The Medical Units at Omaha

We wanted to share one more story from D-Day that came to light during our research.

The basic principles of the medical units were to find a casualty, treat him, remove him from danger and transport him to a secure rear area. At Omaha this was impossible – there was no rear area that wasn’t guarded by German troops. Private First-Class Charles Shay from F Company, who trained here at West Bay, was only 19 years old. “It was difficult for me to witness so much carnage and not be affected emotionally. I had to close my mind … in order that I was effective at doing what I had been trained for.” Shay survived, unlike many of the valiant selfless medics on that day who died, not with guns in their hands, but with bandages and syringes.

These men were in a state of perpetual crisis, dealing with an overwhelming number of casualties, many of whom were suffering from a multiplicity of terrible wounds. Danger and death were everywhere, lives hung in the balance and life-changing decisions became routine. Staff Sergeant Bernard Friedenberg recalled, “I moved on to the next casualty and the next and the next. It seemed endless.”

Responding to a young soldier with a gaping sucking chest wound, Friedenberg wrote, “It was arterial bleeding … I knew he would die if I didn’t get the bleeding under control.” He placed a large compress over the wound and applied pressure. He understood that the man’s only chance for survival depended on maintaining pressure until someone could operate on him and there were no such facilities on Omaha beach. It would take hours to get him relocated. Around him were the cries and screams of others needing attention. What should he do? If he left the man with the chest wound, he would die, if he stayed others would die. Who would live? Who had the greater value? Which parents would never see their son again?

“Who should live and who should die is not a decision a twenty-one-year-old boy should have to make”, he wrote sadly. He gave the man with the chest wound a shot of morphine and moved on to help the others. “For more than fifty years I have wondered if I made the right decision and I know I shall never stop feeling guilty.” In fact, like so many of his combat medic colleagues, Friedenberg suffered from PTSD for decades.

Photo: Bernard I Friedenberg

One thing to remember: Medics carried no weapons. Theoretically, they were protected by the Geneva Convention, but on Omaha beach a German soldier was unlikely to see or register the red cross on the armband and helmet of an enemy soldier from a distance in the confusion of battle. They may have had no weapons, but a medic possessed something far more useful; his ability to offer comfort and a friendly voice to a soldier dying on a French beach.

Remembering the GI’s in West Bay

We were delighted to welcome the 1st Infantry Division Living History Group and dignitaries including a representative of the US Embassy, Dorset’s High Sheriff, Lord Lieutenant and Town Mayor to the West Bay Discovery Centre on Saturday 18th May. They came to visit our exhibition “Warm Beer and Cabbages” as part of Bridport’s weekend of honouring the GIs Just as 75 years ago the arrival of men in uniform and their vehicles generated a lot of interest.

We have been so grateful to the locals who shared with us their treasured childhood memories of the GI’s who became their special friends.

Arthur Watson told us how one morning the GI’s disappeared from their lives without even a goodbye. One moment these soldiers were alive in the beauty of the Dorset countryside and then they were lying dead or injured on the French beaches. The American families did not realise the deep impact their sons and husbands had on the local community and did not inform them what had happened to them.

One of these children, Arthur Watson, told us “seventy-five years on from D-Day I still remember the wonder of the American dream in West Bay. Such a great nation that came to us in our time of need and personified by the selflessness and sacrifice of its individual soldiers.”

Our guided walk by Elizabeth Gale -75 Years on…remembering the Normandy Landings and local connections.

These anniversaries make you stop, think and remember. Without them such great and brave men could easily be forgotten.

The Exhibition “Warm Beer and Cabbages” about the GI’s In West Bay will close on Sunday 23rd June 2019, so there is still a chance to visit us and see it.

Got any gum, chum?

It is hard to imagine the impact that 200 plus fit young men with their strange accents had on the close-knit, war-weary folk of Bridport Harbour, but there are still a number of people, children during the Second World War, who remember the time the GIs were billeted in West Bay from November 1943 to June 1944.

Arthur Watson’s family moved to West Bay in 1939. ‘Got-any-gum, chum?’ on Wednesday 8th May at 7.30pm at the Salt House, is an opportunity to hear some of his childhood memories of life in war-time West Bay; including living alongside the GIs. The audience are invited to ask questions and share their own memories and stories. Tickets are just £3, available from the Discovery Centre, the Tourist Information Office or on the door.

On the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, our special exhibition, ‘Warm Beer and Cabbages’, is running until the last week of June and tells the story of the American Servicemen in the area and the first day on Omaha beach.

Stories from the past – Captain J.W Finke

Captain John G. W. Finke was the Commander of F Company, who were based in West Bay from November 1943 to June 1944, when they left Castletown, Portland for Omaha beach on the Normandy coast.

We were sent this picture of Captain Finke by the 16th Infantry Regiment Association in the USA – and it was great to finally put a face to the name. Whilst still in England in the marshalling area in June 1944, Finke had badly sprained his left ankle, which on the day of the landings was heavily taped. Instead of a rifle, he was clutching a cane. Heading towards the Omaha beach, his landing craft (LCVP) had gone 1,100 yards off course. The plan was that all F Company’s six LCVPs would arrive at the same time, thus providing the enemy more targets than they could deal with, but each was up to 1,100 yards off target and strung out in both position and time. They were supposed to take advantage of dead spots in the German fields of fire, but instead three of the boats were right in the kill zone between German defence nests, WN-62 and WN-61.

When he finally left the landing craft, the water was nearly over Captain Finke’s head and he struggled with his injury to shore. Exhausted, seasick from a two-hour ride and with heavy enemy fire destroying any semblance of an organised assault, the troops were trying to take cover anywhere they could, often behind the defensive obstacles which had teller mines attached to them.

As heavy as the enemy fire was, and as vulnerable as men would be on the move, Finke realised it was worse for them to stay put as stationary targets in the shadow of those teller mines. He therefore walked around whacking people until they moved. John McManus reports in his excellent book, The Dead and Those Dying, “Several times he rapped prone forms to discover they were dead. Other times, he smacked men with is cane several times, got no reaction, and assumed they were dead, only to see their petrified faces, and understand they were too frightened to move.

“Come on, get up, go on!” he yelled, without wielding his cane – then each man could pretend he was talking to someone else. But if he hit a man personally with his cane, there could be no ambiguity – get moving or else – and he was right.”

In this way, he got many of them up and running the several hundred yards to the comparative safety of the shingle bank. By the time he made it there himself he had lost 25 per cent of his command.

In the course of that awful day, Captain Finke would be badly wounded; a compound fracture of the elbow and a broken left tibia. However, with little thought for his own safety, rifle-less and limping on his sprained ankle, he saved many of his men and would, ultimately, survive the war.

Our exhibition entitled, Warm Beer and Cabbages, remembers the time the American Servicemen lived among us in the run-up to D-Day and starts on Good Friday, 19th April to Sunday 23rd June. It commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Landings.

Stories from the past – Sergeant Phil Streczyk

80,000 US troops stayed in Dorset, training for the D-Day landings. 75 years on, our exhibition will remember the time when American soldiers lived among us in West Bay and the day they disappeared. (Friday 19th April to Sunday 23rd June, 2019).
 Sergeant Phil Streczyk was billeted in West Bay from November 1943 to June 1944 en route to the Normandy beaches. He was 25 years old and was in the first wave to be dropped 200 yards out from Omaha beach at 6.30am on 6th June. When rifleman Stanley Dzierga slipped under the water, he pulled the man back to the surface, and when Edwin Piasecki’s 80lb backpack pulled him beneath the waves, he hung on to him and saved him from drowning. On the beach under constant fire, he was described as fearless, “I never saw a man like that in my life. He wasn’t that big of a guy. He just went, did everything and it just seems he was immune to the fire.” Said Dzierga who he had saved from the sea. He went ahead, he pulled and cajoled his men along, taking the risks on their behalf.

Captain Wozenski wrote of the courageous New Jersey native, “If he did not earn a Congressional Medal of Honor, no one did.”

The 25-year-old sergeant did become one of the most decorated NCOs of World War II and it is safe to say that no single individual contributed more to the 1st Division’s success on D-Day that Streczyk did. He continued to fight after D-Day, through Normandy, through the Mons pocket, Aachen and then into the brutal Hurtgen Forest, leading by example every step of the way. In all, he logged 440 days of frontline combat duty and survived many wounds. In one instance a pistol bullet hit him in the base of the neck, yet he refused medical evacuation. Somehow the wound healed, but it left a deep scar. Montgomery pinned the UK Military Medal on his chest on the 7th July 1944 (see picture).

He was evacuated from the front lines with combat fatigue – a grim reminder that even the bravest souls have their limits. He became a builder in Florida, married and had four children, but he missed his men and could not leave the war and D-Day behind. Streczyk was in persistent pain from his physical wounds and at night he was tormented with traumatic battle dreams. 
In 1957, after years of emotional and physical pain, he took his own life.