June 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

Chaos, tragedy and heroics: Detroit area D-Day veterans share memories

They were young men, some still boys, when history came calling.

In the largest amphibious military campaign in history, 160,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel 70 years ago today. The assault on the beaches at Normandy, France, which some have called the most pivotal event of the 20th century, depended on the willingness of soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines to sacrifice their lives to defeat Nazism.

“These were people who, in some cases, less than a year before were high school students, college students,” said Eric Rivet, a curator with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “They had the unenviable task of taking on Hitler’s stronghold of Europe.”

More than 9,000 Allied soldiers died or were wounded in the battle on June 6, 1944, but 100,000 gained a foothold on the beach and began the march through France, Belgium and Holland that ended with Germany’s surrender 11 months later.

“It was a game-changer,” said Rivet. “The war in Europe could not have ended without us staging a successful campaign in Normandy.”

A lifetime later, the survivors of D-Day and the other campaigns of World War II are elderly and frail, and their ranks are dwindling. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, just over 1 million are alive, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration. Michigan has about 34,088 living World War II veterans, down from 39,574 last fall, the VA says.

“The World War II soldier grew up in the Depression; they didn’t have much, but they had a love of country,” said John Lind, director of the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy museum in St. Clair Shores. “I’m not trying to take away anything from the soldiers today ... (but) people nowadays don’t have the tolerance or the discipline that the Greatest Generation had.”

Despite the passage of so much time, the memories remain vivid in the minds of Metro Detroit survivors. Here are some of their stories:

'I had a job to do'

Gus Gilbert was just 21, but he was ready to die.

“After we loaded up our ship to start on the voyage to France, the skipper told us it was six (landing craft tanks) going in together,” recalled Gilbert, 91, of Madison Heights. “They told us they expected three of us to reach the beach and only two of us to return.”

But he and his crew were fortunate. As they landed to deliver tanks, Jeeps and other supplies to frontline troops on Utah Beach, the men faced little gunfire, unlike the supply crews that took heavy casualties on Omaha Beach.

“We loaded up at 7:28 a.m. and we were on the beach by 7:35. There was no wasting time,” Gilbert said. “I could see in the field tracks of bullets, but I wasn’t sure what they were shooting at.”

Gilbert went ashore twice on D-Day, as his unit returned with more supplies that afternoon. They continued the delivery route through October.

Gilbert says he is against war, having experienced it for himself, and believes in peaceful negotiations. He was discharged in September 1945 after an injury to his hand and says “the best part is the new people you meet, the camaraderie.”

“You try to forget the bad parts.”

Looking back now, Gilbert says he doesn’t feel like a hero.

“I had a job to do and I was doing it. You knew you were in some sort of danger,” he said. “Some people would be killed, but you never thought yourself. Someone had to come back to tell the tale and you could tell the tale as good as anyone else.”

'It was chaos, in essence'

As he watched the German bombers buzz over the English Channel, David Osler and his terrified comrades wondered if their transport vessel would even make it to Normandy.

“The airplanes came in so low, you could see the pilot’s face. They were going to bomb us, but, I don’t know how, they missed,” said Osler, 93, of Ann Arbor. “They were as spooked as we were.”

Osler, then 23, was in charge of getting more than 300 troops off the USS Thomas Jefferson, onto five boats and onto Omaha Beach for the first wave of the assault against Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

From his command on a boat offshore, Osler watched the troops he delivered — members of the Army’s 116th regiment, 29th division — crawl uphill into intense German fire. They suffered huge losses.

“They didn’t know what was going to happen. They didn’t know what the Germans were going to do,” he said. “It was chaos, in essence.”

After dropping off the soldiers, Osler made a planned rendezvous with other Navy ships and returned across the channel to England.

“We got out of there pretty much,” he said. “If we were going to stay there, you’d better have a damn good reason to stick around.”

Osler later joined the invasion of Okinawa, Japan, and eventually moved back to Ann Arbor and married his childhood sweetheart, Constance. He had a successful career as an architect. But he hasn’t lost his memories of his time in the Navy.

“There will never be a war like that again,” he said. “It was murder.”

'We were lucky'

Arthur Wojtowicz is back in France today, but the former Army sergeant says the real heroes of D-Day never left.

Wojtowicz, 92, of Plymouth, who led a squad of 20 men in combat two weeks after the initial Allied assault, flew out of Detroit Metro Airport this week with his daughter, Carol Bimberg, to pay tribute to the fallen troops buried there.

“Don’t make me out to be some sort of hero,” Wojtowicz told The Detroit News this week. “The heroes are the people I’m going to see — those who died there. I want to go and salute and I want to stand at attention.”

Wojtowicz recounted some of the experiences decades later in a return letter he penned after receiving correspondence from residents of Caerphilly, Wales, where he was billeted before joining the invasion of Normandy.

“We landed on D-Day plus 15, and it was still horrible, but there were no casualties in our group, we were lucky,” he wrote. “The Germans were well entrenched and very skilled.”

Among his sightseeing tours, Wojtowicz wanted especially to visit the pillbox sites where the Germans dug in, and to see the apple trees again — safely.

“You were told not to pick the apples because they were all booby-trapped,” he told The News. “And everywhere you walked, you had to be extra careful because of the trip wires.”

Wojtowicz, who traveled through the French cities of Paris, Verdun, Chartres and Metz, was critically injured by an explosion in Bastogne, Belgium, in March 1945. The blast left him nearly deaf and with shrapnel in his back. He learned of Germany’s surrender two months later, while aboard a naval hospital ship.

Wednesday, Wojtowicz visited the former hospital in Paris, now a museum, where he was treated after being wounded, his daughter said.

“Dad’s eyes watered as he told me and the people on the bus of his experience there,” Carol Bimberg emailed family and friends early Thursday. “The guests on our ship have all adopted him. All the younger women call him Dad. The men all call him Sir ... I truly believe all this talking is good for him. He never talked much about the war to us kids. To be honest, I always had the feeling he did not want to talk about it. But it is all coming out now.”

Arthur Wojtowicz of Plymouth and his daughter, Carol Bimberg, fly from Detroit Metro Airport to France. Wojtowicz was a sergeant in the Army during World War II. / David Guralnick / The Detroit News