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This story appeared in the May 29 edition of The Cheshire Herald:
The invasion of Normandy is almost always associated with soldiers landing on the five battlefield beaches that would become the epicenter of the day’s carnage.
D-Day has been depicted in numerous films and recounted in countless documentaries, where the heroism of the men who “stormed the beaches” is recalled in, at times, painful detail.
It was, as many have described it, the longest day.
But the invasion actually began many hours before the first troops hit the beaches that fateful June 6, 1944 morning. It started in the air, as members of the 101st Airborne dropped behind enemy lines with a mission to help clear the way for the allies and keep the enemy from re-enforcing the units at the beaches.
It was a dangerous operation to say the least, and many of those who jumped from planes in the early morning hours of June 6 never even made it to the ground.
One local paratrooper did.
Cpl. Walter Pelcher saw combat for the first time on D-Day and would join the 101st in some of the most iconic and bloody battles of the war. In 1969, 25 years after those events had taken place, The Cheshire’s Herald’s publisher August L. Loeb caught up with Pelcher to discuss his experience. The following is the story that was printed in the June 5, 1969 edition of The Herald:
It was an hour past midnight over Normandy, and the date was June 6. But from Cpl. Walter Pelcher’s reeling C-47 troop carrier, it looked like broad daylight on July 4.
“The flak and tracer bullets were coming at us so thick and fast that it could have been the Fourth of July back home,” said the former paratrooper of the 101st Airborne Division. “The fire from below made our C-47 rock like crazy. I was real scared. The more the plane rocked, the more anxious I was to jump.”
Weighted down with two parachutes, an M-1 rifle, ammo, four grenades, K rations, two canteens, a knife and a 40-foot rope, the 25-year-old paratrooper jumped from 1,500 feet. He landed in a barnyard and was almost stomped to death by horses. But he managed to make his way through the darkness to a bomb crater. Hiding there, he saw cars full of Germans streaking by.
Cpl. Pelcher thus became one of the first Americans to land in Normandy on D-Day, 1944—25 years ago tomorrow. He was luckier than most of his buddies of the 101st Airborne, who drowned in the backwaters of the Merderet and Douve rivers or fell to enemy fire.
Like others in Gen. Maxwell Taylor’s 101st Airborne, getting their first taste of combat, and their fellow paratroopers in the battle-tested 82nd Airborne, Cpl. Pelcher felt very much alone in those first confused moments of the invasion. But after 20 minutes, he gave a pre-arranged signal by pressing a toy cricket once.
“Another fellow heard it and cricked twice,” said Pelcher. “Then I knew I wasn’t alone. We soon wound up with 35 men. Most of them were from my outfit, D Company of the 506th Regiment, but a lieutenant from another regiment turned up and he took command.
“It was 2 a.m. and we were supposed to go to a rendezvous at 2:30 a.m. My company’s mission was to hold three highway bridges to keep enemy reinforcements from coming up the main turnpike to
“We reached the bridges a little after 4:30 a.m. and saw no sign of the enemy. But once we dug in, the Germans opened up from across the river.
“We were supposed to have 500 men to hold the three bridges but, between what was lost, killed, or captured, we had only 150 to 175. We knew the Germans had tanks and, if they came over, we had nothing to hold them off. So we had to fool the Germans into thinking we held the bridges in strength. We did this by returning fire all day long with 30 caliber machine guns, 81 mm mortars and bazookas. We kept changing the positions of our four machine guns and we didn’t lose any of them.
“Dug into fox holes inside the river bank, we felt pretty safe. But the Germans tested us two or three times a day. The bridges were mined in case we couldn’t hold them.
“But late in the afternoon of the third day, we saw the first Allied soldiers and we really cheered. What a feeling!
Back in England, Eisenhower had told us we would be relieved if we could hold out three days, and he kept his word.”
After a three-day rest in a nearby village, Cpl. Pelcher’s division was called in to take the town of Carentan. It fell after after two days of fierce fighting. Then the 101st was ordered back to England.
Three months later, on September 17, Walter Pelcher had his second D-Day, jumping behind enemy lines in Holland. Within a week, the 101st had captured the important Dutch industrial city of Eindhoven.
In December, German Panzer forces had broken through Allied lines in Belgium, and the 101st was ordered to move in by trucks to defend Bastogne. The division was encircled by the enemy for seven days, including Christmas Day. When a surrender demand came from the Germans, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st gave his famous reply: “Nuts!”
Then Gen. George Patton’s 4th Armored Division broke through and rescued the 101st.
After fighting in the Alsace-Lorraine campaign, Pelcher— now a staff sergeant—came back to the United States on a war bond tour of New England. He was welcomed by Connecticut’s Gov. Raymond Baldwin, whom he recalls as “a prince of a fellow.”
The much-decorated veteran of Normandy and Bastogne was mustered out in September 1945.
A resident of Cheshire for the last 18 years, Pelcher is a correction supervisor at the Connecticut Reformatory.
He lives at 190 Jarvis Street with his wife and their two sons.
The invasion of Normandy and the events that stemmed from it are now 70 years old. (Today), numerous ceremonies, attended by the most important heads of state from around the world, will be held to commemorate what took place that fateful morning.
For Cheshire, however, Walter Pelcher offered what we like to call “living history.” He didn’t need a movie or documentary to show him what D-Day was like. He simply had to close his eyes and remember back.
He had lived the battle.