World War II, which began more than 70 years ago, sometimes seems like ancient history. Yet more than 16 million Americans were in uniform during that titanic struggle, and fewer than 10 percent are still alive. They’re dying at the rate of 670 a day, or were in 2011, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Walter Ehlers was one of them; he died Thursday at age 92. He wasn’t the only Manhattan resident who fought in World War II; he wasn’t even the only member of his family in the war. As a Mercury story on Friday reported, Mr. Ehlers was, however, the only Manhattan resident to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry in combat above and beyond the call of duty. In fact, Mr. Ehlers was the last living Medal of Honor recipient who stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
Already a veteran of combat in North Africa and Sicily, he was a staff sergeant and squad leader on June 6, 1944, and demonstrated outstanding leadership that day. “I got all 12 of my men off the beach without a casualty, which was the best thing I ever did in my life,” Mr. Ehlers told the Orange County, Calif., Register.
He would perform other great deeds in the days to come. On July 9 near Goville, about 8 miles inland, his platoon came under intense German machine gun and mortar fire. Sgt. Ehlers, leading his men with bayonets fixed, knocked out two machine gun nests. The next day, he and a comrade volunteered to provide cover for his unit, which had been ordered to withdraw. The two men drew heavy mortar and machine gun fire as their unit withdrew. Both were wounded, but Sgt. Ehlers, after killing the German soldier who had shot him, dragged his wounded comrade to safety.
He recovered and was wounded twice more, and was returning to the front in December 1944 when he learned that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor. Promoted to second lieutenant, he was given a 30-day leave, and was in Manhattan during the Battle of the Bulge.
As Friday’s story noted, Mr. Ehlers in retirement became “a living symbol of what came to be known as the Greatest Generation,” appearing with Tom Brokaw on TV specials visiting Normandy for anniversaries of D-Day.
Mr. Ehlers was far from the only hero, or even the only local hero, of World War II. In honoring his leadership and indomitable courage under the most trying of circumstances, we would do well to remember not just the millions who fought in World War II, including the 2,610 Riley Countians, but also the more than 400,000, including 101 Riley Countians, who did not return.
May their courage and their sacrifices continue to inspire us today.