Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflecto / The Daily Reflector
Dr. Harold Baumgarten, a veteran of D-Day, shares his experiences having stormed the beaches of Normandy with student veterans on Friday, Oct. 26, 2012.
By Ginger Livingston
Monday, October 29, 2012
East Carolina University’s motto is “To Serve” and that includes the men and women who serve in this nation’s armed forces.
The university officially celebrated its annual Military Appreciation Weekend during Saturday’s football game with Navy, but the days leading up to the game also were filled with events recognizing the contributions of veterans on and off campus.
A number of events centered around Dr. Hal Baumgarten, 87, a retired Jacksonville, Fla., physician who landed on Omaha Beach during D-Day. There were 30 men in his landing craft and he was one of only two who survived, despite suffering five separate injuries during the invasion.
Baumgarten spent Thursday and Friday presenting lectures, meeting with ECU ROTC students and student veterans.
Baumgarten was an adviser for director Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan.”
Just before shipping out from England, Baumgarten drew a Star of David on his field jacket along with the words, “Bronx, N.Y.”
No one knew about the atrocities the Germans were committing against Jews in the concentration camps, he said, but he had seen the news reel footage of “Kristallnacht,” the night in 1938 were Germans attacked synagogues and Jewish-owned stores and buildings. He also had seen that when Germany invaded Denmark, Poland and other countries they made Jews wear the Star of David.
Baumgarten said he wanted the Germans to see he was a Jew, “but I had a M-1 rifle.”
Baumgarten’s unit was off loaded too soon and he found himself neck deep in bloody water.
He made it to the beach and German machine gunners and snipers kept picking off men to the left and right of him. He lost his upper jaw, he had a hole in the roof of his mouth and shrapnel in his head, but he kept shooting and advancing.
He then stepped on a mine-like device that left him with a wound to his left foot. That injury slowed him down and he was straggling behind when machine gunners killed almost every person in the unit he had joined.
By then he was nearly unconscious from blood loss so he gave himself a morphine injection. He woke up hours later, on a pile of dead soldiers. Using a machine gun, he caught the attention of an ambulance crew which transported him back to the beach for evacuation.
It was there that German snipers started killing the wounded and Baumgarten suffered his fifth injury, a bullet to his right knee.
“That wasn’t a serious wound,” he said.
Baumgarten was evacuated back to England on June 11. He made it back to the United States in August. Eventually he underwent 23 surgeries to repair his wounds.
Baumgarten went to college and earned a master’s degree. He also met his wife. They moved to Jacksonville, Fla., and he taught high school biology and chemistry.
The D-Day veteran rarely spoke about his war experiences. Because of his scarring and the subsequent surgeries, he told his wife that he was wounded during combat. When they settled into their beachside home in Florida, his wife noticed he did not like to spend time on the beach.
“I would just see blood in the water,” he said. He woudl not tell her that.
Smelling the fumes of a diesel engine would trigger flashback of being on the landing craft. He had nightmares.
Baumgarten said he now knows he was suffering classic post traumatic stress disorder symptoms. You did not talk about it, he said, because while he was in Army hospitals he saw how soldiers with recognizable symptoms would be escorted by armed guards and locked away like prisoners.
It was during a 1988 trip to the American cemetery in Normandy that Baumgarten started asking himself why he survived when so many did not. He then began to think about the men, their stories.
“I said to my wife that nobody will know who they are and what they did,” he said. He then realized he had to tell their stories. He wrote several books and began speaking to groups across the country.
Baumgarten realized he was especially suited to telling his comrades’ stories because he has a photographic memory. He can recall the name and hometown of every man he served with and during a one-hour meeting with ECU student veterans he shared the names of nearly a dozen soldiers who died on Omaha Beach.
Baumgarten was the keynote speaker at Friday’s fifth annual East Carolina University’s Distinguished Military Service Society induction dinner.
The society was launched four years ago and its fifth class was inducted this weekend, bringing its membership to 30, said Steven Duncan, assistant vice chancellor for administration and finance and director of military programs.
“It honors two things, the belief that the country has advanced itself because people have had the safety and security to pursue their dreams in a secured America,” Duncan said. “It also honors the people who have served to make that happen and the people who have served the educational system that has allowed those people to achieve their dreams.”
This year’s service honorees are James Bearden, Sheldon Downes, Steve Duncan, Kirk Little, Mike Myrick, Richard Neubauer and Walter Pories. Fred Irons and John Reynolds Sr. were honored posthumously. These individuals also were recognized during Saturday’s half-time show, along with representatives from North Carolina’s military bases.
Saturday’s game featured a fly-over by a KC-135R mid-air refueler piloted by Lt. Col. Andy Croom, a 1989 ECU graduate and member of the U.S. Air Force Reserves based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
A Lenoir County native, Croom joined the university’s ROTC program, with the hope of becoming a pilot. When he graduated, he became a navigator and served 10 years before joining the reserves and earning his pilot’s wings.
“I’ve been a season ticket holder for (ECU) football for the past 10, 11 years so I thought (the fly-over) would be fun,” he said.
This devoted ECU fan will not let the fly-over interfere with the game. After landing at Seymour Johnson, Croom plans to jump in his car and return to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I’m supposed to be lifting the fourth quarter, “no quarter” flag. That will be exciting, I’m looking forward to that,” he said.
Also this week, Food Lion employees presented the university with a $100,000 donation to establish doctoral fellowships for Operation Re-Entry North Carolina, an initiative centered on research and projects that help veterans return to civilian life.
It also was announced that a $10,000 donation was given to a military scholarship in College of Allied Health Sciences. The donation by the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association is the second largest the scholarship has received. The scholarship has been awarded to two students so far.
Contact Ginger Livingston at email@example.com or 252-32-9570.
via The Daily Reflector.