Honored: Walter Ehlers receive the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, for his bravery and leadership abilities during the invasion of Normandy and following hedgerow fighting against the Nazis. His older brother was killed during the invasion. (Photo courtesy Colonel Robert R. McCormick Research Center of the 1st Infantry Division Museum at Cantigny)

Walter Ehlers' Story

Command Sergeant Major
Jimmie W. Spencer, USA, Ret.
Director, Noncommissioned Officer
and Enlisted Affairs
Association of the United States Army

'Inspiration': Walter Ehlers' Medal of Honor citation.(Army Image)

This is the story of seven June days in 1944 in the life of Walter D. Ehlers.

For his bravery, he would receive the nation’s highest military honor.

To understand the impact of those seven days -- June 4 to June 10 -- this is his story.

Ehlers, born in Manhattan, Kan., joined the Army in 1940 with his brother Roland.

Four years later, they were both noncommissioned officers and veterans of two amphibious landings – North Africa and Sicily. After the fighting in Sicily ended, their unit, the 1st Infantry Division, was sent to Dorchester, England, about 35 miles from Weymouth.

Ehlers, then a noncommissioned officer, said, “We had more amphibious training.”

The reason for the six-months of rigorous training was the arrival of so many replacements for men who had been wounded or killed in the fighting in those two campaigns. “They had ever seen combat before. We had to train them” for what would be the invasion of Normandy.

Along the southern coast of England and Wales, amphibious training centers were established. The major base was at Slapton Sands, south of Dartmouth. Its topography resembled Normandy’s coastline.

During this time, “I was separated from my brother. I went to L Company and he stayed in K.” The reason for the separation was to spare families the loss of two or more brothers in a single incident.

The War and Navy Departments were reacting to the shock over the news of one Waterloo, Iowa, family’s loss in the Pacific.

In 1942, five brothers – the Sullivans – died when the light cruiser Juneau they were serving aboard was sunk by a Japanese torpedo.

On the night of June 4, “we were on LCIs, heading for the assault on Omaha Beach. The 116th Infantry Regiment was attached to us.”

Aboard the crowded transport, the “soldiers were scared; their leaders were scared” not knowing what would be happening in a matter of hours, Ehlers said.

The delay of a day because of bad weather did not help to allay the soldiers’ fears.

Walter’s older brother would be in the second wave. “The first wave got pinned down” and soon Walter and his men “joined the chaos on the beach. We didn’t have any exact orders as to who we were to be with,” but “we landed where we should be.”

His men followed the newly promoted staff sergeant into the water when the Higgins boat they were in grounded on a sandbar.

“We were about 100 yards out. I was up to my neck in water. For some, it was over their heads.” But, Ehlers said, they all had their weapons.

It was clear to Ehlers that they had to keep moving to stay alive. The Germans “were firing all around us. We’d drown if we stayed in the water. We’d be dead if we stayed on the beach.”

The bulk of the 16th Infantry Regiment and the 116th were to the east on Omaha Beach.

“All we did was follow the beach master, telling us to follow the path.” The path was blocked by barbed wire. “Two bangalore torpedomen said they were pinned down.”

Ehlers and his soldiers were firing toward the bluff “trying to move the Germans out of the way."

One of the bangalore torpedomen was wounded before he got off his round at the wire, but the second one hit the obstruction, blasting it clear.

Now on the top of the bluff, Ehlers saw an America soldiers trying to force a satchel charge into a German pillbox. The soldier was killed before he could get to the Germans.

Ehlers then “immediately got into the trenches” that connected the German positions. Four Germans surrendered and the rest fled.

When night fell, he slept by the hedgerows.

“I got all 12 men off the beach without a casualty.” Ehlers said 50 percent of the first wave became casualties, as did 30 percent in the second wave.

His older brother died in the second wave attack. “I just think God was with us.”

For his actions on June 6, Walter would receive the Bronze Star with Valor Device.

The next evening, Ehlers and his platoon from E Company pulled back during a German counterattack.

The American lines ran -- zig-zag -- he told author Flint Whitlock in his book, “Fighting First.” To avoid shooting U.S. soldiers, he withdrew.

Later, Ehlers and his men were on a night patrol when they captured several German soldiers. In a satchel that one of the Germans had dropped were maps of the second and third lines of defense away from the beaches near Goville.

They took the satchel back to battalion headquarters for closer examination.

With daylight, soldiers from Ehlers regiment pressed the edges of those lines that ran through the hedgerows. Although his squad was in the lead crossing an open field the morning of June 9, the unit to his left began taking fire.

He yelled: “Come on guys we got to get to the hedgerow to get some cover.” This was a situation that could not remain static as Germans began firing from another hedgerow.

“I went down to the hedgerow where I heard the machine gun” and came upon a patrol on the other side of the hedgerow. “I shot all four before they could shoot me.” Ehlers was firing from a small opening in the middle of the hedgerow.

The .30 caliber machine gun was still firing. The three Germans “couldn’t see me” as he continued crawling along the hedgerow.

He took out the first machine gun next with his rifle. “I was exposed but they didn’t see me.” Ehlers then opened up on a second machine gun next across the square field and eliminated it. “They were exposed.”

After hearing more noise, Ehlers scrambled up an embankment. There he found two mortar positions, “protected by the crossfire of two machineguns,” Medal of Honor’s citation reads.

His squad was moving up with him. “I had the men fix bayonets.” The Germans “became horrified when they saw the bayonets. We shot over 10 of them.”

The Germans made no effort at surrendering.

The squad continued moving down the hedgerow toward another mortar position and took it out.

Ehlers was covered by the squad, advancing on the third machine gun nest. “When he was almost on top of the gun, he leaped to his feet and, although greatly outnumbered, he knocked out the position single-handed,” the citation reads.

The assaults on the German defenses continued into the next day when Ehlers squad moved into one of the rectangular-shaped fields formed by the hedgerow.

“We didn’t know the Germans were there,” obscured but in a rough “U” formation. Ehlers and his men were still advancing when their company commander “passed up the word to withdraw.”

Ehlers stood “up firing in a semicircle and the automatic rifleman saw what I was doing and supported me. I saw three guys setting up a machine gun nest. I got hit in the back and shot the guy in the hedgerow.”

The soldier with the Browning Automatic Rifle was also shot in the back. “I got the wounded automatic rifleman” and “then I went to get the weapon.”

As Ehlers told author Larry Smith in his book “Beyond Glory,” “the bullet hit my rib it went into my pack, hit a bar of soap, which turned it straight through the back of the shovel. It went through the edge of my mother’s picture.”

He had his wound dressed. He refused to be evacuated.

In December 1944, after recovering from another combat wound while fighting in the Hurtgen Forest, “I read about the Medal of Honor in Stars and Stripes.”

When he arrived at the command post to report back to duty, a colonel came up to him and said, “Sergeant Ehlers, you’re supposed to be back in the states getting the Medal of Honor.”

Ehlers answered that he had read about it in Stripes.

A few days later, he was commissioned a second lieutenant at a press conference.

Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner said to him after the ceremony, “You handled the press troops better than any one else,” so he deserved the promotion.

Among his other decorations are the Silver Star for his actions in Germany, Bronze Stars for service in Africa and Sicily, as well as Normandy, and three Purple Hearts.

Ehlers returned to the United States in October 1945.

“A lot of things happened in my five-year stretch in the Army.”

Ehlers retired after 29 years with the Veterans’ Administration and later worked eight years for Disabled American Veterans.

His son “just spent eight months in Bosnia” as a major in the Army National Guard.