The beaches of Normandy, France, during the D-Day invasion 75 years ago have been called a “killing zone.”
No one perhaps understands that better than Army veteran Glenn Kempf who as a medic during the invasion helped establish the first hospital on Omaha Beach for which he received the French Medal of Honor.
“It was tough,” Kempf told the Tribune-Review before a ceremony Thursday in Pittsburgh. “The Germans were up in pillboxes shooting down on Omaha Beach. There were guys with arms blown off, legs blown off. We took care of the wounded as best we could. We stabilized them and shipped them out.”
Henry Parham, 97, originally from Virginia but now living in Wilkinsburg, was an Army private first class when he landed in the third wave on Omaha Beach as part of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the first African-American unit in the segregated Army to come ashore on D-Day. The 320th flew hydrogen-filled barrage balloons from dusk to dawn to protect the assaulting infantry from being strafed by German planes.
“It was a scary thing. It was hard to take cover,” Parham said. “I served my country, so I’m proud.”
The two decorated survivors of that monumental World War II battle that began on June 6, 1944, were the main focus of a ceremony Thursday at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. The emcee of the event, Vietnam veteran and longtime Pittsburgh broadcast journalist P.J. Maloney, said death was likely on the minds of many that day.
“It was a day when people who were storming the beaches knew that they were going to be put into a situation where death may very well be a welcome relief for whatever else is in store for them,” Maloney said.
More than 150,000 troops from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada stormed the beaches at Normandy on the coast of northwestern France on June 6. Historians have estimated that 4,414 allied soldiers died on D-Day, including 2,501 Americans.
Kempf, 94, grew up in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. He joined the Army immediately after graduating high school in 1943.
“I was only 19, and I grew up in a hurry after seeing what was going on,” Kempf said. “We had a couple of guys who couldn’t handle it, so we had to ship them out.”
Michael Kraus, Soldiers & Sailors’ curator, on Thursday told the story of John J. “Joe” Pinder Jr. from McKees Rocks who received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Pinder joined the Army in 1942 and became a technician, fifth grade. He was killed on D-Day while establishing vital radio communication on Omaha Beach. He had refused treatment after being wounded in order to complete the task.
Marine Corps veteran and Congressman Conor Lamb, D- Mt. Lebanon, told the crowd gathered outside the Oakland hall that Americans remain connected to the soldiers who lost their lives on D-Day.
“On days like today, when we honor them, what I always think of and what we all should think of, is how we can live every day to be worthy of the sacrifices they made for each one of us,” Lamb said.
Read more about the heroics of Western Pennsylvanians during the D-Day invasion here.