Remembering D-Day, Sgt. Walter Waldkoetter and locals who served


In a cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer, France, white stone crosses sit atop the graves of 9,387 Americans who died serving their country in Europe during World War II.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial sits on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel. One soldier from Jackson County, Sgt. Walter J. Waldkoetter, is buried there.

Waldkoetter, who died on D-Day, lies in the cemetery across the Atlantic Ocean a half a world away from his birthplace in Brownstown Township.

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It was 75 years ago today that the United States and its allies launched the largest seaborne invasion attack the world has ever seen on a 50-mile stretch of beach in northern France.

American and allied soldiers landed on the French coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, as part of the successful invasion known as Operation Overlord of German-controlled western Europe.

On that day, there were 6,693 casualties, including Waldkoetter, from the U.S. military. That figure included 1,465 killed, 1,928 missing, 3,184 wounded and 26 captured.

Waldkoetter, 28, was in a tank battalion in France when he was machine-gunned to death while attempting to swim to Omaha Beach after his tank sank.

The Tampico High School graduate was a member of the 741st Battalion, which lost 27 of its 51 tanks in the initial assault on the East Red sector of Omaha Beach. More than 100 of the battalion’s 350 men perished.

Waldkoetter drove a duplex drive tank, and his tank had a canvas collar attached around its sides to make it seaworthy, but it went down in the rough seas.

While Waldkoetter died on D-Day, it wasn’t until July 31, 1944, that his family received word he had been killed in action.

He left behind his wife, Jane, whom he married Jan. 16, 1943, at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wegan; a 4-month-old son; his parents, John and Minnie Altemeyer Waldkoetter; and siblings. Waldkoetter never got the opportunity to meet his son, but reports from The Jackson County Banner show he received photos of John while stationed in England.

After Waldkoetter was killed, several memorial services were conducted, including one on Aug. 20, 1944, in Wegan, which was reported to have been largely attended.

He was referred to as a beloved husband, son and brother by his family in a thank-you note published in The Banner following his memorial services. He also was known to have had many friends throughout Jackson County, according to his memorial service announcement.

Waldkoetter’s memory was celebrated throughout the community even after his death. A Nov. 11, 1947, report from The Tribune showed he was honored during a Veterans Day program at Noblitt-Sparks Industries, where he worked before joining the service. The plant produced materials for the military during the war, and the plant employees received a Christmas greeting from Gen. Douglas MacArthur thanking them for their work to “make victory possible.”

It was there that a plaque outside the school with Waldkoetter’s name on it was unveiled by his father, John.

Waldkoetter posthumously received a Purple Heart. It was accepted by his widow and included a commendation signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also previously received a Good Conduct Medal.

Waldkoetter entered the service in January 1942 and took basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

He was assigned to other camps but returned for 16 weeks of training in tanks at Fort Knox. Waldkoetter left for England in August 1943.

At least a dozen men who were from or later lived in Jackson County served on D-Day or the next day.

Besides Waldkoetter, six other county men served on the 741st Battalion. They were Leonard Trimpe of Seymour, Palmer Ude of Dudleytown, Ed Lucas of Brownstown, Harlan Darlage of Sauers, Emery Hopper of Tampico and Mark Kennedy of Seymour.

The unit was formed in December 1942 at Fort Knox, and Kennedy ended up leaving the unit for officers candidate school before they left for England.

Trimpe, who witnessed Waldkoetter’s death, became emotional each time he shared the story with The Tribune throughout the years.

On June 15, their battalion was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division to help with the breakout from the beachhead.

The battalion’s first big chore was to capture hill 192, which it did, according to The Tribune.

Trimpe, Ude, Lucas, Darlage and Hopper continued with the 741st for the remainder of the war. Hopper was seriously injured in the war.

Others from Jackson County also were involved in the D-Day invasion, including Glen Haley, a Brownstown native. Haley, who later became Seymour fire chief, parachuted in behind enemy lines in the countryside of France as part of the 501st Airborne Infantry while attached to the 101st Airborne.

He was walking on a bridge across a lagoon, and a mortar attack knocked him off of the bridge about 10 days after D-Day, he told The Tribune on the 50th anniversary of the invasion.

He spent a long time recovering from the injuries to his back and legs and dealt with them for the remainder of his life.

Fred Peters served in a unit to clear paths for the invasion and remembered hearing planes likely carrying Haley before the attack. He remembered the rough seas and a speech given by Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the 26th president.

Roosevelt would have a heart attack in France two weeks later and is buried next to his brother, Quentin, who died during World War I, at the same cemetery as Waldkoetter. Quentin Roosevelt was reburied there and is the only World War I American causality buried there.

Many may recognize the cemetery because it is pictured at the beginning and end of the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan.”

Peters also recalled in a story he wrote in The Tribune for the 25th anniversary about taking orders to have those carrying TNT to deposit their packs at a spot along the sea wall. The explosives would clear a path for jeeps, trucks, howitzers, tanks and destroyers to continue throughout the effort.

He remembered lighting the fuse for the explosives and running 30 feet away from the explosion. He said he bounced a foot off of the ground and spit blood for a week afterward.

Peters also recalled the horrors of war and clearing road mines.

Ivan Sprunger, who lived in Seymour following the war, served on D-Day. Russell Martin landed June 7, 1944, and Bud Everhart watched the invasion from a ship in the English Channel. He arrived there two weeks before.

Haley, who died Nov. 4, 2008, shared advice in the 50th anniversary section published in The Tribune that could still apply today.

“I tell my kids and grandkids to watch the news instead of these comics,” he said. “Maybe they can learn why things happen and keep things from being repeated.”

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