D-Day, as experienced by Nebraskans

Many Nebraskans experienced D-Day firsthand, storming ashore at Omaha or other Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. Here are their memories, as told to The World-Herald over the years and published in the 2011 book “At War, At Home: World War II.”

Arley Goodenkauf (1917-2004)

Town: Table Rock, Neb.

Service: 101st Airborne Division, 377th Parachute Field Battalion; Parachuted into Normandy at 1 a.m. on D-Day, 14 miles away from intended drop zone. Stayed put until sunrise.

“The sun was shining and it was quiet. I wondered if the thing was going off.” He and fellow paratroopers soon ran into German defenses. “Things went downhill. We were on the run. Finally they hemmed us in, and there was no getting out of it.” Captured by Germans three after D-Day and held as POW.

Paul Melville McCollum (died 2011)

Town: Omaha

Service: Army captain

In the war: His unit was supposed to land at Omaha Beach in the first hour of D-Day.

“With daylight, there were many combat units already ahead of us. So when we got to the beach, we could see what had happened. Our bombing and shelling had not been as effective as expected. There was still a lot of fire coming down from German strong points above the beach. Wrecked landing craft, tanks, guns and trucks littered the beach. Dead and wounded were strewn on the sand, the living trying to dig in. Ammunition exploding and fires were burning. Engineers were blowing up beach hazards so more troops and equipment could land.

“All day long, June 6, our Rhino (barge) floated in front of our Omaha Beach landing area. We had a panoramic view of the fighting that took place. At dusk we were ordered out to sea to attach our Rhino to a big troop carrier. Early next morning, we again boarded our Rhino and went onto the beach.”

Ed Cohn (1926-2018)

Town: Omaha

Service, unit: Navy, 6th Beach Battalion

In the war: Graduated from Central High months early at age 17 to become Navy radioman. Went ashore two hours before landings on Omaha Beach to set up communications with vessels ferrying in the troops. Only 12 of 38 in his unit survived, and he was wounded the second day.

“I got a lot of ribbing from my buddies (about being from Omaha). They said, ‘Eddie, you’re home.’ I said, ‘This isn’t the Omaha where I want to be.’ Our landing early in early-morning darkness was uneventful. At H-hour, all hell broke loose. We did the best we could, but there were a lot of problems. We seemed to spend more time tending to wounded than manning our radios. So many young boys getting torn apart by German guns. ‘Ma, mama, where are you?’ Those are the cries you heard the most. I was trying to apply a tourniquet to a young man, an Army kid, and I got a lot of shrapnel in the chest. I hope I did my duty. This was my war.”

Floyd “Marvin” Hood (1924-2017)

Town: Grand Island

Service: Navy, 36th LCT Group

In the war: Was a sailor on a destroyer escort during the D-Day invasion; was about 3,000 yards from the shore while landing craft from his unit took men and equipment to shore for the invasion.

“Oh, I was scared on D-Day. I thought if I could wiggle underneath that paint on the deck, I’d get underneath there. But that paint was awful thin.”

Carl Praeuner (died 2014, age 93)

Town: Battle Creek, Nebraska

In the war: Served most of the war with 3rd Battalion, Company K, 16th Infantry Regiment. Was in North Africa and Sicily before training in England for the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach.

On D-Day, “About a mile inland, we set up positions. My squad leader told me to set up our mortar and look for machine-gun nests.” As he did so, Praeuner was shot. The bullet ripped his leg open from just above his knee, then entered his lower abdomen. He was laid in an open field to wait for the medics, who never came. “I prayed most of the night while tracer bullets flew just over me. (The next morning,) I waited awhile and decided I had to try to get up. … I had gone only a short way when two GIs came” and helped. Taken to a hospital in England, he was not expected to live. “Even though I was badly wounded and almost died, I’m glad I served.”

Herbert E. Nolda (1920-2009)

Town: Ravenna, Nebraska

Service: U.S. Coast Guard (Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class)

In the war: His ship, LCI-92, landed troops on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was wounded that day and sent to a hospital in England. He was awarded the Purple Heart.

(On D-Day) “During the first hour on the beach, while enduring the intense enemy action and viewing carnage and havoc in all directions to seaward, I had the feeling, which I am sure was shared by many others, that this was our last day on earth alive. I was convinced this was the last sunrise I would ever see.”

Ervin Cramer (1924-2000)

Town: Cortland, Nebraska

Service: U.S. Army 149th Engineer Combat Battalion, landed on D-Day at Omaha Beach.

“I was 19 years old when I hit the beach, and if I would have known what was in store I would have run the other way. We lost so many men that day. … I hope something like that is never allowed to happen again.”

Offutt’s ‘combat hippies’ recall plane, crew lost 50 years ago

Some Offutt old-timers call the flight crews of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron “combat hippies” because they often head off to far-off places at the drop of an airman’s cap.

The current crop of “hippies” heard a sobering story on Wednesday of the squadron’s darkest day, exactly 50 years earlier, from a veteran who lived it.

Retired Lt. Col. Kingdon Hawes, 81, described at length the events of June 5, 1969, when an RC-135 reconnaissance jet called Rivet Amber — packed with expensive electronics to monitor Soviet missile launches — disappeared while on a flight from Shemya Island in the Aleutians to Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska, where the squadron was then based.

All 19 airmen on board were presumed killed.

“We found nothing. Never did,” said Hawes, who lives in Omaha. “No remains on any beach, anywhere.”

It was the largest loss of life ever involving the RC-135s, which have been flying for the Air Force since the mid-1960s. The last fatal crash involving one was in 1985.

About 100 people attended Wednesday’s event, in an auditorium at the 45th’s Offutt Air Force Base headquarters near Bellevue. Nearly all were current or former 55th Wing airmen, many of whom fly RC-135 Cobra Ball aircraft that conduct the same type of mission as Rivet Amber. Hawes donated an oil painting depicting the final photograph of the plane taken a few days before it disappeared.

“This is a great ceremony, and it honors the Cobra Ball community,” said Joe Spivey, president of the 55th Wing Association, a group of former members of the Wing.

At the time of the Rivet Amber crash, Hawes was a 31-year-old captain on his first day filling in as chief of what was then called the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron while the commander attended his son’s wedding.

When the Eielson command post learned that air traffic controllers couldn’t raise the plane on the radio, Eielson’s air wing commander ordered him to bring a chaplain and break the news to the wives of the seven flight crew members.

When he finished that grim task, Hawes said, he went home and wept. Remembering that day brought tears to his eyes again.

“Here it is 50 years later, and I still haven’t gotten over it,” he said.

Hundreds of Eielson airmen criss-crossed the massive Bering Sea west of Alaska, searching fruitlessly for any sign of the aircraft and crew. After two weeks, they gave up.

The four-engine jet had hit severe turbulence the day before, which shredded part of the skin on the tail. After some debate, the plane was certified to fly back to Eielson.

With no wreckage to examine, the last radio transmissions offer the only clues. They indicated that the plane was vibrating badly — a recurring problem on Rivet Amber — and that the crew had donned oxygen masks. Though voice contact was lost, air traffic controllers continued to hear the plane’s flight crew clicking its microphone button for another 45 minutes.

Hawes said reconnaissance pilots believe the plane’s vertical stabilizer, or tail, was weakened and fell off. Rivet Amber likely continued to fly without it for sometime before crashing into the sea.

Hawes left the 24th within two months, and retired from the Air Force in 1982. He has dedicated the past 20 years to researching and publicizing an accident that was shrouded in secrecy at the time.

“So long as I’m still standing vertical above this earth,” he told the group, “this story is going to continue.”

Nebraska lawmakers attend D-Day ceremonies in Normandy

WASHINGTON — Several Nebraska lawmakers will attend the ceremonies in Normandy commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Rep. Don Bacon said he appreciated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi inviting him to participate in Thursday’s events.

The Omaha-area congressman has read much about D-Day and said he looks forward to walking the beaches and soaking up the history.

“This has been on my bucket list,” Bacon said. “This is something I’ve dreamed about doing.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry is also slated to attend the ceremonies. He noted this could be the last major D-Day anniversary where veterans from that historic day are present at the commemoration.

Fortenberry said he feels a personal connection to the events given that his grandfather was killed in action in France in November 1944.

“Keeping the memory of the great battle alive is so critical to America’s commitment to nobility,” Fortenberry said.

Also joining the American delegation will be Sen. Deb Fischer, who cited her own family’s role in the conflict.

“My father served in World War II,” Fischer said in a statement. “Two of my uncles received Bronze Star Citations for their brave service in the European Theater. Our nation is forever grateful for the service, dedication, and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation.”