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Veteran to retrace path that led to D-Day horrors

Nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed that day. Arthur Seltzer is still processing it 66 years later and "will be until the end."

Arthur Seltzer looks over ribbons and medals that he was awarded for his service in World War II. The former Philadelphia resident, who now lives in Cherry Hill, will take the return trip with his wife, Mildred, and a friend. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Arthur Seltzer looks over ribbons and medals that he was awarded for his service in World War II. The former Philadelphia resident, who now lives in Cherry Hill, will take the return trip with his wife, Mildred, and a friend. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)Read more

Nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed that day.

Arthur Seltzer is still processing it 66 years later and "will be until the end."

He recalls his Higgins landing craft splashing across the waves toward the Normandy beaches on D-Day, then jumping - with comrades - into water over his head.

"It was a mess, a bloody, gory mess," said Seltzer, 86, of Cherry Hill. "You saw sights you never want to see again."

Bodies were tossed by waves dyed red with blood. Bullets whizzed by and pinged against metal obstacles. And comrades lay in the sand with horrible gaping wounds, some with legs and arms blown off.

Sunday, for the first time since that June 6, Seltzer is set to walk the sands of Omaha Beach, a scene of sheer terror when he was 20, now a solemn place of remembrance.

"I know it will be an eye-opening experience after all these years," said Seltzer, a former Philadelphia resident who will be accompanied by his wife, Mildred, and a friend.

They're retracing the path Seltzer took, leaving Portsmouth, England, the same port his transport ship sailed from, along with a mighty armada on the way to France.

He plans to attend D-Day ceremonies Sunday, take a quiet walk on the beach, and remember a historic day, the beginning of the end of Hitler's Third Reich.

That anniversary will be followed by another emotional journey to the site of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany, where Seltzer and other liberators were among the first Americans to witness unimaginable abominations: walking skeletons, piles of emaciated bodies, and crematoriums filled with the ashes of human remains.

"When I came home, I just wanted to forget what I saw and did," said Seltzer, a past commander of the Jewish War Veterans, Department of New Jersey. "Most soldiers didn't want to talk about it . . . but it stays with you the rest of your life."

Blood-covered beach

The transport ships at Portsmouth rocked at the docks and a steady rain fell as tense GIs waited belowdecks for word of the invasion.

"We didn't get it until the evening of the 5th," Seltzer said. "You get knots in your stomach; you can't eat."

He didn't know the other soldiers on the ship with him and "felt a little awkward." An Army communications specialist with the Fourth Signal Battalion, Seltzer had just been assigned days earlier to the 29th Infantry Division.

After a "rough ride across the channel," a sergeant in his unit asked the men to sign dollar bills for one another as keepsakes of the day. It was a habit of soldiers going into battle.

"He asked me to join in, and I told him I'd be very much honored to," said Seltzer, who has his signed bill framed in his home office. "There were 36 signatures."

On deck, he marveled at the large number of ships off the French coast and "felt it would be an easy go. I thought when the Germans see all this, they'll know they're in for a tough fight."

It was not "an easy go."

The GIs in the first and second waves faced heavy casualties on Omaha Beach. Many were cut down by machine-gun fire as they exited the bow ramps of the Higgins landing crafts.

Word got back to the ships, and many soldiers in the third and fourth waves went over the sides of the boats instead of using ramps.

"I jumped into about seven feet of water, and I can't swim," said Seltzer, who landed with the 36 who signed his dollar bill. "I was carrying 60 pounds.

"You have to wonder, 'Am I going to drown or get shot?' We all seemed to help each other get ashore. I was just hoping that my name wasn't on any of the bullets."

The beach "was covered with blood," Seltzer said. "Bodies were all around. You saw men who lost arms and legs, some with guts half out.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "When you talk about it, it comes back to you. . . . You never forget."

After GIs gained a foothold and the gunfire died down, Seltzer "bumped into the sergeant" who had signed his dollar bill.

"He told me, 'You and I are the only ones [from the landing craft] who survived,' " Seltzer recalled. "I said, 'You lost your whole squad?' And he said, 'Yes.' . . . We were the only two lucky ones God was looking after."

All the others had been killed or seriously wounded. That reality so affected Seltzer that he talked to a rabbi and "even a couple of priests," looking for an explanation.

"Why was I so lucky?" he asked. "The answer they give you? 'It wasn't your time.' That's why I say God was looking out for me that day and the whole time I was in the service."

Since then, Seltzer has studied modern photos of the picturesque beach at Normandy. He still has the sand that he collected on D-Day.

"Many have told me how beautiful it is there," he said. "It's completely different from the day I arrived. When I go this time, nobody will be shooting at me."

Seltzer went on to another terrible battle at St. Lo, a strategic crossroads town that was 95 percent destroyed in the fighting.

"I was standing on a tank when a shell landed nearby," he said. "The concussion blew me off. I lost my hearing and some teeth.

"The medic came over to me, and I couldn't hear a word he was saying," Seltzer said. "I had the fright of my life. But a couple hours later, I heard ringing in my ears. Thank God I could hear again."

Seltzer, who served with 20 different units overseas, later fought in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945, when the German army made one last desperate push to throw the Allies back.

As enemy soldiers overran his position, Seltzer tossed two grenades into his communications trailer to destroy it before it fell into German hands. For his actions, he received a Bronze Star.

After all the combat, though, he had still more horrors to witness as American forces entered southern Germany.

'I'll never forget . . .'

Looking through field glasses about 10 miles northwest of Munich, Seltzer saw what appeared to be a camp, surrounded by barbed wire.

"I asked a man in the squad, 'Does that look like a POW camp?' " he recalled. "As we got closer, I looked again through the field glasses and saw people standing behind the fence.

"It looked like they were in pajamas with black and white stripes. We said, 'That can't be a POW camp. POWs would have uniforms.' "

Seltzer and other troops approached the gate of the site on April 29, 1945, and cut the chain on it.

"And that's when we got our first taste of a concentration camp: It was called Dachau," he said. "What I saw there was something that I'll never forget in my life.

"I thought the D-Day landing was something. This was the second worst thing I had ever seen."

Bodies lay in heaps everywhere. And the prisoners looked like walking skeletons, "nothing but skin and bones," Seltzer said.

More than 200,000 political prisoners from dozens of countries were held at Dachau during its years of operation. About one-third were Jews. More than 25,000 were believed to have died there.

"The soldiers had seen death many times, but to see what we saw . . .," said Seltzer. "My men couldn't believe it.

"We gave them our rations. But they couldn't handle the food and were throwing up."

When the prisoners realized they were free, they wanted revenge against the remaining German soldiers in the camp.

"As weak as they were, they grabbed hold of SS troopers and would have killed them if we didn't stop them," Seltzer said. "We had to take the troops back for interrogation."

His unit alerted U.S. Army headquarters and requested high-ranking officers to come to the camp. Local residents were forced to see the conditions of the camp and help clean it up.

The residents "said they didn't know what was going on there, but it was impossible for them not to know," said Seltzer. "The officers who went to the camp spent weekends at Dachau," the nearby medieval town for which the camp was named.

Decades later, his granddaughter asked him if he knew anything about the Holocaust. He described some of what he saw, and she received an A for her project. At the invitation of her teacher, he also spoke to the class and has addressed other groups since then.

The war with Germany ended in May 1945, and Seltzer - an Olney High School graduate - returned to his parents' Olney home in January 1946, later graduating from Temple University.

"My parents were aware that I was involved in D-Day, but they didn't know what I really did," he said. "Most soldiers didn't talk about it. . . . I just wanted to get back to a normal life."

Seltzer married Mildred, a former Camden resident, 61 years ago, and the couple have two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren. He retired as executive vice president of a Philadelphia electronic component parts distributor that now sells computers, TVs, washers, and dryers.

But all the good years since the war have not erased the trauma and images of Dachau and Normandy indelibly imprinted on Seltzer. In his home office, he's surrounded by memorabilia, mounted military decorations, and community awards.

He holds up his dog tags, points to the sand from Omaha Beach, and pages through a book with gruesome pictures he took at Dachau. He's even spoken to survivors of the concentration camp.

Sunday - the D-Day anniversary - will find him again reflecting, but this time on the beach where so many died to help free Europe.

"It's very emotional for me," he said. "All those memories of what happened come back. . . . A lot of people paid with their lives for the freedom we have."