29th Infantry Division returns to France for 70th anniversary of D-Day

Maj. Gen. Charles Whittington, Commanding General of the 29th Infantry Division, proposes a toast with 29th Infantry Division World War II veterans June 6, 2014 at Omaha Beach. Twenty-seven Soldiers from the Fort Belvoir-based 29th ID returned to France for the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing on D-Day. (Photo by Lt. Col. Tim Donnellan, 29th Infantry Division Public Affairs)

Maj. Gen. Charles Whittington, Commanding General of the 29th Infantry Division, proposes a toast with 29th Infantry Division World War II veterans June 6, 2014 at Omaha Beach. Twenty-seven Soldiers from the Fort Belvoir-based 29th ID returned to France for the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing on D-Day. (Photo by Lt. Col. Tim Donnellan, 29th Infantry Division Public Affairs)

NORMANDY, France – Twenty-seven Soldiers from the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division and the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team travelled to Normandy, France for the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing at Omaha Beach June 6, 2014.

Task Force Normandy, led by the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team from Vicenza, Italy, organized 20 U.S. units, including the 29th ID, to commemorate the event.

The 29th ID was involved in 22 ceremonies, beginning at Omaha Beach, and following the unit’s path through France during World War II. The unit liberated several small towns from German occupation during World War II. The ceremonies included speeches from local dignitaries and Maj. Gen. Charles Whittington, Commanding General of the 29th Infantry Division.

On June 6, 2014, at 6:30 a.m., Whittington proposed a toast to honor the surviving veterans and fallen Soldiers of the 29th ID who began their assault on Omaha Beach exactly 70 years earlier.

“I want to thank all of the veterans here today and let them know that their role will not be forgotten,” Whittington said. “While we can never fully repay you, it is my honor and duty to keep your legacy alive.”

Whittington closed with the same battle cry shouted by the troops during the assault on Omaha: “29, Let’s go!”

More than 156,000 Allied troops, 11,550 aircraft, and 6,900 naval vessels supported the assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day. The 29th ID was fortunate to have eight surviving veterans accompany the unit and re-tell their stories along the way.

One of those veterans, Harold Baumgarten, 89, of Jacksonville Beach, recounted the story of “Bloody Omaha.”

“I landed on this beach in the first wave and I got wounded five times — three times on D-Day and twice on June 7,” said Baumgarten. “I had to stop. I ran out of blood.”

“We had options- stay on the beach and die or surrender the beach to the enemy. Surrender is not a word in the 29th Infantry Division dictionary, so most of us fought wounded.”

More than 800 members of the 116th Infantry Regiment were killed on D-Day.

“I can look out at that beach and tell you where each was lying and I can describe his face, even nowadays,” recalled Baumgarten.

His thoughts about fallen Soldiers was echoed by another survivor, Steven Melnikoff, 94, of Cockeysville, Md.

“They’re the ones that are responsible for guys like me and the rest of the vets you see to get back home.”

“They paid the price. They are the heroes,” said Melnikoff. “We have a lot of people with a lot of ribbons but those guys probably didn’t get a single ribbon. Those are the guys I come back for.”

The 29th Infantry Division Soldiers spent six days in country as color guards and escorts for the veterans. In addition, members of the 29th Division Band traveled to Normandy and performed at various ceremonies.

Another memorable spot on the trip was visiting the town of Saint Lo, home of the Maj. Thomas D. Howie Memorial.

After landing at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, the 29th ID Soldiers’ objective was to liberate Saint Lo, a small town west of Paris, an integral transportation hub for the Germans. Originally, the plan was to arrive in Saint Lo in a little more than a week; however, it took over a month to reach the objective. The most famous officer of this campaign is Maj. Thomas D. Howie, commander of 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, 29th Division.

Howie wanted his battalion to be the first into Saint Lo. He knew this was a tough assignment and the Germans reacted with a counter attack. He telephoned the commanding general to let him know the status of his unit and his last words to the general were, “See you in Saint Lo.” These turned out to be some of his last words in life. He was fatally struck with shrapnel moments later. He died on July 17. Saint Lo was liberated the next say.

To show their respect for their fallen leader, Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion placed Howie’s flag-draped body on the hood of a jeep and he was driven to Saint Lo. He was the first member of the 29th Infantry Division to arrive in Saint Lo. His body was placed on the rubble outside of the town’s church were he was named “the Major of Saint Lo.”

Representatives and veterans of the unit continued to commemorate the anniversary with ceremonies in St. James, St. Jean de Savigny, Isigny, Vierville, La Cambe, and Vire, France.

The trip was not only memorable for veterans but also for the Soldiers who accompanied the 29th ID heroes. Staff Sgt. Brett Albertson, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was chosen to escort veterans throughout the trip.

“Going on this trip has been the highlight of my military career,” said Albertson.