Editor’s note: The Mercury is republishing a July 23, 2003, article on Walter Ehlers in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day today. Ehlers, who died Feb. 20, 2014, was the last living Medal of Honor recipient who stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
“There is nothing as terrifying as going into hand-to-hand combat or waiting for the moment to be shot at,” said Walter Ehlers, a World War II veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
He was recounting his war experiences Wednesday afternoon at the Riley County Historical Museum as part of a Veterans History Project.
Ehlers, 82, is a former Manhattan resident and one of only 137 living recipients of the World War II Medal of Honor. He’s the only resident of Manhattan ever to receive the award. About 294 soldiers were awarded the prestigious honor after World War II.
Now retired and living in California, Ehlers said he has been spending the last few years speaking about his war experiences at venues across the country.
His trip to Manhattan was not planned. Earlier in the week, Ehlers and three Marines were guests of former Sen. Bob Dole at the dedication of the news Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
When museum officials learned Ehlers would be in Kansas, they invited him to Manhattan for the interview. Veterans and museum officials alike said they could not be more honored to have him as a guest.
“He is the only Congressional Medal of Honor winner we’ve had from Riley County,” said Ken Visser, also a veteran.
Ehlers spoke for an hour and a half to interviewer Ron Frank, recounting vivid details of World War II. Specifically, he remembered his days as a 23-year-old staff sergeant who led his 12-man squad through 24 hours of non-stop fighting during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, the battle that earned him the Medal of Honor.
The fighting was “gruesome,” he said. Ehlers fought and killed a four-man German patrol, then wiped out a three-man machine gun nest and later an additional nest of fighters. Despite being shot in the back, he continued fighting German troops.
Ehlers said he and his men were running on “pure adrenaline,” and the fighting wasn’t glorious in any way.
“No war is a popular war,” he said. “When you get shot at, there is nothing popular about that.”
Seeing the deaths of many of his comrades was difficult for him.
“I feel a responsibility to the guys who paid the supreme sacrifice,” he said with tears in his eyes. “The supreme sacrifice is the ultimate in combat for our freedoms.” Despite seeing continued bloodshed and encountering fierce fighting, Ehlers said he never lost sight of why he was there. “We all had faith in one another,” he said of his Army comrades of the 1st Infantry Division. “I think when we went into combat we had faith in God and our country.
“”We did not consider the danger of the job. We were concentrated on winning the job.”
The official citation for Ehlers’ Medal of Honor, which was awarded on Dec. 14, 1944, in Paris, describes his deeds as ... “always acting as the spearhead of the attack, and repeatedly (leading) his men against heavily defended enemy strong points ...”
Asked whether the Medal of Honor has changed him, Ehlers shrugged.
“It did not change me,” he chuckled. “I am still me. It might have changed my life a bit.”
Ehlers said his faith has sustained him through the years and was his motivation for enlisting in the Army.
“Faith is the key to life,” he said. “I can’t be happy without loving people. The most important thing abut World War II was my mother committing me to my faith.”
At 19, Ehlers had to get permission from his parents when he enlisted before going to war, and his mother allowed him to go only if he promised to commit to his faith.
Concerning the war with Iraq, Ehlers said he has a lot of pride in today’s armed forces, and as a former soldier has learned life-long lessons.
“In the military service, you have to have faith in other people,” he said. “Everyone in this world is put here for a purpose and should be given a chance.”
After the war, Ehlers spent more than 25 years as an official of the Veterans Administration. His son David is a major in the 35th Infantry Guard in Bosnia.
The Veterans History Project is an effort by the Riley County World War II vets and the Riley County Historical museum to record the war-time memories of veterans in a nationwide effort to preserve history.
The tapes will be preserved at the museum and also will be included in the Library of Congress’ collection in Washington D.C.
Ehler’s story will also be displayed in a new book by Larry Smith, a Veteran editor with the New York Times, titled Beyond Glory, Medal of Honor Heroes in their own words.