June 6: A special day in our household
June 6 was always a special day in our household. It was a special day because my father, Frank F. Sempa, took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, as a sergeant in the 29th Division. Like most members of that "greatest generation," my father rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but he did memorialize some of them by writing an article in the Scranton Tribune (where he worked as a reporter and later city editor) 25 years after D-Day.
The headline read: "First Area Newsman to be Drafted Recalls Horror of Omaha Beach." My father in that article returned in his mind's eye to the scenes on the beach when he landed there on June 7, 1944, one day after the initial waves of U.S. troops suffered enormous casualties as a result of German machine gun fire and artillery. His regiment — the 175th infantry — was held in reserve on D-Day with the mission to exploit whatever beachhead was gained by the initial assaults. That beachhead, as it turned out, was small and fragile. He wrote: "Death was everywhere on Omaha Beach. In seconds you realized that war is hell."
The 29th Division departed for England from Camp Kilmer, New Jersey aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The men of the division actually landed in Scotland at Firth of Clyde on October 11, 1942. After extensive training in the moors of England and Scotland, he wrote, "the call came to get ready for the greatest battle of our lives."
June 7 was just the beginning. My father's division fought in the bocage of the Normandy countryside, where every field was divided by wheat hedgerows, "high earthen walls, topped with brush, trees and briar." General Omar Bradley later called it "the Damndest country I've seen." The War Department's history of the 29th Division noted that the soldiers who fought the battle of the hedgerows paid "a demoralizing price for every foot of ground they gained." I visited that countryside in 2013, and the hedgerows are still there, and I thought: "It's amazing that anyone made it out of there alive."
After helping seize the important French town of St. Lo, my father's division moved west to lay siege to the port of Brest, home to German submarine pens. Brest was taken by the middle of September. Then it was off to pierce the Siegfried Line. After participating in Operation Grenade that crossed the Roer River in February, my father's division crossed the Rhine. As the war in Europe wound down, my father wrote, "[o]ur regiment was assigned to clear pockets of resistance and take defensive positions along the west bank of the Elbe River." That's where he was when V-E Day was declared on May 8, 1945. A few days before V-E Day, an entire German V-2 rocket division surrendered to the 29th division.
Like all the surviving American soldiers, he was anxious to get home. Soldiers were sent home according to a point system. You needed 84 points to be sent home — he had 110. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Arrowhead for the assault on Omaha Beach, five overseas stripes, four major engagement stars, and the Good Conduct Ribbon.
A few years after my father died (at the age of 72 in 1988), my sister discovered hundreds of his wartime letters in a shoebox in the basement of her home in northeastern Pennsylvania. Our grandmother had saved all of them. I later used those letters to write a book about my father's service — Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier's Journey through the Second World War (Hamilton Books, 2011).
In his article in the Tribune reminiscing about D-Day and the war, my father wrote: "As long as one lives he cannot forget the scenes ... on Omaha Beach, the tough and brutal fighting ... the cunning and sheer guts of our infantrymen." He paid tribute to those who didn't make it back home — who made the "supreme sacrifice" for our country. And then he wrote: "Those of us who came back unscarred have lived down through the years with memories of the terrible things they saw happen." What my father most remembered were "deeds of valor, the courage and devotion to duty, the hidden fears of men in combat."
Something we should all reflect on every June 6.