STEPHENS CITY — Seventy-five years ago today as he rode toward Omaha Beach in a landing craft, Leon Foster Pope looked back and saw an armada behind him. Above him, the sky was filled with planes.
“When we started moving forward, all hell broke loose. We had shells and bullets going both ways,” said Pope, a Winchester resident who served in the U.S. Army’s 29th Infantry Division, 115th Infantry Regiment’s 1st Battalion, and landed at about 10:30 a.m. on D-Day. “When I saw that coming behind me, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to succeed.”
The largest amphibious invasion ever has been the subject of countless books, documentaries and movies, but few remain who lived through the bloodbath. Among the local remaining survivors are Pope, 94; William Silas Funkhouser, 95, of Woodstock; and Donald Keller, 96, of Strasburg. They recalled the invasion during a recent interview at the American Military Heritage Museum on Fairfax Pike in Stephens City.
Although the landing was marred by inaccurate Allied bombing due to bad weather and soldiers landing in the wrong places, the Allies overwhelmed the outnumbered Germans and prevailed. But they paid a heavy price.
At least 4,413 of the 160,000 Allied soldiers from 12 countries who landed that day were killed, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. That’s about how many American soldiers were killed in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2011. About 5,600 were wounded or were declared missing in action on D-Day. Exact German casualties are unknown, but are estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000.
From D-Day through Aug. 21, 1944, four days before the liberation of Paris, 72,911 Allied soldiers were killed or went MIA, and 153,475 were wounded, according to whitehouse.gov. For perspective, 58,000 Americans died in the approximately 14-year Vietnam War.
The Germans suffered some 240,000 casualties and 200,000 Germans surrendered. Between 13,000 and 20,000 French civilians died.
Many of the Allied deaths on June 6 came in the first and second waves of the attack between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Funkhouser, of Company F of the 1st Infantry Division of the 116th Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion, landed between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.
Company F came ashore east of its planned landing, according to an account of the 116th’s role in the invasion by the late military historian and British Maj. Gen. Michael Reynolds. Half the company came under heavy fire and took 45 minutes to cross the beach, with half being killed or wounded. A company typically consists of between 100 to 250 soldiers.
Carrying heavy equipment made the men sink ankle deep into the sand. The other half of the company made it to to a shingle bank where they were sheltered from fire, but all their officers were killed.
Funkhouser, who enlisted in 1943 and fought in North Africa and Sicily before D-Day, nearly drowned while wading ashore with a 60 mm mortar. Many of the men, who lay wounded in the water, drowned during high tide.
Once on the beach, the invaders had to run some 200 yards to get to cover. Funkhouser said there was nowhere to go but forward.
“It was just a nightmare,” he said. “You could look in any direction and see someone getting killed.”
A confidential Army report on the assault by the 116th said the landing craft were so crowded that the men, who were carrying between 60 to 75 pounds of gear when they landed, had to stand up in the boats. Some of the boats came in about 1,000 yards to the left of the designated landing area and came under fire about 100 yards from shore.
“The men felt there would have been fewer casualties if they had not been overloaded,” the report said. “The men were seasick as they hit the beach.”
The fifth section of the regiment landed in knee-deep water and at least one light machine gun was fired at the Germans as the men floated ashore.
“Sometimes the barrel was underwater, but the gun continued to operate,” the report said. “They gave good covering fire while the others made it across the beach. No one was injured.”
The 116th was met by “withering fire” from machine guns, rifles, mortars and 88-mm guns from the German 352nd Infantry Division in the cliffs above the beach, according to a unit citation awarded on Sept. 6, 1944.
“In the face of this heavy fire and despite suffering high losses, the 116th Infantry Regiment overcame the beach obstacles, took enemy-defended positions along the beach and cliffs, pushed through the mined area immediately in the rear of the beach while still under heavy fire and continued inshore to take its objective,” the citation said. “The successful attack and landing of the 116th Infantry Regiment made possible the subsequent landings of the other elements of the 29th Infantry Division which landed behind it with only light losses.”
Funkhouser, whose canteen stopped a bullet in North Africa, wasn’t wounded, but said many friends were killed or wounded. In a 2006 interview, he recalled crawling through the sand and a fellow soldier carrying TNT to blow up pillboxes being blown to bits nearby. “It seemed like it was going to go on forever,” Funkhouser said about the invasion and the war.
The 116th had at least 247 men killed, according to Reynolds. Another 576 were wounded and 118 were declared MIA. A regiment typically has 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers.
The 115th and 116th regiments were mainly comprised of men from Maryland or Virginia. Reynolds noted that recruiting companies regionally had a tragic effect. Bedford, which had a population of nearly 4,000 people during the war, had 23 men, all of the 116th, killed on D-Day. They included three sets of brothers.
Keller and Pope weren’t wounded on D-Day, but were wounded later in the war. Keller, a radio operator with the 3118 Signal Service who was drafted in 1943, came ashore in the afternoon on D-Day. He said memories of that day have faded, but he clearly remembers being wounded by shrapnel from a mortar shell on July 8, 1944, during the Battle of St. Lo, a French town.
He recalled one wounded soldier calling for his mother before dying and a few other soldiers abandoning the wounded. Despite being wounded in the face and chest, Keller — who still has a shrapnel mark below his lower lip — ran back to an aid station and get medics to pick up two gravely wounded men.
“I wasn’t going to leave them there because if the Germans came, they would’ve shot them. That would’ve been the end of them,” said Keller, who had two teeth knocked out from the mouth wound. “I never found anything out about them. I hope they survived.”
Keller earned a second Purple Heart when hit by shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg in December of 1944 or January of 1945. He’s unsure of the exact date. An English radio operator next to him was killed.
Pope, drafted in 1943, was also twice wounded, but recovered. He was hit in the head by shrapnel on July 19, 1944, in France and was awarded a Purple Heart after being shot in the left leg on Aug. 10, 1944, in France.
In March of 1945, he was stationed in the city of Munchen-Gladbach in Germany, now called Monchengladbach, as the 115th prepared to cross the Rhine River. On March 16, 1945, less than two months before V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, Pope and his unit were ordered to participate in an event at a sports complex. He chose touch football and his ankle was broken during the game.
“They brought out a stretcher and put me on it,” Pope said of the lucky break that resulted in him being sent to England and sitting out the rest of the war. “Everybody wanted to trade with me.”
After their discharges, Funkhouser, Keller and Pope returned to the area, where they worked and raised families. They didn’t talk much about the war in the immediate years afterward, but as they’ve gotten older and anniversaries like D-Day come up, they get questions from people.
Pope, who is in Normandy this week for the 75th anniversary commemoration, said D-Day gets the most attention because of the massive scale of the invasion. But he noted many sacrifices were made in lesser known battles fought in Europe and Russia — some 1.1 million Russians died in the six-month Battle of Stalingrad — and in the Pacific. While proud they helped defeat fascism, Funkhouser, Keller and Pope said war should only be a last resort.
Funkhouser, who went on to fight in Belgium and Czechoslovakia — now known as the Czech Republic — attributed his survival to luck. “The big question is why am I here and they’re gone,” Funkhouser said of the men of the 116th who died on D-Day and in other battles.
Keller said he didn’t want to go to war but has no regrets about serving.
“I’m lucky I’m here,” he said. “I’ve been bombed and strafed, but I survived.”
Pope grew up on Valley Avenue near Handley High School. About six men from the 116th with whom he grew up died in the war.
“Remember the boys on Valley Avenue,” he said. “They’re more on my mind than what happened to me personally.”