Day was a frightful day but also a memorable day,” said Biehl, now 94. “It was the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe.”

Biehl, an articulate retired postmaster, is able to relate lucid details of his time in the Army, the days leading up to D-Day, and its aftermath.

His own account

Here is the story he relayed sitting in the bright spring sunshine in the shadow of the immortalized Winters, a fellow soldier and WWII hero.

Like many of his peers, Biehl was drafted into the service. By the age of 20, he had served in North Africa and Sicily.

In the fall of 1943, his Company B, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division was on its way to England, having first stopped in Scotland.

In England in November, Biehl and his fellow soldiers were stationed in the south of England, in Swanage, a coastal town in Dorset, on the English Channel.

“We were living in private homes taken over by the Army,” he said. “It was very comfortable, we were well fed, and the training was interesting and ongoing.”

For the next six months, that training primarily involved night activity, including patrols and reading maps and compasses in the dark.

As the end of winter 1944 approached, the training and maneuvers intensified. Everyone knew something big was brewing.

Getting ready

In the last week of May, Biehl was among the 3,000 troops moved to a British camp in Plymouth, a town also on the Channel.

“We still had no idea where we were going,” he said, “but in those last three days (before deploying) we had the best food we’d ever seen in the Army.”

That included fresh eggs for breakfast with fresh white bread, fresh milk, any kind of steak, oranges, apples, mashed potatoes, unlimited Hershey bars, and all the cigarettes any one soldier could smoke. It was a brief, almost unimaginable life of culinary luxuries that would seem unreal in the days, weeks, and months of chaos, hardship, terror, and fighting to come.

But what would follow those good eats provided clues to the seriousness of the immediate future. Biehl said that little containers filled with seasick pills and with water purification pills were handed to each soldier.

“We also began to receive new clothing — all treated for gas attacks — along with long underwear, woolen socks and gloves, and new boots,” he said.

And everyone who needed a tetanus shot got one.

“On June 2, the chaplains were serving Holy Communion,” he said, recalling that so many GIs wanted to receive the sacrament that they were “spilling out from doors and windows onto the streets.”

The next day, the young Biehl was made a Sergeant of the Guard. He had just turned 21 two and a half weeks earlier on May 16.

Mystery man, mystery mission

“I was escorted to my post by our battalion intelligence officer Capt. Carney and with him was a GI who looked positively awful: his uniform was a mess, he needed a shave.

“We approached a small building, a hut, really, with no windows and a narrow door for entry.

“The captain said to me: ‘Take a good look. This is the only one (the disheveled-looking GI) to be admitted to this building’.”

Biehl later learned that the messy soldier was really a Naval intelligence officer in disguise and that inside the hut was a “knockoff of Omaha Beach” with models and aerial photos.

“I wish I could have seen it,” he said. The intelligence officer’s responsibility would be to identify specific targets on the beach and radio to the invaders which ones to take out.

Biehl remembers the nighttime trip across the Channel.

“When we were aboard the ship on the way we were told that we were going to Normandy and the code name was Operation Overlord,” Biehl said. He remembers that the 29th Infantry Division troops were on boats to his company’s right and that preceding the ships were the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the more than 13,000 of their soldiers who first parachuted into Normandy. (Among them was Winters.)

“I don’t recall the time of day we arrived,” he said, “I was too damn scared.”

Rough landing, tough fighting

And the reason for the fright of those sailing soldiers was well grounded. They were headed to Omaha Beach where the cliffs that sprouted 80 to 100 feet straight up from the sand were guarded by squads of German soldiers.

“Of the sites chosen, Omaha was the worst, the most resistance was there,” said Biehl.

The troops’ transport stopped about 100 yards from the beach and the soldiers debarked into the cold water.

“I was the first one off on the port side and the water came up to my chest,” he said, “and that’s when fear became the companion that didn’t want to leave.”

Adding to that natural and abject fear was a chaos fueled by nature.

“There was lots of confusion, a lot of the landing craft were off target,” he said. “There was a strong undertow; you could feel it as you were wading in.”

Medics, heroes, and the fallen

As Biehl and his comrades headed for the beach, two medics were bringing a wounded GI back to the ship for treatment.

“He had an indentation in his forehead that I could have put my fist through,” Biehl said. “The medics that day were real heroes, time and again under fire they would go into the surf and help the wounded to get into a landing craft to where the hospital ships were waiting.”

The beach itself was “a mess.”

“There was a lot of discarded equipment — backpacks, weapons, and personal items from the GIs who didn’t make it,” he said. Floating along with that flotsam were the mangled corpses of those lost.

Reaching the base of the bluffs was not without incident, of course.

“Someone stepped on a mine and seven GIs were wounded and taken out by medics as soon as possible,” he said. The most seriously wounded were in hospitals in England by midnight. Vessels could be across the Channel in a few hours.

All the invaders on the beach head were under attack from shelling, artillery, and mortar fire.

From the base of the bluffs, Biehl and his buddies had a panoramic view of the shoreline.

“We saw three tanks that made it on shore; two were knocked out and one was moving,” he said.

Ultimately Biehl was among those who got over the bluffs.

The battle ‘starts’

“For us, that truly began the battle of Normandy,” he said.

As he recalls, it took Allied Forces 76 to 78 days to secure Normandy and push out the Germans.

From Normandy, Biehl and his unit hoped to be sent to Paris which was liberated in August. However, a bit disappointed, they bypassed Paris and went on to Belgium, ending up in Liege which was secured in early September.

Though Biehl escaped the invasion of Omaha Beach and the subsequent fighting in Normandy without a scratch (”I wasn’t wounded, but one of my fingers bled one day.”), he was plagued by a recurrence of the malaria he had contracted while deployed to Sicily in 1943.

He was evacuated by air to be hospitalized in England. When he recovered, Biehl was sent to a non-combat unit and worked in a general hospital in Nancy, France.

There he encountered concentration camp survivors, the sight of which he never forgot. He also had the good fortune to meet his wife Lois, an Army nurse from North Dakota.

Coming home

Biehl returned home in late 1945 to a family, especially three brothers, who had lots of questions about his wartime experiences.

“I would sort of slough them off,” he said. “They knew where I’d been. I told them I would rather not talk about it.”

He and Lois settled down in Muhlenberg Township, Berks County, and enjoyed a long, happy marriage prior to her passing. Their son John followed in his dad’s footsteps and works for the U.S. Postal Service in the Harrisburg area.

Biehl and his late wife returned to Normandy five times since the war and were present for the 25th, 45th, and 50th anniversary commemorations of D-Day. The couple also visited friends in Belgium who were part of the resistance and aided him and other Americans in those dark days after the invasion.

“They are gone now, but I still hear on occasion from their friends or children,” he said. “They were remarkable.”

He has been honored by the Belgian and French governments with Knight’s Cross and French Legion of Honor medals.

As the years passed, his reticence about his experience dissipated.

Biehl has been quoted in four books about WWII and the D-Day invasion. He has been a featured speaker at high schools and civic clubs, and has participated in both oral and written history projects about that history-making day. He is still interested and willing to address such groups.

A long, blessed life

He treasures those who like himself have survived into this second decade of the 21st Century and looks forward to commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, now just two years away. But Biehl, whose pace has slowed and eyesight has dimmed, has no plans to cross the Atlantic to be there in person. He’ll be watching the ceremonies on television from his comfortable residence at The Highlands at Wyomissing retirement community.

He relishes and is thankful for his many years.

“I’ve been blessed with a good life and a good long retirement,” said Biehl, who retired from the position of Boyertown postmaster in 1981. “I must have said ‘thank you’ a thousand times for that.”

With the help of friends like retired Milton Hershey School teacher Gary Reitnouer, a Muhlenberg native who was a Boy Scout under his leadership, Biehl is still able to be active.

That late April pilgrimage to the Dick Winters statue was one of those outings. The fact that a similar statue by the same sculptor sits on that hallowed ground in Normandy brings Biehl a bit closer to the men’s shared experiences.

Biehl is still full of admiration for Winters, whose service in the heroic E (or Easy) Company, beginning with the D-Day landings to continued fighting in Holland, Belgium, and Germany, was recounted by the late author and historian Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers.” In turn, Ambrose’s book was popularized with its adaptation into the television mini-series of the same name.

Biehl also remains grateful for their sole, but meaningful conversation back in 2003, remarking on that in the noontime shadow of Winters’ image.

“He was the epitome of what we would call ‘an officer and a gentleman’,” said Biehl. “He was the kind of man any GI would follow — just that type of individual. I was really pleased to meet him.”

 

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