GREENFIELD — At 6:30 a.m. 70 years ago today, the first ramps on the first landing boats dropped along a 50-mile stretch of sand on the northern coast of France, spewing more than 150,000 scared, sick and angry fighting men into a windy, rain-swept portal to hell called Normandy.
H-Hour. D-Day, June 6, 1944. Operation Overlord. The attack on Hitler’s Fortress Europe had begun.
Before that single day ended, more than 9,000 men were killed or wounded, 4,000 alone on a spit of sand battle planners labeled Omaha Beach, a brutally defended piece of beachfront with bluffs and culverts that was a critical link between the invading forces and the precise point where a Navy transport ship carrying 21-year-old Keith Crider from Greenfield was headed.
An Army combat engineer specializing in mine clearing and bridge building, Crider was attached to the 247th Combat Engineering Battalion, one of three in the 9th Army that would clear beaches of mines and obstacles with the initial waves of assault troops.
Packed into the belly of the transport in Southhampton, England, Crider’s boss drew straws with the other two battalion commanders to see which group of engineers would go ashore with the first wave on June 6.
“Our colonel pulled out a straw, and it was a long one,” said Crider from his home in Greenfield earlier this week as he looked back on that fateful morning. “Uh-oh.”
The 247th’s straw wasn’t the longest, but it wasn’t the shortest, either. Crider’s unit stayed aboard the wallowing transport while the other men went ashore that cold, gray morning.
Three days later, D-Day plus 3, the young Hancock County country kid put his boots in French sand.
The human destruction and casualties of the previous 72 hours had essentially been cleared, he said, but other carnage had not. Equipment, obstacles and battle debris littered the beach. The engineers who drew the short straw were by and large wiped out. Based on what he saw the morning of June 9, Crider is fairly certain he would not have lived to see his 22nd birthday.
“I wouldn’t be here today. There’s no doubt,” he said.
By the end of the day on June 9, Crider had made it to the front lines – a quarter mile inland – without being shot at. But his war began that evening.
“We were about a quarter mile up from the beach, up on a hill in a little orchard, and (the Luftwaffe) strafed us. I’d never seen anything like that before. But I learned pretty fast. You couldn’t dig a foxhole deep enough.”
Crider bridged rivers and disarmed mines until he got to Berlin at war’s end, surviving a particularly dangerous artillery barrage at the Ruhr River in western Germany that killed most of his squad.
He returned to Greenfield, worked a few jobs and then opened Crider’s Drive-in at 1309 W. Main St., where the Sweet Shop is now. It became a local hot spot for 25 years and a destination for young people lucky enough not to have experienced what he did in 1944-45.
Sitting in his comfortable home with carpet on the garage floor and everything neatly in its place, Crider is one of the few remaining soldiers who participated in what General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, called “the great crusade.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 1.5 million World War II veterans are still alive. They are dying at the rate of 550 day. Many fewer veterans can share first-hand accounts of what happened at Normandy. Most are in their late 80s or early 90s.
“It’s something that we deal with in every generation and every war,” said John Raughter, a spokesman for the Indianapolis based American Legion. “We can only hope to God they’re teaching it in schools.”
The great danger is that the oral histories, like the men and women who have shared them, will fade away. The milestone commemoration today in France will likely be the last major event featuring people who were there. Already, for example, the Britain-based Normandy Veterans Association has decided to disband after this week’s ceremonies because of dwindling membership. “Members are dropping off the perch, and this is sad but inevitable,” the group’s secretary, George Batts, 88, told The Telegraph in London.
“There aren’t too many of us left,” said Ray Crickmore, 89, of Greenfield, a World War II veteran who served as a Navy radio operator in the Pacific. “We’re dying off.”
For some, the memories are painfully distant. Mildred Hendryx, 94, of New Palestine, has difficulty remembering the details of her twin brother’s involvement at Normandy. “I remember he protected the American fighting boys in Europe,” she said. “But it’s been so long.”
Mildred’s husband, Max, finishes the story: Lt. Thomas Kitley, a fighter pilot, flew bomber escort missions over the invasion on D-Day. The planes, flying from bases across the English Channel in England, were trying to take out the heavily fortified defenses on the bluffs overlooking the beaches.
Kitley survived D-Day and its immediate aftermath, but he didn’t make it home. He died in a mid-air collision just weeks after the invasion, on July 1, 1944.
Kitley’s service is commemorated at Hancock County Veterans Park in Greenfield, where 49 engraved bricks honor at least some of the county’s World War II veterans who didn’t return.
Among those who did, many didn’t talk much about their experiences.
On the same day that Kitley and Crider were in harm’s way, so was another New Palestine kid, Erwin Kottlowski. He was sitting on a troop transport in the English Channel with plans to join the invasion on the same day, it turned out, as Crider.
“Dad was with the 2nd Armored Division on an LST to be inserted on D plus 3,” said Kottlowski’s son, Brian, who now lives in Kokomo. On the way to the beach, Brian said, his father’s ship hit a mine that blew it a few feet out of the water. When it came down, Erwin Kottlowski suffered minor injuries but was well enough to help a friend unpin a buddy from under a jeep that had lurched in the blast.
He was sent back to England but rejoined the war the following week, participating in every major European campaign until Berlin fell. He was discharged in June 1945 and returned to Hancock County.
He died in 1994 at the age of 74 without saying much about his experiences.
“Dad wasn’t one to talk much about the war,” said Brian’s brother, Mark.
It was a different time; people saw things differently then.
“We were a different generation,” Crider said. “After you got home, you went on about your life. You dismissed it.”
But that doesn’t diminish the importance of preserving the memories.
“We have to remember the sacrifice these guys made, the sacrifice they made so we can have our freedoms,” Crider said.
Though the passing of two generations might dim what happened 70 years ago today on that French beach, for many, the memory of D-Day returns like the tide each June.
“I’ve got some buddies over there that are still over there,” Crider said.
Even those at least a generation removed are not immune.
“I think about it every year,” said Brian Kottlowski.
“The important thing is these are real people, real human beings,” said Rick Walker, one of the principals behind Hancock County Veterans Park. “These were our dads and our uncles. I can’t imagine how scared they were and yet managed to summon the courage – the quiet courage – to do what they had to do.
“We just can’t afford to forget that.”