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Our Rich History: Remembering D-Day 75 years later — and the heroic veterans who landed at Normandy

Part 1 of a continuing series on the 75th anniversary of the closing stages of World War II

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

World War II (1939-1945) was the largest and most deadly war that the world has ever experienced. No one knows exactly how many people died as a consequence of it. Modern statistics place the number at around 80 million dead worldwide, including both military personnel and civilians. Millions more were temporarily or permanently displaced from their homes, surging the world’s refugee population. The future of the free world held tenaciously on, thanks to millions of veterans worldwide who risked their lives. Of these, 16 million Americans served in World War II, of whom over 400,000 died.

Norbert Lankheit with the love of his life, Mildred Barhorst, April 1943. Courtesy of Norb Lankheit and Jeff Cox.

The war began officially with Adolf Hitler’s German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, on September 3, Great Britain and France declared war against Germany. The Germans’ rapid, lightning advance (blitzkrieg, that is, German for “lightning war”) across the European continent swept away Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium during 1940.

Meanwhile, Italy, an Axis ally of Germany, invaded France from the south, while Germany attacked from the north. France fell on June 22, 1940. French General Charles de Gaulle formed a government in exile in London, while the Vichy government of France, led by French General Marshal Pétain, collaborated with Germany. The Soviets, who had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939, overran Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland.

By July 1940, Germany began the Battle of Britain. German airplanes first attacked military and industrial targets. By September, they expanded to civilian targets and to day-and-night bombing of London and other British cities. Called the “Blitz,” the German bombings lasted until May 1941, resulting in the deaths of 40,000 British civilians, and the destruction or damaging of 1 million British homes. The RAF (Royal Air Force) successfully ended the Blitz.

In 1941, Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with the Soviets by invading the USSR. Also in that year, Nazi submarines (“U-boats”) began to fire upon American ships. Finally, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese conducted a surprise and devastating attack against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war against the U.S., and vice versa. Germany and its Axis allies were at full-scale war with the US, Great Britain, and their Allies.

Sgt. Howard W. Engelman. Courtesy of Greg Engelman.

On the home front, the massive economies of the US and Great Britain produced ships, tanks, airplanes, and munitions to fight the war. Millions of women entered the industrial workforce. And millions more, both men and women, enlisted in the armed forces.

By 1943, the tide of war had begun to shift to the Allies. The Axis powers suffered a major defeat at El Alamein in North Africa in October 1942, while the Soviets dealt a major blow to the Germans at Stalingrad (in the Soviet Union) in January-February 1943. In January 1943, Allied leaders met at Casablanca in French Morocco on the African continent. Soviet premier Joseph Stalin absented himself from the meeting to deal with the situation at Stalingrad. At Casablanca, US president Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill decided to invade Italy next, a disappointment to Stalin who had hoped that the Allies would open a western advance across the English Channel into Europe, thereby squeezing the Germans between a two-front war.

In November-December 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in Tehran, Iran for the “Tehran Conference.” There, they agreed to establish a multi-national peacekeeping organization after the war, as well as decided upon a cross-channel invasion of France. In December, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was charged with the planning for the invasion. Its code name was Operation Overlord.

On June 4, 1944, two days before D-Day, US forces entered Rome. The Italian campaign was successful. In the interim, the US Air Force had been conducting heavy bombing raids into Germany itself. The stage was set for the planned Allied invasion of France, opening a western front against Germany that would eventually pinch the Germans between the Americans and Allies on the west and the Soviets on the east.

Pvt. August W. Meier married the love of his life, Ursula Halenkamp, on August 7, 1943 at St. Aloysius Church in Covington. Courtesy of Steve Meier.

On June 6, 1944, the world’s largest amphibious invasion began on the beaches of Normandy in northwestern France. It was called D-Day, quite simply after the military custom for referring to the starting days of operations as “D,” and the days following thereafter as D+1, D+2, and so forth. Eventually, the Allies landed more than 5,000 vessels, 13,000 aircraft, 170,000 vehicles, and a million men at Normandy.

Offshore and on the beaches of Normandy itself, the American, British, and Allied forces faced German mines, snags, barbed wire, bunkers, and heavy artillery fire. Allied paratroopers were landed behind German lines to take out artillery placements. Sadly, the vast majority of the initial wave of Allied troops lost their lives. Once the beaches were taken, the long and arduous task of retaking the countryside, consisting of marshes, farms and thick hedges, proceeded apace. The Allied forces literally faced German snipers hedge-by-hedge, and fought the battle street-by-street in the towns and cities.

Many brave young men from Northern Kentucky were veterans of D-Day. Some were sailors, working aboard the LSTs. An LST, or tank landing ship, was a large ship with a bow that opened to enable tanks and military vehicles to disembark directly on beaches without wharves.

One of the Northern Kentucky heroes of D-Day was Norbert “Norb” Frank Lankheit, a jeweler. The son of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Lankheit of 824 Perry Street in Covington, Kentucky, he served on the USS Rich, a destroyer escort built in 1943. The USS Rich and its crew were assigned as an escort to the USS Nevada, a battleship, in the invasion of Normandy. On June 8, 1944, responding to a call to assist the USS Glennon, a destroyer that had struck an underwater mine, the USS Rich itself struck three mines and sunk. Of its 215 crew members, 89 died, including Norbert, who was engaged to be married to Mildred Barhorst. Mildred was devastated by the news that the love of her life was missing. She never married. In 2012, when the Lankheit family planned a memorial ceremony for Norb, 93-year-old Mildred attended. Norb received a Purple Heart posthumously, and the family, a flag that flew over the White House (Cindy Schroeder, “After 68 Years, Lost Sailor Honored,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 7, 2012, p. 2).

“Bird’s-eye view of landing craft, barrage balloons, and allied troops landing in Normandy, France on D-Day.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On D+6 (6 days after D-Day), Sergeant Howard J. Engelman, son of Oscar and Mary Engelman of 230 West 12th Street in Newport, Kentucky, arrived at Normandy. A member of the Ninth Air Force, Engelman served as ordnance chief of the P-47 Thunderbolt squadron of the 365th Fighter Group. Asked by a correspondent whether “he had gotten wet coming over, Sgt. Engelman replied: ‘Wet, why I had to drive a jeep in water up to my neck after we disembarked from the LST.’ ” (“Plenty Wet. Newport Ordnance Chief Drives Jeep in Water Neck Deep,” Kentucky Post, August 10, 1944, p. 4). Engelman also had dents on his helmet from flak received from anti-aircraft guns. The same correspondent reported that Howard “lives in a neat fox-hole in an apple orchard in Normandy. He is ready at moments [sic] notice to supply bombs and ammunition so that the work of the squadron in aiding and supporting the ground troops can continue.” Sgt. Engelman returned home safely to Northern Kentucky after the war, wherein the early 1950s he bought a house at 814 Perry Street, only doors from the Lankheits. He died in 1994.

Another jeweler who served in the Normandy invasion is my uncle, August W. “Gus” Meier, now in his late 90s. The son of August and Katherine Meier of 615 Pike Street in Covington, Gus enlisted in the army in November 1942. He served in the 29th Infantry Division and was stationed in England for about a year before D-Day. Gus landed on Normandy beach on D+6 and distinctly remembers the bodies of dead soldiers in the water and on the beach and those of paratroopers in the trees. Meier received a concussion from a bomb that landed near him at Saint Lo in France. He was flown to England for medical treatment and received a Purple Heart. After the war, Gus returned home to his job at Motch Jewelers in Covington. He became the manager at Motch’s and a well-known Northern Kentucky businessman.

Seventy-five years have passed. D-Day will live in world history. To the heroic veterans who landed at Normandy, the world is forever indebted. The editors of the Kentucky Post already realized the vast significance of D-Day in an editorial the following day, “Back here on the home front of northern Kentucky, prayers for the success of the battle of liberation are being said in all the churches. All of us are going about our daily tasks with an air of sober seriousness, for over there are loved ones engaged in the very fight for freedom—the greatest military undertaking in the history of the world” (We Have Beachheads, Too, to Win,” Kentucky Post, June 7, 1944, p. 4).

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, Ph.D. is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

See pictures of D-Day at the Library of Congress.

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