Normandy survivor recounts horror, triumph of D-Day
Dr. Harold Baumgarten, who at age 21 stormed the beach at Normandy, spoke about his experiences during World War II as part of a special tribute to the military on Oct. 24. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)
By Chris Stansbury
ECU Student Affairs
On June 6, 1944, Dr. Harold Baumgarten was one of thousands of American soldiers who landed on the beach at Normandy in World War II. He was wounded five times in 32 hours during the D-Day invasion — three times sustaining life-threatening injuries.
As a survivor of that moment in history, film director Steven Spielberg sought him as a special adviser for the 1998 American film “Saving Private Ryan.”
Oct. 24, the 87-year old Baumgarten visited East Carolina University as part of a special tribute the military. He talked with faculty, staff, students and members of the community and presented a lecture called “Saving Private Ryan: Fact or Fiction.” That film has defined the World War II experience for many too young to recall that global conflict. In Baumgarten’s lecture, he walked through the major scenes in the movie, describing what really happened versus cinematic enhancement.
“The beach scene was horrible….and extremely accurate,” recounted Baumgarten of the opening 30 minutes of the movie. “It was 68 years ago, but it is just as vivid in my mind as if it was yesterday.”
Equally clear are Baumgarten’s memories of dates, sounds, images, names of soldiers, and their stories from Normandy. He said there wasn’t an actual Private James Ryan who had three brothers die on D-Day, but there were tragic stories.
“The town of Bedford, Virginia only had about 3,000 residents in 1944. On that day 21 men died, including two sets of brothers and a bicycle messenger had to deliver all 21 letters to their families on the same day.”
At the end of the movie Tom Hanks’ character (Capt. Miller) is dying and says to Private Ryan (Matt Damon) “Earn this. Earn this.”
Baumgarten said that is part of the reason he would continue to be a spokesman for all his friends and fellow soldiers who died that day. “I won’t forget my buddies. This is the least I can do to keep their memory alive.”
Baumgarten, who was 21 on D-Day, was a private in the 29th Infantry Division, 116th Infantry, B Company.
A total of 4,900 people died that day during the battle at Normandy. More than 2,500 of them died on Omaha Beach where Baumgarten and his fellow soldiers landed.
Before ending his lecture, Baumgarten pointed skyward and said, “The only thing I can say…it just wasn’t my time. I am supposed to make sure our story is told and my buddies are appreciated.”
Baumgarten’s three-day visit to ECU’s campus was sponsored by the Office of Student Transitions, Military Programs, Lifelong Learners Program, the Department of History and the Student Activities Board.
To read a first-person account of what Dr. Baumgarten witnessed and experienced, go to http://www.29infantrydivision.org/WWII-Stories/Baumgarten_Harold.htm.