By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org June 5, 2014 8:46PM
Some Fox Valley veterans we spoke with in 1994 can no longer can speak for themselves. Here are their stories about the D-Day invasion:
Like the paratroopers, the Special Forces-like Second Battalion of U.S. Army Rangers were called on to show special heroism on D-Day. Three were from the Fox Valley — Neal Berke and Jerry Reagan of Dundee Township and Owen L. “Brownie” Brown of Aurora.
“The training was everything. They worked us night and day,” Brown said in 1994. “Every Ranger was a volunteer and you had to measure up or they would throw you out.”
Part of the battalion, which included Reagan, used mountaineering techniques to storm a cliff atop which the Germans had mounted artillery. Sixty percent of the men in the attack were killed or wounded during the first hours of the invasion.
Others, including Berke and Brown, landed on Omaha Beach. Berke’s job was to be a motorcycle messenger. Until the beachhead had been expanded enough to send messages, Brown recalled, “Neal had the toughest job of all. He had to go around and find all the Rangers who had been killed and identify the bodies. Our battalion started with 500 men. Three days later we had only 154.”
Reagan went on to become manager of the Milk Pail and Anvil Club restaurants in East Dundee. He later moved to Georgia.
Berke became an East Dundee Village Board member but was just 56 when he died of a heart attack in 1982. His wife, Joyce, would host reunions of the Second Battalion at her home in East Dundee every June after that, often drawing 30 couples from all over the Midwest. Brown died in 1999. And when Joyce Berke too died in 2005, the reunions died with her, according to the Berkes’ daughter, Karla.
Chuck Kincaid of Elgin had taken ROTC in college and by D-Day was a second lieutenant, acting as the liaison between infantry and a battery of 105mm artillery guns. When he finally reached shore after midnight on the night of June 6, he found Omaha Beach to be like a scene from hell. Corpses and pieces of corpses were being lined up and catalogued on the beach while divers searched underwater for more dead men.
When the enemy counterattacked at one point later in the Normandy campaign, Chase’s battery set their shells’ fuses at “zero,” to blow up almost as soon as they left the gun barrel.
Hit several times by shrapnel, Kincaid said, he would be picking pieces of metal out of his skin for years. But he refused to leave the front line because his buddies needed him alongside them.
After the war Kincaid married his longtime sweetheart and became a chemical engineer. He died in 2010 at the age of 92.
Former infantryman Ed Fox of Elgin recalled becoming seasick on the boat ride to Utah Beach. When a nearby landing craft was hit, their own boat’s crewman forced them to get off too early and Fox plunged down into deep water. Finally, he inflated his “Mae West” life preserver and floundered to shore. One-seventh of his regiment would be dead or wounded by nightfall.
Fox’s most vivid memory about D-Day was the D Ration chocolate bar that he pulled out and chewed on whenever things got especially tough. His military career lasted 25 more days until he heard an incoming artillery shell click and felt a blast of heat from its explosion. He woke up nine days later in a hospital. He would be paralyzed for four months. But he returned to a 30-year career with the Addressograph-Multigraph Co. and lived until 1995, when he died at the age of 69.
An “old man” by the standards of World War II G.I.s, Lyle Turner of Elgin had been past draft age but volunteered for the Army when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. By D-Day he was a 37-year-old military policeman, twice the age of the 18-year-old Art Miller. Turner’s assignment was to guard German prisoners on Omaha Beach.
Later, he said, German POWs came in two very different types: hardcore S.S. Nazis and weary ordinary soldiers who were overjoyed to have gotten out alive from the war. Turner recalled how once he and other guards had tricked some arrogant S.S. prisoners into falling into a trench other prisoners had been using as the latrine.
Turner became an insurance adjuster. He died at age 88, just five months after we interviewed him in 1994.
Elgin Realtor Jim Chase said he had found his 28 days of war too painful to talk about. But when the 50th anniversary of D-Day rolled around, he agreed to tell it all, in an Elgin Area Historical Society program and a Courier-News interview, and then to stay silent again.
An intelligent guy with the rank of major, Chase told with pride how he had manned one of the world’s first working computers. He had kept an article from a 1944 Look magazine which explained how this “electronic brain” helped his outfit’s gun hit enemy planes zipping by at six miles a minute, three miles up.
Unable to land as scheduled on June 6 because of enemy resistance, Chase finally persuaded the driver of a “rhino ferry” to move his battery to shore on June 7. When an LST then pulled into the anchored landing platform where Chase’s LST had been supposed to unload, it hit a German mine and sank.
When Chase told how an exploding landmine 28 days after D-Day flipped his Jeep in the air, breaking his back in three places and killing the two guys alongside him, you could see it nearly killed him half a century later just to think about it. He would spend the next 18 months in hospitals.
Chase died in 2006 at age 87.
Why they fought
One person we interviewed in 1994, Robert LeRoy of Elgin, didn’t fight in the Normandy invasion. But his life provided an object lesson in why those men had to fight.
A native of Nazi-allied Hungary, LeRoy had been arrested for the crime of being Jewish in Hitler’s new Europe. Half his family had been killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Robert, just a teenager, had been sent to a labor camp near the German city of Leipzig.
When word came of the D-Day invasion, the S.S. men guarding his camp had an idea about how to buck up morale in Leipzig. They trucked him and 500 other Jewish inmates to the city’s town square and forced them to spend June 7, 1944 digging up cobblestones, then putting them back.
The guards ended the day by picking out five of the Jews and beating them to death with their own shovels. All the while, LeRoy said, German civilians watched on, listening to a band play march music and eating picnic lunches as if they were enjoying a pleasant day at the zoo.
LeRoy would immigrate to Elgin after the war, become a prosperous building contractor and give many talks about the Holocaust. He died in 2005 at the age of 80.