D-Day MOH Recipient Walt Ehlers on the M1 Garand Rifle
Posted 07 June 2009 - 11:41 AM
I ran across this on the CSP Jouster site and thought it was so interesting and timely that it was worth re-posting here. Text and photos are by Jebb Harris. Walt Ehlers is now the only living Medal of Honor awardee from D-Day.
A SOLDIER WITH AN M1 RIFLE
By Jebb Harris
Walt Ehlers is the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the Normandy invasion. In his dreams he still sees his brother Roland, killed that day. “The beach was 10 times worse than shown in “Saving Private Ryan,” he says. “They couldn’t possibly show (the reality) in a movie.”
He also left the service with three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and one Silver Star. He is a modest man who wears his role with dignity.
Today at age 80, Walt Ehlers sits with an M1 Rifle across his lap and remembers. His eyes are still sharp enough to read without glasses the serial number of the 1943 Springfield he holds. His memories of a war long ago are also still sharp. On this day he shares those memories and his observations on the M1 rifle, which he carried through North Africa and France.
On June 6, 1944, Walter Ehlers was at the tip of the spear plunging into Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
At Omaha Beach the 23 year-old staff sergeant led his squad out of the Higgins boat and into the merciless storm of fire. Within days Ehlers would fight his way deep into France and earn a soldier’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
The first wave had stalled on the beach with casualties of 50 percent. Ehlers and his troops were sent ashore soon after. He saw a mortar blast wipe out a whole boat, which he later learned carried his brother Roland. Everything was stalled.
“I got my squad going,” Ehlers says. “The first thing they wanted to do was to dig in; they were scared half to death. So I said, ‘You gotta go. Get off this beach – otherwise you’ll get killed.’” They followed him off the beach to where engineers who had been blowing the wire were pinned down by German snipers. Several of the engineers had been killed.
Laying a barrage of covering fire with their M1 rifles, the squad members enabled the engineers to clear the route to the German trenches above. Of that day, Ehlers recalls: “The guy got the wire blown, and we went through. I got all 12 of my men off the beach without a casualty, which was the best thing I ever did in my life.”
Though supposed to be on recon patrol, Ehlers’ squad was instead caught up in constant firefights. The next few days can be summed up by the text from his Medal of Honor citation:
Place and date: Near Goville, France, 9-10 June 1944. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 9-10 June 1944, near Goville, France. S/Sgt. Ehlers, always acting as the spearhead of the attack, repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy strong points exposing himself to deadly hostile fire whenever the situation required heroic and courageous leadership.
Without waiting for an order, S/Sgt. Ehlers, far ahead of his men, led his squad against a strongly defended enemy strong point, personally killing 4 of an enemy patrol who attacked him en route. Then crawling forward under withering machine gun fire, he pounced upon the gun crew and put it out of action.
Turning his attention to 2 mortars protected by the crossfire of 2 machine guns, S/Sgt. Ehlers led his men through this hail of bullets to kill or put to flight the enemy of the mortar section, killing 3 men himself.
After mopping up the mortar positions, he again advanced on a machine gun, his progress effectively
covered by his squad. 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 next day, having advanced deep into enemy territory, the platoon of which S/Sgt. Ehlers was a member, finding itself in an untenable position as the enemy brought increased mortar, machine gun, and small arms fire to bear on it, was ordered to withdraw. S/Sgt. Ehlers, after his squad had covered the withdrawal of the remainder of the platoon, stood up and by continuous fire at the semicircle of enemy placements, diverted the bulk of the heavy hostile fire on himself, thus permitting the members of his own squad to withdraw.
At this point, though wounded himself, he carried his wounded automatic rifleman to safety and then returned fearlessly over the shell-swept field to retrieve the automatic rifle which he was unable to carry previously.
After having his wound treated, he refused to be evacuated, and returned to lead his squad.
The intrepid leadership, indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness displayed by S/Sgt. Ehlers in the face of overwhelming enemy forces serve as an inspiration to others.
THE M1 RIFLE IN ACTION
In 1940 Ehlers trained with the 1903 Springfield. He qualified with it by putting eight of 10 rounds into the bull’s eye at 500 yards. Before shipping off to North Africa and the war, the men received new rifles.
“We got brand-new M1s, in cosmoline,” he says. “We had to clean them all. Needless to say, we had a lot of messy soldiers. We used diesel fuel.
“The M1 was a lot faster than the ’03. We sure didn’t want to go back to the ’03. Those that trained with the ’03 never complained about the M1, because it had so much more firepower. Ninety-nine percent loved the M1 over the ’03; it was just more modern. You know young people - they like modern things. All you had to do was keep ammunition in it and not get your hand caught in it.”
Nearly 60 years later he is still deft and quick as he depresses the follower, swinging his hand up out of the way and letting the bolt slam closed. He never did get M1-thumb, the dreaded bane of rookies who got a thumb caught in the powerful mechanism. He knew many soldiers who did.
“I started with the M1,” he says. “Then I got a carbine in Sicily. They wanted section leaders to carry the carbine. Out on patrol I decided I’d rather have an M1 rifle. When you shoot someone with a carbine they don’t fall as fast. Makes a lot of difference, a lot of impact.”
“Biggest reason an M1 would quit working was a dirty chamber,” Ehlers says.
In Normandy he returned fire after a bullet grazed his helmet. The spent case stuck in the rifle. Wet ammunition, sand and saltwater had fouled the chamber.
“The chamber has to be cleaned frequently; it can get corroded, and you have to clean the barrel once in a while, too,” Ehlers says. “To me it was just an excellent weapon. They pretty much took care of themselves. Not much you can do to hurt it. Maybe run over it with a tank. Some guys put notches in them.”
Few parts were swapped between rifles during cleaning in his experience. He opens the butt trap and chuckles at the sight of the empty space.
“No tools, you’re in deep trouble,” he says.
He has no recollection of lock bar sights loosening, a supposed problem before the rear sight was redesigned. The sights were moved for the occasional long-range target.
“But in combat, you don’t have time for that.” They were trained, he says, to adjust the point of aim if the first shot did not hit.
“They all have a standard target pattern so that when you pick up a rifle, if you have it set exactly to that pattern, then everybody would be shooting the same. The elevation and windage would be just for sniper use. A lot of times we never even sighted; we just shot from the hip. Very seldom counted clicks. All I know is that with the M1 rifle, you can trust it to go where you’re shooting it.”
In Africa a group of Germans walked in plain sight across a valley thinking they were out of range. Ehlers borrowed an ’03 and set the leaf for 1500 yards. He fired. The German rolled down the hill.
“Just a lucky shot I think,” he says.
Perhaps his best shot occurred on the day he earned his Medal of Honor. Covering his retreating troops, he was putting suppression fire on a machine gun. A shot hit him in the ribs, spinning him around, piercing his pack and shovel. He fired at the source as he spun. A German sniper dropped out of the hedgerow, almost in slow motion it seemed to him.
Holding a clip of black-tip armor-piercing ammunition, he says they carried only a few clips for armored vehicles, and used them occasionally. In North Africa, ammunition was scarce, and few would fire out a partial clip without a target.
“If there were a lull in the battle, he would make sure his rifle is fully loaded,” Ehlers says. “That was only if you had time. Usually you’d shoot the clip out if you had a target. We’d put in a new clip, save the loose rounds in a pocket.”
On D-Day they carried an ammo belt with 80 rounds and wore two bandoleers. Soldiers in the First Infantry Division did not use plastic bags on their weapons, though, Ehlers notes, Rangers might have.
An empty clip is ejected. The metallic ping reverberates. Walt’s wife, Dorothy, sticks her head into the room and asks, “ Did you just drop something?”
When asked, Ehlers dismisses the danger of the pinging sound alerting the enemy to a soldier with an empty rifle. “You’ve got a bunch of other men; they don’t all go empty at the same time. There’s always somebody there to be shooting. But it only takes a few seconds to reload it. You’re ready to go again.”
He doesn’t remember serial numbers or if he carried a Springfield or a Winchester. He had too many, starting out with one in training and getting another in England.
“Then when I got wounded, I got another when I got back. Every time I went back I had a new rifle. I probably had at least four different rifles.”
Ehlers was wounded four times but has only three Purple Hearts. The fourth wound was from a careless GI trying to clear a jam. Ehlers still has that bullet in his leg.
CARTOUCHES AND MARKINGS
“I don’t think we even thought about it. I think that most of us knew that we had a gun, and the thing in our mind was how to get out of this war. The only markings we worried about were on the German souvenirs. We wanted to make sure we got a proper German souvenir. You wanted one with the swastika and the eagle. I had a luger, but it got stolen.”
ON WORN AND DAMAGED RIFLES
Few soldiers were stuck with worn-out or damaged rifles. “Across France things were going pretty fast,” he says. “Supply lines usually followed pretty closely. We didn’t fight like the GI in the Pacific because they had mass troops coming at them. The Germans didn’t do that. They made their attacks with half-tracks. The kind of fights we did in Germany were firefights. It was more like fighting Indians. Everybody was taking cover.”
He does not recall them having to fire so fast or heat the barrel to make the linseed oiled stock smoke. “Generally there were casualties and supply came along and picked up the guns. You always had guns; not hard getting replacements.”
ON OTHER GEAR
As far as trying to camouflage shiny gas cylinders: “I don’t think we ever had time for it. I don’t ever remember guys trying to cover them up. I imagine, maybe if you were a sniper.” He, however, was part of an assault troop in hedgerow country. The slings also were all leather, not canvas.
“We trained with the long ones when we first went in. We had the shorter ones overseas. We trained with a lot of antique stuff. We sharpened our own bayonets. They didn’t come that way.”
On June 10, with a whoop, he charged machine gun and mortar positions.
“I had my bayonet fixed. When the Germans saw me, my God, their eyes got big, and they started to take off. Of course, I was as scared as they were. I didn’t know there were eight or 10 of them back there at the time.” He had shot several by the time some of his squad arrived to finish them off.
“The bayonet really made the Germans, well, they didn’t want any part of it. They just started taking off. We yelled halt. They wouldn’t, so we picked them off. A man is more afraid of being stabbed to death than shot.”
ON OTHER WEAPONS
“I compared our rifle to the Enfield and the German rifle. We had the best of the three. The Enfield was the next best. It made the most sense to us. The German burp gun shot about four times faster than our BAR. I remember four or five bullets rushing past my head together. They wasted a lot more bullets with those burp guns."
“In my outfit we were pretty particular about not picking up German weapons because we could recognize the sound of the German guns, especially the burp gun and the German machine gun. We could recognize the difference in the sounds, so we didn’t want to be firing that gun at the Germans when somebody might think we were Germans firing and then Americans would be firing at us.” He also never encountered enemy using an M1 rifle.
Growing up in poverty on a Kansas farm, Ehlers says: “We grew up with guns and knew about the dangers of guns. We also know what they could do for you. We made a living because you had to go out and shoot. On the farm we used to shoot a lot of rabbits, ducks and geese.
“In the service were a lot of people who never had a gun in their hands before. We had guys who point guns at one another, and we knew, we farm boys knew, you never point guns at other people. That’s the first thing they teach you in military service, not to point a gun at somebody unless you’re going to use it.
“In Fort Ord we had a couple guys just came off guard duty and thought they’d unloaded their guns. They were playing like they were attacking one another and one of them pulled the trigger on his gun. It went through the belly of the other and blew him all over the barracks. It was a mess, just because of ignorance.
“I always thought about it. All these people up there on the front lines, all these people behind me firing guns. For God’s sake, I hope they’re firing at the target and not me. You get kinda worried about that. Think about all the faith you have to have.”
ON THE COST OF M1 RIFLES
“They put the fear of God in us when they told us how much these rifles cost to replace if we lost one” he says. “Most of us were pretty careful about our rifles. They said it’ll come out of your paycheck if you lose your rifle. Of course, that wasn’t mentioned in combat. That is their weapon, what they have to depend on to save their own lives when they’re in combat. That’s the most important thing they have. I used to have nightmares about losing my rifle. I always seemed to find it though. I always remember the old guys saying a good soldier is never without his gun. Never knew what they cost. More than a month’s pay for us.”
ON GUN CONTROL
“World War II cost us over 340,000 American lives because of gun control.
“Whoa, what do you mean gun control?” he asks. “All of the countries we fought had gun control and (the people) lost control of their government and they couldn’t do anything about what their government was doing, so we had to go over there and fight because they didn’t have any guns of their own to fight with. The people lost control of their governments. They could not protect themselves, defend against their own government.
“You know why the Japanese never attacked mainland U.S.? Because they knew we all had guns. They would never be safe anywhere. In the United States the people are the government. If we lose control of ourselves, if we turn it all over to them and we have no say about anything, we are in deep trouble.
“Especially if they take our guns away, they know they can just walk all over us anytime they want us to do anything. That’s how those governments (during World War II) got control of those countries and it cost us a lot of lives.”
Back in Normandy 50 years after the invasion, he told those assembled: “We must not forget however, what this freedom cost. We earned that security with our sweat and our blood, some of us with our lives. Much of those who enjoy freedom know little of its price.”
He is currently working on a book of his war years.
Posted 07 June 2009 - 01:20 PM
Posted 07 June 2009 - 10:02 PM
Ditto that m1a, love mine too
Posted 08 June 2009 - 02:04 AM
When's the article from? He's gotta be older than 80 now.
Posted 08 June 2009 - 02:40 AM
When's the article from? He's gotta be older than 80 now.
I did the math--he is 88, or going to be 88 this year.
Posted 08 June 2009 - 06:37 AM
Posted 28 June 2009 - 01:10 AM
thanks a lot for sharing :thumbsup:
Posted 28 June 2009 - 04:52 AM
Posted 03 July 2009 - 06:19 PM
Posted 03 July 2009 - 11:23 PM
Posted 18 July 2009 - 09:47 AM
Posted 21 February 2014 - 02:41 PM
I am sorry to have to report that Walt Ehlers died yesterday, 2/21/14, at the age of 92. He was quite a guy.
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