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Eyewitness to War: Four Soldiers' Stories

Among them was a private weighed down with weapons, a French woman with messages hidden in her shoes, and a German who knew the war was lost

AS a stocky 20-year-old, Ned Kashmanian remembers the amphibious D-Day landing at Omaha Beach for the weight on his back: 52 pounds of mortar cannon, an 81-mm version.

He was Private Kashmanian then, a mortar man in the First Infantry Division of the 18th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. ``The Big Red One,'' he says proudly, pointing to a red arm patch in a photography book on World War II.

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``When we landed late in the second wave,'' he said, ``I didn't get wet because the landing craft carrying 200 soldiers was bigger than other crafts, and so we jumped onto the beach when the gate went down.''

The night before D-Day, Kashmanian and tens of thousands of other soldiers were stationed at Weymouth, England. ``We knew something was up around May 25th when we started getting ready,'' he said.

Several weeks prior to D-Day, the regiment had participated in a simulated landing on the Torquay peninsula of southwest England. ``I didn't get wet then, either,'' he said.

They boarded the launching craft on the night of June 5, 1944, and were packed below in canvas bunks, four or five high. ``There was a storm, and the ship rose up in the air and slammed down again and again,'' he said. ``Everybody got seasick.''

When daylight came, they waited offshore in the boats under gray skies. Military gear, extra clothing, rations, and socks were stuffed into the pockets of their jackets. Kashmanian also carried a screwdriver and big can of oil for the mortar. ``I was standing in the bow,'' he said, ``and I heard somebody call my name from the boat next to us. It was a classmate from Watertown [Mass.], a guy I hadn't seen in a year. We talked for about a half hour. He was killed in the invasion.''

Was Kashmanian afraid? No, he says. ``I was in the second wave,'' he says, ``and the first wave took the beating. We landed near Colleville-sur-Mer around one in the afternoon. On the beach we had to move in single file, and there was still a lot of gunfire everywhere.''

A path through the mines in the sand had been cleared either by the mines being detonated deliberately or exploding under advancing soldiers in the first wave. When the call went out for a machine gun, two soldiers stepped around Kashmanian and started for the ridge ahead. But they stepped on a mine hidden in the sand. The man in front of Kashmanian was severely wounded by shrapnel.

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At the ridge, Kashmanian and his buddy, Jack, descended into a swampy area. ``He was a tall guy,'' said Kashmanian, ``and the water was up to his chest, but I was up to my neck in it.''

The mortar wasn't used very often in the first few days, he said, because everything was moving swiftly, or radio contact couldn't be made. ``We wore the same clothes for the next six days,'' he said. ``You're a soldier; you do what they tell you.''

Several weeks later, near St. Lo, the sky filled with Allied planes in a massive carpet bombing of the German positions. ``The sky was black with planes,'' he said. ``It was really something to see.''

During the war Kashmanian earned two bronze stars and a purple heart. He was in five campaigns in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge, and was wounded in the arm. When he was discharged in October 1945, he returned to Watertown, married, and became a sheet-metal worker. David Holmstrom, Watertown, Mass.

REG JONES remembers D-Day as much for what didn't happen to him as for what did.

He was a youthful Royal Navy stoker aboard one of the landing craft that carried British troops and tanks of the 50th Division ashore at Gold, the most westerly of the three British landing beaches, from where they battled on against tough German resistance toward the city of Bayeux.

``When we reached the shore, we winched our ramp down, but it hit a mined obstacle and there was an explosion,'' Mr. Jones recalls. ``The blast blew a hole in the ramp and the ship was held fast. The men and tanks made it ashore, but our craft was stuck like a stranded whale.''

The tide receded, and, Jones says, ``for 24 hours I had a grandstand view of history being made as our lads headed off up the beach toward the Germans.''

Jones was 19 at the time - ``an age when you don't think of the danger - you believe you are invincible.'' What he witnessed was ``the kind of experience a man doesn't forget in a hurry.''

``The sky above us was filled with Allied bombers and gliders, guarded by Hurricane and Spitfire fighters. Behind us there was this enormous Allied fleet, pumping shells over our heads to make it easier for the boys who were advancing. The Germans were firing back with everything they had. We were in the middle. It was bedlam.''

All that day and night the landing craft was stuck. ``It was all noise and the smell of cordite. In the darkness, you didn't know whether a thud against the craft's hull was a piece of driftwood or a dead body. Although I didn't know it at the time, one of the bodies in the water that day was that of my wife's brother, who was killed in Normandy.''

At one point, British troops who captured German soldiers on Gold beach brought them back to the landing craft. ``We used the space the tanks had occupied as a prison compound,'' Jones says. ``One of the Germans we were holding was hit by shrapnel and died.''

Jones still feels sorry for the man. ``We were facing two German armies. One was made up of soldiers you could respect. But there was also the SS, which used to shoot prisoners after they were captured. The man who died aboard our craft was one of the `good' German soldiers.''

At high tide the following day the crew managed to refloat the landing craft and it headed back to the English coast. For the rest of the week it shuttled back and forth between England and France, taking tanks, trucks, and other supplies for the British troops already ashore.

Jones is now retired from his postwar job as an apple farmer. He has spent the run-up to D-Day talking to schoolchildren about the Normandy landings and meeting others who took part in Operation Overlord.

His overriding thought about what he witnessed? ``What we saw sometimes seemed like a total shambles. I only learned later that I was part of a wonderfully organized operation.'' Alexander Macleod, London

WHILE D-Day holds a special place in the military annals of the Western Allies, many German veterans don't view the Normandy landing as a decisive event in the war.

``Many of us knew that the war was a lost cause since Stalingrad,'' says Wolf-Dieter Becker, a former German naval officer.

In the five-month-long battle for Stalingrad (now Volgograd), the Russian Army surrounded and smashed the German 6th Army in early 1943. Hundreds of thousands died on both sides. The Germans never recovered from the defeat, and from February 1943 until their final surrender on May 8, 1945, the Nazis were essentially on the defensive.

Mr. Becker came from a naval family and was a cadet at the outbreak of the war. In 1940 he lost a leg when a British dive-bomber scored a direct hit on his ship. He returned to service after recovering, and at the time of the Normandy landings was first officer on a mine-sweeper off the coast of Norway. He recalled that when news of the D-Day landing flashed over the ship's wireless, it didn't come as a surprise.

``We were all prepared from the beginning of the year [1944]. We knew something would happen in the spring.... We were wondering why they didn't land until June,'' he said. ``When it came, there was almost a sense of relief.''

Many German soldiers and sailors, according to Becker, hoped D-Day would somehow prompt a separate peace between the Nazi leadership in Berlin and the Western Allies.

``The basic mood was, that we had to defend ourselves against the Russians. Everyone knew that the Russians would not show any mercy,'' Becker says. ``Up until the Spring of 1945 we hoped that the West would make peace with Germany. That would allow us to throw everything we had against the Russians.'' Justin Burke, Bonn

ANDREE GUILLARD remembers June 6, 1944, as a day filled with such excitement and anticipation that she thought she might burst.

``We had been expecting the Allies' invasion, but when a few of us learned it was finally happening we had to keep it inside,'' says the retired farmer from Brecey, a small town in the Calvados region of Normandy. ``You never knew who was with whom in those days,'' she adds, ``and besides, I had lots of work to do.''

Beginning in November 1943, ``work'' for the then-23-year-old Normand girl was passing papers and accompanying clandestine reconnaissance gatherers for the French Resistance. She had taken the job, proposed by a Resistance member harbored occasionally on her mother's farm, because she had two brothers imprisoned in Germany, ``and because I wanted France to become whole again, whole and unoccupied,'' she says.

But what Mrs. Guillard recalls about the day she learned from a family's clandestine radio that the invasion had started, is that she had more than the usual amount of work.

``I had a lot of messages to deliver that day,'' she says. ``I guess it mostly had to do with what was going to come next.'' Following their landing, part of the Allied invading force would move across the Cotentin Peninsula toward Brecey to cut off the Germans holding Cherbourg at the peninsula's northern tip. So off rode Andree Guillard on her bicycle along Normandy country lanes, making sure her messages - hidden in her shoes - got where they needed to go.

What was perhaps Guillard's single most important assignment came a month after D-Day, when she was asked to accompany a British officer who had been dropped into what was still enemy-occupied territory to gauge the state of Nazi defenses. A French-speaking British Army captain, Eric Haye, became Andrs ``new friend,'' acting as a refugee from the nearby city of Saint Lo.

With Guillard's help, Captain Haye was able to report back that the Germans in the area were nowhere near as strong as the Allies suspected - information that both accelerated the invasion and persuaded the Allies to cut back the devastating bombing initially carried out against Normand cities.

On July 1, Guillard will receive a medal for her part in the French Resistance at a local ceremony where the town's middle school will be renamed for another local hero of the Resistance. It will have nothing of the extravaganza set for Normandy's Omaha Beach today, but Guillard does not begrudge the Allied veterans their day.

``The Allies deserve a big celebration, and I think it's good they really do it up so the young people realize there is something there worth remembering,'' she says. ``People forget too easily the sacrifices that were really made for them.'' She realizes that, for Normands in Saint Lo or Caen or other towns heavily hit by Allied bombs, the day evokes some bitterness, but she sums up simply, ``It was an invasion that had to be done.''

She plans to stay home and watch the D-Day commemoration events on TV. ``I'll see everything much better,'' she says. Howard LaFranchi, Paris

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