June 8, 2017

D-Day veterans describe ‘total chaos’ of beach landings 73 years later

Sean Kimmons
Army News

Lt. Gen. Gary H. Cheek, director of the Army Staff, takes a moment to talk with Herman Zeitchik during a D-Day remembrance ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2017. Zeitchik took part of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, landing on Utah Beach at H-hour.

When the ramp to his World War II landing craft slammed down onto Utah Beach, then-Cpl. Herman Zeitchik jumped out and dashed across the sand as deadly rounds were shot out from fortified bunkers.

With the amphibious assault underway in the early morning of June 6, 1944, Zeitchik and other 4th Infantry Division Soldiers — who were part of the first wave of troops to land — desperately tried to find safe passage through the German-occupied beach.

“When the front of these landing crafts went down, we just took off,” said Zeitchik, now 93 years old. “We couldn’t see where to fire. We just had to get off the beach and try to find the rest of the unit.”

Along a 50-mile stretch of coastline in northern France, more than 160,000 Allied troops stormed Utah Beach and four other beaches that day to gain a foothold in continental Europe. By the end of the D-Day invasion, over 9,000 of those Allied troops were either dead or wounded — the majority of them Americans.

While several in his unit were casualties, Zeitchik and others survived to push on into enemy territory and liberate Paris.

“There were so many of us coming ashore. I was just lucky,” he said Tuesday, before attending a remembrance ceremony at the World War II Memorial here that commemorated the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.

Known as the largest-ever seaborne invasion, more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft were used in the massive operation, which would turn the tide against Nazi Germany forces entrenched across Europe.

“I don’t know that we could have ever done a better job of recreating what happened on this historic day back in 1944,” said Lt. Gen. Gary Cheek, director of the Army Staff.

Retired Air Force Col. Arnald D. Gabriel salutes the crowd during a D-Day remembrance ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2017. Gabriel served as a machine gunner with the U.S. Army’s 29th Infantry Division in Europe and landed with the 29th on D-Day. Following his separation form the Army in 1946, he went to school, earned his bachelor and master degrees in music education and was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force where he would be the commander and conductor for the U.S. Air Force Band, U.S. Air Force Symphony Orchestra and the Singing Sergeants from 1964 to 1985.

Speaking at the ceremony, Cheek said the heroics witnessed on D-Day helped pave the way for an Allied victory in Europe, while also giving Americans freedom for years to come.

“They stormed these beaches so we might stand here free and prosperous,” he said. “They were steadfast and loyal to the mission at hand and met their rendezvous with destiny head-on, and they were successful.”

Total chaos
Then-Pvt. Arnald Gabriel recalled wading through the cold ocean water after his landing craft failed to make it all the way to Omaha Beach. “The water, believe it or not, in June was awfully cold and that with the combination of fear, it was quite an experience,” he said.

A machine gunner with the 29th Infantry Division, Gabriel described how the chaotic scene unfolded.

“With the Air Force overhead, the Navy shelling [enemy positions], the enemy firing at you and we’re firing at them, it was just total chaos,” he said.

“Nobody landed where they were supposed to,” he added. “I landed way over to the left flank and ended up with the 1st [Infantry] Division. It took me a day to get back and find the 29th Division. It was that kind of chaos.”

After storming Omaha Beach, helping liberate parts of France and earning two Bronze Stars with the Army, Gabriel later joined the Air Force as a band director. Before the war he was in his high school band and he always wanted to get back into music, he said.

Retired Air Force Col. Arnald D. Gabriel conducts the D-Day Memorial Wind Band during a D-Day remembrance ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2017. Gabriel served as a machine gunner with the U.S. Army’s 29th Infantry Division in Europe and landed with the 29th on D-Day. Following his separation from the Army in 1946, he enrolled in Ithaca College, where he earned his bachelor and master of science degrees in music education.

Keeping busy
Music provided him comfort and kept his mind from dwelling too long on the memories of D-Day and other combat missions.

“The way I overcame my post-traumatic stress was to keep so busy that I had no time to look back,” he said before the ceremony.

Shortly after the war, he said, it was a lieutenant that gave him the advice about keeping busy. It came at a time when he was struggling to deal with his thoughts of what happened that fateful day.

“It’s OK to look back, but just don’t stare,” said Gabriel, who retired as an Air Force colonel after serving 36 years. “What great advice that was. By keeping busy, you don’t have time to look back.”

Gabriel, who celebrated his 92nd birthday last week, stood at a podium Tuesday and led a band of high school musicians who played patriotic songs during the ceremony.

As a veteran, Gabriel still participates in 25 musical performances each year, and has vowed to return to the memorial to conduct a band again.
“I’m going to do the 75th and the 80th [D-Day anniversary] when I’m 100 years old,” he said, smiling. “I love it. It’s great therapy; it really is.”

Performing at these events in front of audiences isn’t just about him, though. It’s for those who never made it home, he said.

“I remember them every day of my life,” he said. “They’re at the podium with me. I’m up there because of them.”

Honored guests of the D-Day remembrance ceremony render honors during the playing of TAPS at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2017. The D-Day Memorial Wind Band played for all those who attended the ceremony and was conducted by retired Air Force Col. Arnald Gabriel.

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