This article was originally published at Defusing the Nuclear Threat on June 5, 2014. .[Note from June 5, 2019 update by Martin Hellman: My friend and D-Day veteran Bill Kays died on September 9, 2018. One of the best ways we can pay tribute to his memory and his sacrifices is to work toward building a more peaceful world so no one ever has to face the horror that he did on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Today’s Russian-American relations are even worse than when this post was first written five years ago and, as Bill notes below in his letter to President Obama, “Humiliating Germany after the First World War played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power. Humiliating Russia today increases tensions which can lead to confrontation – possibly even a Third World War.” With that update, here’s the original post:]
On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I am devoting this blog to a letter from a D-Day veteran to President Obama. In it, he asked the president to “make a long overdue payment on the debt of gratitude we owe the Russians,” and noted, “I probably owe my life to the Russians’ heroic actions in weakening Nazi Germany prior to our opening the Western Front. … As bad as [the enemy fire trying to repel the landing] was, it would have been far worse if our Russian allies hadn’t kept most of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Imagine how Omaha Beach would have been with two to three times the number of defending Germans!”
This letter was written by my friend and colleague, former Dean of Stanford’s Engineering School Bill Kays, who landed on Omaha Beach in one of the first waves. I’ve included some background information on Bill at the end of this post.
Our nation – indeed the entire world – owes a debt of gratitude to Bill and his comrades-in-arms who bravely waded assure in the early morning hours seventy years ago. But it is typical of Bill that, rather than glorying in our adulation, he wants to share the credit with an overlooked ally.
When Bill sent this letter last December there was hope that President Obama might use today’s D-Day ceremonies as a way to further his attempted “reset” of Russian-American relations. The Ukrainian crisis has made that a non-starter. There is no way the president can say anything nice about the Russians, no matter how true it might be. That is not only sad, but also dangerous for reasons Bill brings out in his letter.
BILL’S LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA
December 10, 2013
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
As a D-Day veteran, I am writing to ask that your commemoration speech at its 70th anniversary next June make a long overdue payment on the debt of gratitude we owe the Russians. I probably owe my life to the Russians’ heroic actions in weakening Nazi Germany prior to our opening the Western Front. It is a mistake to celebrate D-Day as the battle which turned the tide of war without fully recognizing the role the Soviet Union played. It belittles their millions of dead. Stalingrad, Moscow, and Leningrad turned the tide of war every bit as much as D-Day, and did so earlier. I ask that you recognize this important fact in your commemoration speech.
On June 6, 1944, I waded ashore on Omaha Beach as a First Lieutenant of the First Engineer Combat Battalion, First Infantry Division – “The Big Red One.” We had been told that our pre-invasion bombardment would knock out most enemy defenses before our landing craft hit the shore. So my heart sank as we approached the beach and I saw deadly enemy fire, seemingly everywhere. I also saw dead and drowning soldiers, and machine gun fire was bouncing off our boat. It seemed like Hell on Earth, and the 23rd Psalm raced through my head, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
As bad as it was, it would have been far worse if our Russian allies hadn’t kept most of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Imagine how Omaha Beach would have been with two to three times the number of defending Germans! Our invasion might well have failed, and my unit probably would have been mauled as badly as my friends in “E” Company, which suffered a 2/3 casualty rate, half of those dead.
My request to honor the Russians’ sacrifices in no way diminishes the gratitude the world owes my comrades-in-arms who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day, especially those less lucky than I who gave their lives or were grievously wounded. Rather, it is intended to shine a spotlight on similar sacrifices which we too often overlook.
Your 2009 speech on D-Day’s 65th anniversary made a step in the right direction when you noted that the Russians “sustained some of the war’s heaviest casualties on the Eastern Front.” Even though it was just a dozen words out of more than 2,100, Moscow Top News noticed:
Not a single word was said by Sarkozy, Brown or Harper about the decisive role in the victory of the Soviet Union, which took the hardest blows from Hitler’s army and sustained the heaviest casualties … Only U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned the Soviet Union’s contribution to defeating fascism and its horrendous losses at the ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the landings … Full marks to President Obama for bothering to mention the Soviet contribution towards defeating Hitler and his Nazis.
Imagine what would happen if we gave the Russians the full credit they deserve! It could be a small, but important first step toward your goal, expressed in 2009 in Prague, “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Humiliating Germany after the First World War played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power. Humiliating Russia today increases tensions which can lead to confrontation – possibly even a Third World War. Conversely, if your speech at the 70th anniversary commemoration fully recognized Russia’s contribution to the defeat of Nazism, it would open the possibility of a desperately needed “reset” in Russian-American relations.
William M. Kays
BACKGROUND ON BILL
I came to know Bill Kays when he served as Dean of Engineering at Stanford from 1972 to 1984. Whenever I came to his office, there on his wall was that iconic picture of the D-Day landing, taken by Life magazine photographer Robert Capa.
I knew that Bill had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, but only recently did I learn that he is in that picture! He, his radioman (Doyle), and his runner (Fitzwater) are indicated in the marked version of the photo on the next page.
I learned this when I found out that Bill had written a book for his family, based on 123 letters that his mother had saved as he fought his way through Tunisia, Sicily, France, Belgium, and Germany. The book is now available from Amazon, so I bought a copy and learned a lot more about my friend and colleague. The next few pages are excerpts which explain how Bill came to be in that picture, and what he experienced on that momentous day.
Excerpts from Letters From a Soldier, by William M. Kays, pages 167-176
At about H+1 hour (one hour after the initial landing) two companies of the 1st Battalion, to which I was attached, were to land, followed a few minutes later by the remainder of the 1st Battalion. … It was an attack in very great depth, which of course provided little comfort to those [of us] in the first waves. … I was in a boat with the 1st Battalion Headquarters … I found myself standing next to Life magazine photographer, Robert Capa, who had taken my picture the night before [on the troop transport]. …
Suddenly I heard machine-gun fire, very loud. Bullets were bouncing off our boat. … what really caught my eye in that brief instant were men (and the bodies of men) lying on the shingle bank just beyond the water’s edge. In a flash I knew this was the front line. The initial assault had failed!
… we saw men apparently drowning in the water next to us and my radio operator, Doyle, panicked. He was carrying a heavy radio on his back and he and Fitzwater, my runner, took off the radio and decided to carry it between them rather than on Doyle’s back. The ramp dropped and we all rushed out into about two or three feet of water and headed for the beach. [Doyle and Fitzwater, carrying the radio, were right behind me as we went ashore.] … Capa’s pictures seem to show that he must have stopped on the ramp and shot two or three pictures. …
I saw men and bodies … I ran to the right and then headed towards a tank about 50 yards ahead. I don’t recall the noise, but at that moment I saw the splashes of machine gun bullets hitting the water immediately in front of me. …
My overwhelming feeling at the time was that this whole enormous national effort was ending in an incredible disaster. …
At about that time I became aware of little splashes and puffs of black smoke near me every now and then. They were lobbing rifle grenades onto us, probably trying to hit the tank that I was crouching behind. There were apparently a lot of Germans up there somewhere on that bluff and they were shooting with everything they had. … artillery and mortar shells were coming in here and there as they attempted to get at the men on the shingle bank. …[Running to take cover behind another tank just ahead of my previous position] I saw at the water’s edge, a few feet ahead, one of our mine-detector boxes standing perfectly upright … On either side of the box lay a dead soldier, both pitched forward with their faces in the gravel. … [After running another 100 yards,] I saw the beach and all its horror, dead men, wounded men, some mangled by artillery shells, others running out in little teams into the water to rescue men, and also to pull in wheeled carts of ammunition. …
“E” Company … suffered 51 dead and 54 wounded that day (out of 150), but [Lieutenant] Spalding’s boat section [had landed in an unexpected soft spot in the German defenses and] … had only two dead and 8 wounded out of about 30. The other four boat sections of “E” had been decimated by the murderous fire from the enemy E3 strong point to Spalding’s left. “F” Company still further to the left suffered a similar fate. Captain John Finke, CO of “F,” said that all his officers were killed … Finke himself was wounded around noon and at the end of the day the remnants of “F” were commanded by a sergeant.
I believe [Spalding’s salient] was the first significant penetration inland from Omaha Beach; I had been lucky enough to have landed close by. …[Battalion Commander Colonel Ed] Driscoll, while still on the shingle bank, had evidently seen Americans moving up the ravine [following Spalding], and that is why he led us to the spot beside the house foundations. …
Machine gun bullets chipped dust and brick fragments from a foot above our heads in our temporary haven on the left side of the foundation wall, but I don’t recall worrying at all. Driscoll had lost his radio operator and asked to use my radio to contact his companies. … [but my radioman] Doyle jerked the handset out of the radio container and broke a connecting wire, so my radio didn’t work (at least we found later that this was the problem.) …
Soon Driscoll and his staff moved up the bluff and onto the plateau and headed up the road toward Coleville. I followed.
At this point I felt that the battle for the beach was over and that I should think about making contact with Murphy and our “A” Company. It was now apparent that we had landed about 500 yards to the left of where we should have … I got the idiotic idea that I should take off to the right through the hedgerows … I wasn’t thinking very clearly and evidently completely forgot that there was an enemy. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was so traumatized by the beach experience that I apparently thought I was immortal.
The fact is that for the first, and undoubtedly the last time during the war, I had reached a mental state where I was oblivious to bullets and shells. …
The scene below me on the beach was appalling. There was wreckage of boats and vehicles as far as you could see in both directions, and many fires and much smoke. Artillery shells were still coming in and hitting boats. I watched an LCT loaded with anti-aircraft guns turn sideways and come in broadside and hit a mine on one of the beach obstacles. Virtually all of the tanks in the little group where I had landed were still there but were now burning. They were being picked off one by one by anti-tank guns …
Today the Normandy American Cemetery and monument is located at the spot where I was now standing. In fact, the main path from the cemetery to the beach, which is now paved, follows the line of the trail we came up. …
So what had I contributed on D-day? Actually not much. I provided one additional target for the Germans to shoot at, but that was about it. [This was a result of Bill’s have been landed 500 yards from where they should have been, so they could not rendezvous with “A” Company as planned. Also, as noted above, Bill’s radio failed when Battalion Commander Ed Driscoll needed it after losing his own radio operator.]