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CALABASH—Sixty-five years ago this Saturday, as dawn was breaking over the choppy English Channel, 19-year-old Tom Koester was aboard one of the first U.S. landing crafts to reach Omaha Beach at the start of what has been recorded as the longest day in history.
As they approached at H-hour—6:30 a.m.—at first it was a “picnic,” the Navy veteran said.
When they were 200 yards from shore, however, German machine guns opened up from cliffs overlooking the beach.
He remembers shells and rockets screaming overhead, so hot he could feel them on the back of his neck.
“They’re up high, you’re coming in low, and they’re shooting down at you like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said.
Recalling his role in the first and longest day of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy, France, during World War II, the Brunswick County resident finds it difficult to fathom this June 6 marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
“I didn’t even think I’d live this long, let alone believe it would be 65 years,” said the 84-year-old, who can still fit into his Navy uniform and is known for wearing it to local veterans’ events.
June 6, 1944, “was pretty rough that day,” Koester said.
Although his LCM—Landing Craft Mechanized—was among the first on Easy Red Beach, “it wasn’t planned that way,” Koester said, recalling the Sherman “swimming tanks” that were supposed to have preceded them. But most of the tanks sank and the soldiers aboard them drowned in the channel’s treacherous currents before they could reach shore.
“As far as I know, there was only one tank that survived all the way into the beach,” Koester said.
A motor machinist 3rd class, Koester’s job was keep the 50-foot steel vessel’s engine running as it carried a demolition crew charged with coming in and blowing up German obstacles on the beach. Many of his fellow seamen perished that day. He was one of the survivors, sustaining internal injuries he wouldn’t realize until weeks later.
“I was a kid doing what I was trained to do,” Koester said.
When his crew left England, each had been given a box of K-rations that morning—just one, he said.
“They never told us if we survived the invasion where to go, what to eat, what we were supposed to do,” he said. “They never thought we’d come off the beach.”
The proof of that was Ancon, the U.S. Navy communications ship for the “whole big invasion,” Koester said.
“My signalman signaled the bridge to Ancon,” he said.
What were they supposed to do now? They asked.
“And the signalman on the bridge signaled back,” Koester said. “If I drop dead this minute, this is what he signaled: ‘We don’t know what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to be dead.’
“We lived on the beach for a month,” Koester said. “We ate what we stole off the Army.”
They also bartered for food.
“Our boats had two .50-caliber machine guns on them, and after the first day they were useless because they broke off the beach about 11 o’clock,” Koester recalled. “They let the Army start going inland, and there we are sitting with two .50-caliber machine guns on our boats. We were on the beach, and this Jeep came down and wanted to know if we’d give them the machine guns.
“I says, ‘Well, we’re in a bad position here. We’re going to have to barter.’ I says, ‘We’ll give you the machine gun if you trade us some food.’”
The Army men returned with boxes of 10-in-1 rations “about this big,” said Koester, extending his arms as he sat in his living room off Calabash Road. “That was like a bonanza for us.”
Eventually, the powers that be “figured out what had happened. They eventually took us all back to England,” Koester said.
He downplays his injuries. Because he didn’t bleed, he said he was never bestowed a Purple Heart.
He wound up in Bremerton, Wash., where he was supposed to depart for the South Pacific. But a checkup at Farragut Naval Hospital revealed the extent of Koester’s injuries, and he received a medical discharge instead.
“I wasn’t cut—it was a concussion,” Koester said of his injuries, finally disclosing,“I lost half of my insides.”
He returned to his native Pittsburgh hoping to resume the job he’d had at a steel mill between high school graduation and joining the Navy. But the job wasn’t there.
He tried going back to school but didn’t have the right credits. His blue-collar family had lived through the Depression, and there was no money for college.
“At that time, jobs were scarce—almost like they are right now,” Koester said.
So he took a test to be a postman.
“I took the job for job security,” said Koester, who was hired at an hourly wage of 99 cents.
For the next 35 years, “I carried mail in the hills of Pittsburgh,” he said, adding, “I earned my money. I wasn’t going around in a car. I walked.”
He got married and had two daughters.
In 1994, Koester revisited Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
Of the 25 people in his group, four were veterans.
“The rest of ‘em were historians, and one of the ladies on the tour had a brother that was killed on D-Day,” he recalled. “We all pitched in and got a wreath and presented it up at the main cemetery.”
He met a French historian who took Koester on a daylong tour of Omaha Beach sites, including “clear on top of the hill where the machine guns were shooting down,” he said. “The main part of the defense where the Germans were was right at the beach. Halfway up the hillside, there was a trench that was cut out. They had machine gun nests all in there. They just shot down straight at the troops.”
The beach cemetery where thousands of soldiers are buried is “very humbling when you see it,” Koester said.
Once again, he trod Easy Red Beach where the LCMs had landed a half-century earlier.
“I’d read everything there was to read about [D-Day] and had experienced it,” Koester said. “When you put the two of ‘em together, you find flaws.”
He tried watching “Saving Private Ryan,” Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie about D-Day and the days that followed it.
“I quit because it’s so put on for Hollywood,” Koester said.
“The gruesome part of it you saw right at the beginning,” he said. The movie’s depiction is “about one-tenth of what it was,” he added.
“Saving Private Ryan” shows German obstacles—“mines and everything”—on the beach in subsequent days after June 6, he said.
“It’s unrealistic,” Koester said. “The reason it stuck in my mind is because blowing up the mines on those obstacles—that was our job to go in and blow those up. We knew they were gone the first day.”
When French, English and German citizens at the cemetery learned Koester was among the first on Omaha Beach, “they actually surrounded me for autographs,” he said.
After an hour and a half, Koester’s friend had to come get him.
“I couldn’t get away,” he said, adding, “What would it mean to them?”
Strategically, Koester believes the Allied beach assault could have been handled differently.
“I’ve laid in bed many a time,” he said, pondering how the LCMs could have come up along the beach, then “just turned in and let us shoot the machine guns at [the Germans],” he said. “We had probably 20 boats that survived out of 40, and we had as many machine guns as they did. We could’ve neutralized...but it didn’t happen. Nobody said to do it, but I visualize it could’ve happened.”