Commemorating the Beginning of the End: On the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, 2 Centre County vets reflect
June marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day – the day 156,000 American, British, and Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Normandy to kick off a bloody battle that eventually led to the Allied liberation of France from Nazi Germany’s control.
For many of us, this pivotal event in world history was something we learned about in school or saw depicted on screen in movies such as Saving Private Ryan. But for a dwindling number of surviving veterans, June 6, 1944, and the ensuing battle represents much more than a date in a history book – it was a firsthand experience and a life-shaping event.
Local veterans Fred Abramson and Ken Spicer were two of the hundreds of thousands of American troops who participated in the Battle of Normandy during the summer of 1944.
Abramson, a State College native who is now 94, enlisted in the Army in 1943, one day before his 18th birthday.
“I had two brothers in the service and they were both overseas. A lot of guys from my class were getting drafted, and I got anxious because I knew I was going to get drafted. So I told my father, ‘Take me up to Altoona, I’m going to enlist,’” he says.
After training at Fort Lee in Virginia, Abramson went to New York to board the Queen Elizabeth, along with 22,000 other troops.
“It was a beautiful ship and the sailing was smooth,” he says. “I landed in Scotland the night before the invasion.”
Abramson was assigned to the 528th Engineer Company, reporting directly to General George S. Patton.
“I got to Normandy about 30 days after the invasion. Before that, I was sent to England when they were forming the Third Army. I originally went in as a tank driver, but General Patton was forming a bridge outfit and they put me in charge of bridges. The Germans were blowing up a lot of bridges on their retreat,” he explains.
In order for the American troops to be able to cross rivers and streams, he says, “Patton originated this bridge, the Bailey Bridge; my job was installing the pins to hold it together. I did that clear up to the end of the war.”
Spicer, 99, was working on his father’s farm on Buffalo Run Road in Bellefonte when he was drafted into the Army in 1941. He trained at Camp Croft in South Carolina and at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where he married his wife, Mary, on Christmas day.
“From there I was sent to Arizona. My wife bummed a ride to Arizona with two officers’ wives, so I got to see her pretty often,” he says.
Like Abramson, Spicer also spent D-Day in the United Kingdom, although his travels across the Atlantic were not as smooth as Abramson’s.
“The boat ride over was rough. We left from Canada and it took us 15 days to cross. It was cold and the water was so rough, everybody was vomiting. I couldn’t eat,” he says. “When we landed, we went to Ireland. I remember being in an Irish field when [General Dwight D.] Eisenhower passed by. He was about 12 feet away in his Jeep. … After that, we went to England.”
According to Jared Frederick, instructor of history at Penn State Altoona and author of the book, Dispatches of D-Day: A People’s History of the Normandy Invasion, this preparation time in the UK was typical.
“Much of England, Ireland, and Scotland had been transformed into a massive mobilization area prior to the invasion,” he explains. “There were hundreds of thousands of Allied combatants and mechanics and staffers and sailors and airmen and people of every conceivable position who were playing an active role in preparation for landing in Europe. It was really a monumental undertaking from a logistical standpoint.”
Like Abramson and Spicer, “The vast majority of American troops arrived in France during the months and weeks after D-Day,” Frederick says. “It took two months for the Allies to get from the Normandy coast to Paris. Today, you can make that in about a three-hour drive. That’s how fierce the opposition was in the French countryside as the Americans were pushing east.”
Abramson recalls his company having to make their way through hedgerows when they landed in France, often with Germans nearby. Once, a young German soldier approached Abramson along the way.
“He came out with his hands up and he handed me his gun. He just didn’t want to fight anymore,” he says.
Spicer remembers arriving in Normandy by boat not long after D-Day, where he had to climb down a rope ladder into the water and wade ashore.
“One of the first things I saw when we landed was a plow being pulled by two steer in a field. We had to get through all the pillboxes Hitler had built there, and then we took a road up through the woods, where we found a store and we filled our packs up with cigarettes,” he says.
As a supply sergeant for Company D of the 121st Infantry, Spicer transported food, clothing, and ammunition behind the troops.
“Most of the time, we used a Jeep and a trailer. In the winter time, we used a Weasel. That’s a Caterpillar tractor, very lightweight,” he says. “One night, I ran into a bomb crater; I dropped over the edge before I saw the hole. It was probably 15 feet high. I went down over that thing, and I thought, ‘How am I going to get out of here?’ The Germans were just ahead of us. … I jerked the Weasel wide open and left her run a little bit, and I headed up the other side. It came out. And I was happy – boy, was I happy!”
Spicer recalls being shot at by German tanks. He earned a Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel, which is still embedded in his back. He recounts seeing poor German families cutting meat from horses that lay dead in the streets, and observing weak prisoners from a concentration camp shuffling along in a line to fetch water. But, he says the harshest thing he experienced was the fighting at the Hürtgen Forest.
“That was the worst battle we had. I saw some horrible sights,” he says.
According to Frederick, “The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest took place in November and into December of 1944. It was very fierce, very deadly fighting in this thick wooded area. In many ways, the Hürtgen Forest set the stage for the Battle of the Bulge.”
The Battle of the Bulge was one of five major campaigns Abramson found himself involved in as his company moved east – and it was certainly the biggest.
“We lost a lieutenant and a sergeant there,” he says. “It was unbearably cold. You had to wear every piece of clothing you had. … That battle was a turning point in the war.”
The Battle of the Bulge took place six months after D-Day and is the largest battle in U.S. history, Frederick explains.
“Between the Americans and the Germans, there were over a million people involved the battle,” he says. “It’s almost Biblical in its scale. The Germans launched a major offensive into a very thick and large wooded area known as the Ardennes, and the Americans were caught off guard. … Supplies hadn’t caught up with them, and some guys still had their summer clothes. It was the worst winter in Europe in 60 years, below freezing temperatures on a nightly basis, and guys were getting trench foot because they didn’t have proper winter shoes. It was a truly miserable experience that they endured.”
When Germany was finally defeated in May of 1945, both Spicer and Abramson were prepared to be sent to the Pacific, but their units were sent home as the war wound down.
“I came back to State College and went to work with my dad. We had an automobile parts yard (Abramson’s Auto Wrecking) my whole life,” Abramson says. “Since I left for the Army about two weeks before I was supposed to graduate, do you know how long it took me to get my diploma? It took me 61 years. Senator [Jake] Corman helped me get it.”
Abramson currently resides in Centre Hall.
“I was very fortunate to get into a good outfit of the military. They took good care of me while I was in,” he says. “If I had to do it again, I probably would.”
Spicer also went to work with his father upon his return, joining his wife in an apartment on Curtin Street. The couple had four children. Spicer eventually took over his father’s farm, which he still owns today.
Spicer says he never felt frightened during his time overseas, and he reflects fondly while looking through old photographs of himself and other fresh-faced young men at basic training. But painful memories still surface.
“My buddy, Ken Bausch, he was a character. He was an officer’s candidate. But he got bumped off over in Okinawa,” he recalls. “I was in the service for a while. I saw a lot. I saw too much.”
D-Day was clearly life-changing for the soldiers who were stationed in Europe at the time, but Frederick says it similarly affected many Americans at home as well.
“D-Day really became this watershed moment in American history, because people realized the event had the potential to change both their country and global society for the better. There was this almost spiritual awakening that people experienced in connection to D-Day,” he says.
For example, Frederick says, "Women and minorities really stepped up and contributed to the war effort on a widespread basis, and they overcame a lot of stereotypes and misassumptions about their abilities to be leaders, to think critically, to run a factory, to run a hospital, so on and so forth. And they very compellingly made the argument that we’re fighting overseas to defeat tyranny and oppression, yet we still have oppression and racism and bigotry here in the United States.”
The significance of women in service support roles during World War II will be highlighted in a temporary exhibit at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg in commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, according to museum director Tyler Gum.
“Being there were more than 350,000 women who served in the war, this is an important story to tell,” he says.
Other temporary exhibits marking the occasion include one focusing on the airborne operations during D-Day, featuring a uniform and other accoutrements worn during the invasion, all belonging to a Pennsylvanian; and an exhibit showcasing riding boots and gloves worn by a motorcycle escort, whose boots were issued on D-Day.
The museum is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
In addition, UEC Theatres 12 in State College will be commemorating the anniversary with special showings of Saving Private Ryan on June 2 and June 5.
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.