(This is the conclusion of a two-part story on World War II veteran Richard Fahey.)
The carnage Capt. Richard Fahey witnessed on D-Day seemed like something from a horrible dream.
Nearly everywhere the doctor looked an American soldier was lying on the sand either dead or wounded.
Several hours into the invasion most medical personnel were still offshore, their landing crafts tangled in a web of obstacles and burning debris.
With practically no medical supplies on the beach Fahey could do little to help the wounded except move them away from the open killing ground.
Ignoring the exploding shells and devastating machine gun fire, Fahey hurried all around Omaha Beach pulling bloodied soldiers to safety.
Some suffered minor wounds that would require little more than basic medical attention. Others were much more serious. Missing limbs, horrible stomach wounds, and severe head injuries were among the worst.
Time and again, Fahey would reach a soldier only to find that he was too late. The death of one particular officer still remained a vivid memory decades later.
“(I placed) my hand into the gash in his back,” said Fahey. “A shell fragment had fractured his spine. He was a Regular Army officer and had been at Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese attack. He had come a long way to die.”
Back and forth, from the relative safe locations where he moved the wounded to the wide-open spaces in full view of German gunners, Fahey traversed the beach looking to save anyone he could.
The bodies were mounting and the blood covering Fahey’s hands and clothes thickened with each passing hour.
Through all the horror Fahey saw firsthand the sheer randomness of life and death on a battlefield. A mortar shell exploded between him and a soldier standing less than 10 feet away.
The result of the explosion left him horrified.
“I saw a guy standing right there when there was an explosion,” said Fahey. “I was still alive and he was still standing there dead. The explosion went right through his mouth and blew out his lungs. He died standing up. I didn’t have a scratch.”
On and on it went – more explosions, more blood and more death.
A landing craft just a few feet from shore was struck by a German artillery shell and burst into flames. A fellow soldier told Fahey it was loaded with comrades from the 60th Medical Battalion.
“I saw it burning on the beach to a shell,” said Fahey. “I was told it carried 100 men, some of whom were from our medical battalion.”
Fahey also heard that his commanding officer, Col. Bernard E. Bullock, had been wounded.
“(He was) a rugged Texan we all liked,” said Fahey. “I never saw him again. He died, shot through the helmet.”
It was around this same time that Fahey very nearly became a casualty himself. The usually clear thinking levelheaded doctor temporarily lost control of his senses and closed himself off from the surrounding nightmare.
Fahey calmly walked into the middle of the beach, sat down only a few feet away from a German gun emplacement and began to eat his K-rations.
“There was a great deal of confusion and my timing of many events are not precise,” said Fahey. “I remember sitting down in the wide open spaces and opening my K rations. I had developed a state of battle shock and did not give a damn.”
The Germans peered down the slope at Fahey and, despite having an easy shot, never once fired at him. It is the most obvious example, Fahey insists, of the Germans’ refusal to shoot medical personnel.
“I had the red cross on my arms and helmet and they wouldn’t shoot,” said Fahey.
As the battle raged all around Fahey, an American half-track armed with a heavy gun pulled within a few feet of the Germans and destroyed the concrete emplacement.
The furious firefight and explosion apparently brought Fahey back to his senses and he quickly returned to aiding the wounded.
The tide turns
Fahey met up with three other soldiers from his battalion – Sgt. Walter Braasch, Sgt. Warren Dieter and Corp. Garner – and the foursome stayed close together for the remainder of the battle.
They watched as specially trained soldiers waded into the water, placed explosives on obstacles, and ran back to shore before detonating them. The group was able to destroy enough obstacles that the wounded were finally evacuated off the beach around noon.
As the numerous obstacles were methodically destroyed, more landing craft made it to shore with their valuable cargo of men and material.
By the end of the day the Americans, battered and bloodied, had secured a tenuous foothold on the beach. The battle wasn’t finished but now it was only a matter of time before the weight of Allied firepower crushed the remaining defenders.
Through the long night following D-Day, Fahey laid down in a slit trench with Braasch laying down in one nearby.
“We talked to each other all night long while some German up in the tunnel in the hill continuously kept bullets whistling past us,” said Fahey. “I can remember Sgt. Braasch sticking his helmet out of the edge of the trench and telling me ‘watch this’ as he drew fire from that German.”
The light of dawn brought little solace to Fahey and his buddies. Shortly after the dark night lifted the men heard the cries of a wounded American soldier.
The soldier was lying on the side of a steep slope, moaning in pain and calling out for help.
As Fahey, Braasch, Dieter and Garner quickly moved up the hill toward the soldier they soon realized the area was rigged with anti-personnel mines.
The slope was covered with coarse gravel and one wrong step could send a gravel stone tumbling into one of numerous cans filled with explosives.
“Man comes up with ingenious ways of killing each other,” said Fahey. “We spend a lot of time thinking about the best ways to do it.”
As Fahey carefully made his way up the deadly slope he saw the result one misstep could bring.
“I looked across this bomb field and could see four dead medics spread out around a stretcher,” said Fahey. “They were apparently carrying one of our wounded.”
Once the group found the wounded soldier they looked to Fahey for guidance. They asked if they should carry the stretcher up the hill toward the Germans or back down the heavily-mined slope.
“Those soldiers with me made me feel so humble, looking to me for leadership,” said Fahey. “Trying to pretend I knew what I was doing I told them, ‘take him up the hill. We are closer to the top and there is a worn path along the top of the plateau that we can follow and we will be able to see where we are stepping.’”
Fahey and the men struggled to carry the wounded soldier to the top of the slope.
“I never did a great deal of stretcher carrying during training,” said Fahey. “The enlisted medics did that. I supervised. Now I found out that this was a hard job. The loaded stretcher gets heavy.”
After reaching the plateau, the group moved along the ridge until reaching a valley that would lead them back to the beach.
By now the firing had just about stopped and Fahey and his men were surprised to come face-to-face with the enemy.
“We suddenly found ourselves in the valley carrying the stretcher bravely right into the midst of hundreds of Germans who had come out in the open to surrender,” said Fahey. “We felt very uneasy as they parted their crowd to let us walk through them. But, of course, we gave them no indication of our fear.”
With the Germans surrendering in droves the fight for the beach seemed just about finished.
But there was just one more surprise remaining for Fahey – courtesy of the Luftwaffe – before all the shooting was done.
“We had returned to the beach when suddenly we heard the oncoming rush of a German bomber and we all fell down flattening out on the sand,” said Fahey. “That was the first German plane we had seen since the landing. When it passed us it unloaded a series of about six bombs in rapid succession onto the sand.
“I turned over and said to Sgt. Braasch, ‘did you see that?’”
“‘Did I see it?’ he responded. ‘I turned over on my back and I could see every bolt on the undercarriage of that plane!’”
After picking themselves up off the sand, the group finally reached the medics on the beach who quickly loaded the wounded soldier onto a ship.
By the afternoon of June 7 the Americans had secured Omaha Beach. Tens of thousands of troops were now pouring ashore unopposed. The push inland was underway.
After everything Fahey had endured during the 36 hours of fighting on the beach he emerged unscathed. That good fortune was about to change in a painful way.
While running from one medical station to another the doctor lost his balance and fell to the ground.
“A heavy gauge wire went clean through my palm and stuck out the back of my hand,” said Fahey. “Before I could continue running I had to close my eyes and pull my hand back to the get the wire out.
“I treated it myself since being a medical officer I was the court of last appeal under such circumstances.”
But the hand injury was simply a minor inconvenience when compared to the sacrifices made by thousands of other soldiers.
“I remember moving the wounded into this one place,” said Fahey. “They had dug a hole as big as (my parlor). It was full of dead bodies. There was an outfit that would come along and take one of your dog tags off and record that they got it out of that hole. That way they knew where you were buried.”
For the next three days Fahey worked around the clock as the officer in charge of the “Shock and Wounded” tent manned by his clearing company.
Fahey prepared the wounded – both American and German – for surgery and attempted to bring them out of shock. He also assisted in a number of surgeries.
“I did not go to sleep for 72 hours,” said Fahey. “I was young then and did not mind. I did all I could.”
During his time caring for the wounded Fahey saw countless examples of American soldiers displaying courage, sacrifice and commitment to duty.
One wounded lieutenant had a part of his helmet lodged into his forehead after being struck with shrapnel. His only concern was the men he left behind.
Another soldier had his foot destroyed when he stepped on a mine. When the medics arrived he calmly waved them away and told them to care for the other men wounded in the blast.
It wasn’t until Saturday, June 10, 1944 that Fahey was able to find time to write his wife and family a letter. His words dramatically capture one of the most historical battles in U.S. history.
“Went through a hell on earth, trapped on a beach under shelling and machine gun fire, and snipers for 36 hours. Every last medic in our outfit again and again went out and helped the wounded, got them into holes, trenches, places of safety, with shrapnel shell bursting every 1/10th of a second within ten feet … of them. We came out with very few medical casualties but I believe firmly that it was a miracle by God, because when he looked down and saw each of them fellows who were heroes again and again he spared them.
… Don’t worry, if I lived through those first five days the rest is nothing. Get me a place at the first American Legion Convention … Loving you all and don’t worry. It looks like the sky is clear again.”
The war in Europe was still far from finished after D-Day. It would take nearly another year of struggle and tens of thousands of American lives before the Germans’ ultimate defeat.
The carnage in the Pacific would be even worse during the next 14 months as places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa loomed on the horizon.
But Fahey’s words still rang true on that early June day along the coast of France. While rumbles of thunder might still echo throughout the world, the sky was indeed beginning to clear.