Matt Pommer: Reflecting on D-Day before the colors fade
This week, speeches and tributes in Normandy will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
But perhaps a better sense of that day comes from an interview years ago with Milo G. Flaten Jr. He was 19 when he went into Omaha Beach with the first wave of American GIs. A year earlier—June 6, 1943—he graduated from Shorewood High School north of Milwaukee.
Flaten would survive World War II, earn undergraduate and law degrees from UW-Madison, become a prominent attorney, serve on the Madison City Council and retire as a colonel in the Army Reserve. Although a gregarious human, he was reluctant to talk about the Normandy experience. Finally, he began. The water was rough, and some troops in the landing craft were vomiting as they got about 100 yards from the beach, he remembered.
“German tracer bullets began hitting the ramp. There were jumbled orders. I went over the side. I was in over my head. I took a lot of Boy Scout stuff as a boy. I got rid of a lot of stuff—including my helmet. I knew how to swim. A lot of the hillbillies just drowned. The poor devils,” Flaten said.
“We were thrown way off course. The tide comes in very early there. The bodies started floating in, like logs piled high. I had never seen a dead person before. I had never even been to a funeral.”
Flaten and a few other survivors crossed the beach to a 15-foot wide stone road. On the side was a trench and a German concertino wire. By then American smoke covered the beach.
“An old captain—he was 28 or 29—told me to cross the road and blow a hole in the wire. '(Deleted) you.' I told him. 'You're not my officer.' The captain himself crossed the road and blew a hole in the wire.
“He had gone across, I thought. I'd be a helluva lot safer over there, so I crossed the road. We got a bunch of guys together, and we went up the hill past a German concrete pillbox."
On the top of the hill, the Americans sent a semaphore message to a ship off shore.
“We told them we were Americans and to stop the shelling. They sent a message back: 'Give yourselves up to the nearest Americans.'
“We weren't going to get any help there.”
But the Germans came out of the pillbox and surrendered. The GIs tied their hands, and the Germans were sent to the beach.
It was June, and the “days and nights were all mixed up,” Flaten recalled. “It was terrifying. You could hear the Germans eating and talking in the next hedgerow.
“The country reminded me of western Dane County with apple blossoms and Holstein cattle. The cows were bloated in the field and left to decay,” he said.
Flaten said if a GI stepped on an apple, it would sound like a Bouncing Betty—a German mine that would pop up and spray steel shreds.
“Every time anyone stepped on an apple, everyone dropped to the ground. It got worse every day. Little by little, we turned into animals burrowing into the ground.”
In 10 days, Flaten was a squad leader. He quickly became a platoon sergeant.
“You went up fast—if you survived.”
He sadly recalls ordering an older GI to serve as a forward observer. He said the soldier wouldn't go.
“He said he had a child. I told him to get going.” After a long pause, Flaten continued. “He was killed that night. War made us animals.”
Flaten was wounded several times, hospitalized three times and received a Silver Star. In 1994 he was asked if he would go back to France to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
“Reunion? I don't remember anyone. We had so many casualties. We weren't fighting for freedom. We were fighting for survival.”
Time has thinned the ranks of D-Day survivors, but their struggles and heroism continue to be remembered.
Flaten died March 11, 2013, at age 87.
Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at firstname.lastname@example.org.