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Soldiers' Stories: John G. Burkhalter, part 1


  Former Miami minister Burkhalter landed on Omaha beach  as chaplain for the  "Fighting First."  He penned this letter to his wife Mabel shortly after the invasion.

Capt. John G. Burkhalter poses after World War II displaying ribbons and rank.
(Courtesy photo from  Joseph Giove III)

Dear Mable,

It is mid-afternoon here in France several weeks after D-Day. Shells from heavy artillery are humming overhead and the sounds of shells bursting are coming from all directions in the not-so-far-off distance. The regiment I'm with forms part of the front line.

I entered France on D-Day with the "Fighting First Division."  This Division has well-trained, courageous and experienced men. 

Our officers are of the highest order, men of great courage and experience who are war-wise and have seen a lot of battle.

The First Division was the first to enter France in World War I and first to enter France in this war; they were the assault troops in the American sector on D-Day. There are not many close-up photographs of the First Division on D-Day because the beach was too hot for photography in those early morning hours. Picture-taking was better in the days that followed.

When my part of the Division landed, there were impressions made on my mind that will never leave it. Just before landing we could see heavy artillery shells bursting all up and down the beach at the water's edge under well directed fire. As I stood in line waiting to get off the LCI to a smaller craft to go into shore, I was looking toward land and saw a large shell fall right on a landing craft full of men. I had been praying quite a bit through the night as we approached the French coast but now I began praying more earnestly than ever. Danger was everywhere; death was not far off. I knew that God alone is the maker and preserver of life, who loves to hear and answer prayer. We finally landed and our assault craft was miraculously spared, for we landed with no shells hitting our boat.

Ernie Pyle came ashore the morning after the assault and after seeing the results of what took place the day before he wrote, "Now that it's all over, it seems to me a pure miracle we ever took the beach at all."

The enemy had a long time to fix up the beach. The beach was covered with large pebbles to prevent tank movements, and mines were everywhere. The enemy was well dug in and had set up well prepared positions for machine guns and had well chosen places for sniping. 

Everything was to their advantage and to our disadvantage, except one thing, the righteous cause for which we are fighting - liberation and freedom.  

"As we filed by those awful scenes going up the hill, I prayed hard for those suffering men," wrote Chaplain Burkhalter.  Here, he checks the  identification of a dead German soldier and administers a blessing ahead of the burial squads.  
 (Courtesy photo from Joseph Giove III)

For the moment our advantage was in the abstract and theirs was in the concrete.

The beach was spotted with dead and wounded men. I passed one man whose foot had been blown completely off. Another soldier lying close by was suffering from several injuries; his foot was ripped and distorted until it didn't look much like a foot. Another I passed was lying very still, flat on his back, covered in blood. Bodies of injured men all around. Sad and horrible sights were plentiful.

In a recent write-up it is said of one of the colonels of the First Division that led his regiment in on the beach during the early morning, "This blue-eyed soldier had stood on the beach where thousands of men were pinned down by enemy fire, and in a quiet drawl said, 'Gentlemen, we are being killed here on the beaches; let's move inland and be killed there.'"

In from the beach were high hills which we had to climb. We crawled most of the way up. As we filed by those awful scenes going up the hill and moving inland, I prayed hard for those suffering men, scattered here and there and seemingly everywhere.

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John G. Burkhalter, part 1


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