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Veteran recalls D-Day invasion

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 12:30 p.m.

At exactly 6:31 a.m. on June 6, 1944, U.S. soldiers began wading through 6-foot waves to reach the beaches of Normandy. Carrying 80 pounds of gear, many drowned as they attempted to dodge a hail of German machine gun fire and round after round of mortar shelling.

On that day, Ernie Lusebrink of North Huntingdon Township was a 21-year-old member of the 29th National Guard, 116th Infantry Regiment, Stonewall Brigade of Virginia. It was the only Guard unit selected to participate in the first wave of Operation Overlord.

Today he will remember his ordeal as he attends the official dedication of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. The monument, including a beach, pool and Overlord Arch, honors those who took part in the invasion.

Lusebrink made it to Omaha Beach. Barely.

'I got hit,' he said.

The first gunshot came on the beach. When he tried to talk to a buddy, Lusebrink found his tongue refused to cooperate.

'A long steel sliver of shrapnel went through my cheek and into my tongue,' he said. 'I pulled it out and kept on going.'

It was important to get off the beach, the commanding officer had told the men of the 116th. Adolph Hitler had ordered his army to set up defensive barriers along the western coast of Europe. Omaha Beach was filled with Belgian gates, 10-foot-high steel-frame structures with antitank mines attached; teller mines, ramps of logs tipped with mines; and hedgehogs, mine-tipped 6-foot-high obstacles of steel. In addition, concrete bunkers, known as pillboxes, shielded German machine gunners and antitank guns. Walls of barbed wire and minefields crisscrossed the beaches.

The Germans laid down an endless stream of gunfire to stave off the advancing Allied forces.

Lusebrink set up his weapon and began firing 60-millimeter mortars at the pillboxes.

'I fired all my ammo. I got hit a second time when I was lying there. The bullet went through two grenades on my belt and hit near my spine. I was numb for 15 to 20 minutes. I was lucky the grenades didn't go off,' he said.

Once Lusebrink was able to walk again, he started heading inland from the beach. Machine gun tracers could be seen blazing like balls of fire through the early dawn. The young western Pennsylvania native ran through a heavy stream of machine gun bullets.

'Our commanding officers told us to keep our gas masks with us,' Lusebrink said. 'They were expecting the Germans to release a gas attack.'

Lusebrink kept his mask, a few of his rations and his gun as he continued inland from Omaha Beach.

'I went up a quarter of a mile to the minefields. I got up to step over one of the riflemen and a mortar shell came right in on his back,' he said.

The rifleman was carrying 13 grenades in his pack.

The resulting blast tossed Lusebrink into the air.

'I couldn't figure out why I couldn't run,' he said. 'The blast only got up through my kneecaps. I had shrapnel all through my knees.'

He kept sliding on his back toward the dreaded beach. Gradually, Lusebrink crawled to the minefield.

'I stayed there all night,' he said. 'The next morning, I was pretty well out of it. I didn't give myself a morphine shot. I was afraid to.'

Eventually, the Germans were successfully routed from the beach. On June 7, Lusebrink heard a couple of GIs inching their way through the minefield.

'I hollered at them and they came up and called out for a stretcher. There were about 15 of us lying up by the minefield. Most of them were dead. There was one guy who lived for about half the night. I could hear him breathing,' he said.

Lusebrink was taken to a hospital in England for surgery on his knees. In July 1944, while recuperating from the first of four knee operations, a man came up to him in the hospital ward and began cursing.

'He said to me, 'I should kill you. You crawled away from me. I couldn't talk. You don't know the feeling when the last guy alive crawls away from you.''

It was the man from the minefield.

Lusebrink remained in the English hospital until October 1944, when he was sent back to the States.

When Operation Overlord was finished, 6,603 American soldiers had been killed on the beaches of Normandy.

Eleven months later, Germany surrendered.

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