Museum honors surviving D-Day vets

Jun. 07, 2014 @ 04:09 PM

There are only a few left alive who, 70 years ago, braved certain death on a beach in a foreign land.

D-Day was a brilliant military tactic and an enormous risk.

“To me, no other event will ever eclipse what was accomplished that day,” Jerry Kocsis said. He stood in a room in the Museum of the Waxhaws that was filled floor to ceiling with World War II memorabilia. Around him, WWII veterans described to transfixed listeners the day that turned the tides of a world-encompassing conflict.

Saturday was spent thanking the soldiers who were willing to sacrifice everything on arguably the most famous day in military history. Veterans from all wars gathered at the museum. Young and old shook veterans’ hands and thanked them for their service.

Kocsis was just a child when his two uncles shipped off to Europe. A scrapbook he had on display at Saturday’s even featured several photos of him with the uncle who participated in the taking of Normandy.

But his interest spans all of the war. Kocsis provided his collection of memorabilia for Saturday’s event, including models of land-, air- and sea-craft used by the Allies.

Local historian Jack Clay provided pieces from his extensive collection of items related to Camp Sutton, the army training camp opened in Monroe in 1942. Nearly 20,000 soldiers passed through Sutton before joining the war in Europe and the Pacific.

The term “D-Day” is actually a general term meaning the day of an invasion. But since June 6, 1944, D-Day has become synonymous with the Invasion of Normandy.

Operation Neptune. Omaha, Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword Beach. It was the largest ocean-borne invasion in the world’s history. Almost 7,000 vessels from eight navies carried roughly 160,000 soldiers across the English Channel in a surprise attack. Another 24,000 Allied soldiers parachuted into France early that morning.

When they landed, Allied soldiers fought their way onto beaches riddled with mines, barbed wire and wooden stakes. Anti-tank obstacles, buried mines, traps and fortified gun emplacements made progress up the beach deadly. Thousands of men died within minutes of landing.

But the Allies overrun the relatively weak German defenses. Men, tanks and planes went from there to liberate France and capture Axis forces in Germany.

American soldiers were greeted as heros in France and England. Kocsis flipped though page after page of photographs of his uncle in small French towns.

“When he went over there, the Army put him up in English homes,” Kocsis said. “He lived with a family until the invasion. After the war, that family traveled here twice to visit him. That’s how close they became.”

Veteran Walter Schmidt drove from his home in Lancaster, S.C., to the Waxhaw D-Day event. As the son of two German immigrants, he had a unique perspective of World War II. After losing the Great War, the German people were tasked with paying reparations for the conflict. Adolph Hitler rose to power by promising a better future. While some Germans followed him, others turned away from the Nazi party.

“He was a politician and he offered the people a way out,” Schmidt said. “And in the beginning, he gave them that.”

Schmidt’s family left the county when the government began drafting Germans into mandatory military service.

“My father was a certified carpenter, both in Germany and in the U.S. When he came here, he did work on the military’s glider project,” he said.

Family members back in Germany reported more stringent rationing and restrictions as the war continued.

Technology, transportation and communication took a giant step forward during WWII. Outside the museum, WWII re-enactors staged an Allied camp with its mix of weapons considered high tech at the time and the kind of medical equipment and treatment reminiscent of earlier wars.

Staging encampments and military exercises brings the experience to life, re-enactor John Beasley said.

“The seeds were sown back when I was just a kid. I went to something like this event and learned about World War II,” Beasley said. “That interest grew until I joined others who enjoy doing this too. We’re from all over the state. We come together to talk about history and teach others about it.”