Tales from Normandy's beach
Three who remember that momentous event and its aftermath.
It's the work of a lifetime in many cases, trying to come to grips with the memory of war.
Charlie Sheller is not one to wrap his war experiences in red, white and blue bunting. To be honest, he was something of a rebel, he'll tell you, a cocky kid with a chip on his shoulder who ran afoul of his military superiors more than once.
After dropping out of St. Agnes School in West Chester in the 10th grade, Sheller, the second-oldest of nine, worked at a variety of jobs, including building tanks at Baldwin Locomotive in Eddystone and helping to electrify the Pennsylvania Railroad from Paoli to Harrisburg.
In 1944, after he was drafted and sent to England, he was transferred to the 531st Shore Army Regiment. When he learned he'd be participating in the D-Day invasion, Sheller, then relatively old at age 26, was more excited than scared.
"I was looking forward to it," he says. "I was gung-ho. I was young. . . . I didn't worry about getting killed. It was an adventure."
The adventure nearly ended before it began. Because of submerged obstacles and hull-piercing pikes, the landing craft carrying him ashore had to disgorge Sheller and other soldiers about a quarter of a mile from Utah Beach. When Sheller jumped into the choppy surf, he found himself walking underwater. He was carrying a rifle, a gas mask and two canisters of ammunition, each weighing about 20 pounds.
"This isn't going to work," he remembers thinking. Sheller shed his gear and fought his way to the surface. A strong current swept the roiling sea.
"I considered myself a good swimmer. But my jump boots were filled with water and heavy as lead. Every time I tried to swim, the waves kept pushing me back."
In the nick of time, another landing craft scooped Sheller up and deposited him on the beach. He grabbed a rifle from a fallen soldier and regrouped with his comrades at an old house. There, he and another soldier were assigned to an outpost about 200 yards away. They crossed a pasture with a cattle gate without incident.
Through the night, they watched the spectacular flashes and explosions as artillery pounded nearby Omaha Beach.
"Compared to what they were going through, it was a picnic for us," Sheller says.
The next morning, Sheller watched as two horses gamboled in the pasture they had crossed the day before. The horses tripped a mine. "It blew them all to hell," Sheller says.
There were other close calls. Sheller saw a mine snuff out five GIs who had climbed into an enemy pillbox hunting for souvenirs. He was nearly hit by a bomb dropped by a German airplane strafing the beach. At one point, a German prisoner assigned to help scour the beach handed him a live mine.
"Now that scared the hell out of me," he laughs.
Altogether, Sheller spent a week at Utah Beach, clearing mines, digging trenches, picking up dead bodies:
"We had to use barbed wire to lift them and put them on the truck."
None of what he saw in Normandy or during the rest of the war troubles him today, insists Sheller, who is 90 and lives in Thornton, Delaware County. "I never dreamed about being bombed or soldiers chasing me. It didn't bother me at all then and doesn't bother me now."
About 15 years ago, he donated a box of war souvenirs to the Chester County Historical Society. The plywood box was made by a German prisoner and adorned with a map of the beaches of Normandy. "There was no reason to keep the stuff," says Sheller, who has no children. "I'm not a sentimental guy."
"It was a job," Sheller says of D-Day. "It was a good thing, and I'm glad I took part in it. But it's over, and I don't dwell on it."
One of the curses of war is memory. All war is awful, and everyone who really fought and did not just sit at a typewriter would like to forget it.
At age 82, Carmen Barletta has a memory that is intact and fully functional, which is both blessing and curse.
A Girard College alumnus whose father died in a coal-mine accident when he was 3, Barletta enlisted in the Navy in January 1944 when he was 17. At 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds, he barely met the physical standards.
But Barletta was determined. "I watched the newsreels and saw how the Nazis were treating prisoners," says Barletta, who lives in Middletown, near Harrisburg. "That made me angry."
There were other motivations.
"I felt like I was doing something my father wanted me to do. When he came here from Italy in 1913, he was 16. When World War I began, he wanted to enlist in the Army. He wanted to fight for his country. But he couldn't because he wasn't a citizen."
After basic training, Barletta shipped out to England, where on June 1 he was assigned to the Tide, a minesweeper.
On D-Day, the Tide headed for a spot between Omaha and Utah Beaches, clearing the way for the invading troops. The ship spent the day escorting each successive wave of infantry to shore.
The next day, the Tide was pulled off the line. The crew was exhausted. The sailors had had little time to eat or sleep. The captain ordered his men to grab some grub and some shuteye.
Barletta, more weary than hungry, found a spot on deck and threw down a mattress.
The next thing he knew he was airborne, propelled halfway up the mast by the force of an explosion. The Tide itself had hit one or more mines. The blast literally blew the ship out of the water and broke the hull in two places. Of the 112 men on board, 26 were killed instantly, including the captain. Had Barletta chosen to eat instead of sleep, he would have perished as well; the mess hall was destroyed.
The remaining 86 sailors were all injured, including Barletta. He hit the deck hard, on his right side, and was knocked unconscious. When he came to his senses, he was on a PT boat. Quickly recovering, he returned to the sinking Tide to search for survivors.
Below deck, he heard someone calling for help. He found an officer lying on a depth-charge rack.
"Hold me," the officer pleaded.
The officer's head was creased. Shrapnel had virtually scalped him.
Barletta held and comforted the man. The officer died in his arms.
Barletta then helped another sailor carry a survivor to deck. Then Barletta passed out again and was transferred to a PT boat, where he was given whiskey and morphine.
After a month healing from severe bruises in England, Barletta was sent home on 30-day leave and eventually hospitalized for combat fatigue. In October 1944, he was awarded the Purple Heart. After working at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in the receiving station, he was honorably discharged in 1946.
"I was having nightmares and anxiety attacks," Barletta says. Those nightmares were fueled by grisly memories. He remembers watching from the minesweeper on D-Day as soldiers hit the beaches.
"They were getting slaughtered like hell. As soon as the ramp went down, the Germans started blasting away. I saw bodies float by, some with their faces up. Occasionally, it all comes back to me. I wake up at night and see the bodies again."
Instead of suppressing his war memories, Barletta confronts them. Since 1992, he has been attending Tide reunions. This weekend, he's in Vancouver, Wash., reminiscing with five other survivors. He hardly knew these men back then because he had been aboard the ship only seven days. Now he considers them friends.
"The invasion of Normandy was a great thing, and I'm glad I took part in it," Barletta says. "I feel honored. It's one of the best things to happen to me. We lost a lot of men, but it was the only way to get back at the Nazis."
There's a terrible timelessness about war. It doesn't matter whether it's the Peloponnesian War or the war in Afghanistan and Iraq today. War reveals human beings at their very best and at their absolute bestial worst, with a vividness that's rare in civilian life.
In 1944, when the D-Day invasion occurred, Bill Pancoast was 11 - too young to fight but old enough to be aware.
"I always swore that if I visited France, I would go to Normandy," says Bill, 74, a semiretired electrical contractor. "I know what happened there."
Pancoast and his wife, Mary Joan, 72, who live in rural Northbrook, Chester County, spent three days in Normandy in April, and the experience moved them deeply.
At Omaha Beach, where American forces encountered stiff Nazi resistance, they followed the zigzag path over the dunes and through the swamp and down to the edge of the strand, where they dipped their feet in the water.
"I still shake my head at the size of the hill and what they had to climb," says Mary Joan. "Those kids must have been scared out of their minds. I'm in tears just thinking about it. I just feel so sorry for them. They had no chance."
"The thing that impressed me more than anything was how narrow the beach was," says Bill. "Every New Jersey beach is bigger than Omaha Beach.
"They were like ducks in a shooting gallery. The Germans shot the poor buggers all to hell."
After the beach, the troops had to mount a dune, traverse a swamp, then hack their way through thick, thorny underbrush. "I was fascinated when I saw the swamp," says Bill. "When they went through it, you know they weren't standing up. Then they had to go up that hill. I don't know how they did it, how they got past the Germans."
For the Pancoasts, D-Day was something lodged in memory, but always as an abstraction, bloodless and vague. Now, D-Day is more concrete, the memory more powerful.
"When you see something with your own eyes, you really own it," says Mary Joan. "This is something that teenagers today need to see. It would change their whole attitude, these kids walking around with their pants half hanging off."
Bill was hesitant about visiting France. Now, he says, it was "probably the best experience overseas that I've had." He compares it in intensity and meaning to the trip they took to Auschwitz when they visited Poland.
"People forget: We could have lost it. You can read about history in a book but you can't appreciate it until you get really close to where it happened. We should always keep it in our memories."