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World War II veteran Bob Capes laughs while reminiscing with his daughter Rosemary Monday afternoon in his room at Valley ElderCare Center in Grand Forks. Capes served with the North Dakota National Guard in France during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald

On its 70th anniversary, veterans who were there recount D-Day

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When Bob Capes stepped out of an English movie theater late on June 6, 1944, now known across the world as “D-Day,” he knew something was going on.

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Capes and his fellow members of the 188th Field Artillery Regiment of the North Dakota National Guard could see planes coming and going overhead. They knew that the Allied invasion of the coast of Normandy, France, had begun.

The 188th was supposed to enter France three days after D-Day, but due to inclement weather, they ended up going in June 11. They had been stationed in Barnham, England, just across the English Channel from Normandy.

“You could see Utah Beach from there on a clear day,” Capes said.

Capes, a 1941 graduate of Central High School who grew up in Grand Forks, was one of more than 300,000 Allied troops to storm the French coast as part of Operation Overlord, the code name for the Battle of Normandy.

In military terms, “D-Day” signifies the day an attack, combat mission or operation is meant to begin. Due to the grand scale, danger and importance of the D-Day for Operation Overlord, the term now is used to refer almost exclusively to the initial storming of the beaches by the Allies on June 6, 1944.

For Capes and his fellow World War II veterans and their family members, D-Day marks a day of both sorrow and pride. More than 9,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded as 160,000 stormed a 50-mile stretch of French beaches. However, more than 100,000 Allied troops also began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany.

When the 188th landed at midday June 11 at Utah Beach, the Allies already had secured a line 10 miles inland, and Capes and his unit began to progress through France.

One morning, while Capes was stripped down to the waist and eating breakfast, a shell landed in a nearby creek. The blast severely burned his arms and chest, and he was sent back to England. He recovered in a British hospital for six months before being sent back to France.

Capes was one of 30 members of the 188th to be wounded in World War II. Twelve members of the 188th died during the war.

Capes remained in Europe for another year until after V-E Day, when the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany’s armed forces and the European phase of the war ended. He made it home by Christmas 1945.

Looking back

Seventy years after D-Day, Capes, now 93, sits in his room at Valley Eldercare Center in Grand Forks.

Above his sink mirror hangs an American flag. On the shelves over his dresser are two shadow boxes: one with an American flag folded into a triangle, his picture from the National Guard and his Purple Heart, and another with miscellaneous memorabilia from his service.

In his advanced age, Capes is hard of hearing, has kidney problems and uses a wheelchair to get around. Other than that, he is sharp and full of energy. He cracks jokes and laughs at them: “the girls, they call me Bobby.” He talks about the war and the American Legion and teases his oldest daughter, Rosemary, who came to visit and bring him her homemade ribs, which he loves.

“We’re proud of him and what he went through and that he’s our daddy,” Rosemary said.

Capes is one of just more than a million living American World War II veterans of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II.

He’s also one of only 2,333 in North Dakota, which has the fourth-lowest number of living World War II veterans behind only Alaska, Washington, D.C., and Wyoming.

Memories of D-Day and the rest of World War II live on in numerous photographs, books and museums, but the number of firsthand stories still available diminishes every day. According to statistics provided by the National World War II museum, about 555 American World War II veterans die each day in the U.S.

By 2036, it’s estimated that there will be no living American World War II veteran.

Rosemary Capes knows her father has a wealth of firsthand knowledge about World War II. She tries to write down the war stories he tells, as does her brother, Jim, who has a video call over Skype with his father every Sunday. 

“He won’t be here much longer and the memories will be lost,” Rosemary said.

In addition to speaking with Capes to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Herald collected stories of area readers whose family members served or died during Operation Overlord or the Battle of Normandy. Below are stories of some local heroes.

One of the first

In Kay Peterson’s basement, a brass picture frame with a collage of newspaper clippings and photographs hangs on the wall.

In the top-left corner, there is a photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower addressing a somber-looking group of troops. It is June 5, 1944, the eve of D-Day, and the future president is debriefing a group of Army Rangers on the invasion of France. He tells them it will be a high-casualty mission and that many of them might not make it back.

If you look closely at the photo, you can see the eyes of Harris Holman, Kay Peterson’s father.

Holman, of Hatton, N.D., was one of the first Allied troop members to storm the French coast during D-Day. Using rocket-propelled grappling hooks, the Rangers scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc leading up to the beaches at Normandy. Holman was in charge of a patrol of 12 men, whom he led into the thick of battle.

As expected, there were high casualties the first day. Holman was hit in the knee by shrapnel and managed to take out a machine gun nest and hit a tank before being hit again and going down.

He woke up three days later with significant blood loss. He found himself next to American tanks, which had come in with Gen. George Patton on the eighth day.

“I’m just amazed that they lived through it,” Peterson told the Herald.

Holman’s brother, Rudy, also arrived with the tanks, although the siblings never found out until after the war.

Holman continued to fight his way through Europe. He spent “Christmas in Hell” in 1944 while stuck in the Battle of the Bulge, as he told the Mayville Tribune in 1998. He also liberated a number of death camps throughout Europe.

Holman made it home after the victory in Europe and received a 30-day furlough in summer 1945 before he was to go serve in Japan.

But before he shipped out, the Allies dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in early August, ending the war and Holman’s obligation to fight on the Pacific Front.

Upon hearing the news, Holman married his longtime fiancee, Myrtle. The two had been engaged since before the war and waited until he made it home safely to tie the knot.

For his efforts, Holman was highly decorated, but he told his daughter they were instructed not to talk about the war, or else they would have difficulty finding civilian jobs.

“He didn’t say much of anything after he got out,” Peterson said.

Holman left the war as a sergeant in Patton’s Third Army. A shadow box full of his military bars, stripes and various memorabilia hang in a bedroom in the Peterson house. There are swastika pins he took off Nazi officers, the handkerchief with “Sweetie” inscribed on it that he sent Myrtle during the war, and a bag of sand from the beaches of Normandy.

Holman also had a piece of fabric he took from one of Hitler’s chairs somewhere in Germany, as well as pictures of Nazi death camps he helped liberate. His wife never let him hang the pictures.

“They’re pretty gruesome,” Peterson said.

Peterson’s husband, Jeff, whose father served in the Navy in Japan during World War II, said Holman would wake up screaming from nightmares during his later years. Jeff Peterson said those who served in World War II were invaluable to the history of our country.

“Without World War II and us winning World War II, who knows what would’ve happened to this country,” Jeff said.

“I think the new generation should know some of this,” Kay said.

Harris Holman died at the age of 84 on Dec. 7, 2002, the 57th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day.

 ‘Brave as they come’

Evelyn (Krogstad) Mortenson of Hallock, Minn., was 15 when her older brother, Bert Krogstad, died on D-Day on Omaha Beach.

Now 85, Mortenson had trouble interviewing over the phone, but she emailed the Herald an account of her brother’s involvement in D-Day and her experience hearing of his death on Omaha Beach.

Bert Krogstad was part of the Army’s Signal Corps with the heavy artillery. He was 23 when he landed at Omaha Beach, one of five beach heads used during the invasion of France. His unit was supposed to be part of the third wave of the invasion but ended up as part of the first.

According to a newspaper article submitted by Mortenson, the beach where Krogstad and his company landed “was subject to murderous cross machine gunfire.” Krogstad was hit while still in the water and succumbed after his fifth bullet wound.

News of Krogstad’s death was not immediately available to his family.

“Our family waited for a letter from Bert, as he was a very faithful letter writer,” Mortenson wrote to the Herald. “My dad would go to the post office every day checking for a letter. It wasn’t until weeks later when a telegram arrived with the news.”

Krogstad was originally listed as missing in action, but eventually he was identified and buried at Omaha Beach before his family requested that his body be moved home. The Krogstads held a memorial and burial at their family plot in Kennedy, Minn.

Shortly after Krogstad’s death, his friend from the Army, Julian Greenspan, sent his family photos of Bert shortly after his death. In his letter he wrote, “Bert was a swell fellow, our ‘buddy,’ and as brave as they come. It has been a privilege to have known and served with him.”

Mortenson was able to convey one message about D-Day over the phone.

“I was afraid that it would end up like it did,” she said.

Bert’s death was traumatizing for Mortenson. In her high school newspaper, she wrote of her fond final week with Bert before he went off to war and of the bitterness she felt toward the enemy after hearing of his death. She still has copies of all the newspaper clippings and photographs her family had from the war.

However, some 40 years after Krogstad’s death, Mortenson traveled to Europe and made peace with what happened to her brother.

“My husband and I were able to travel to France in the early ’80s, and we toured Omaha Beach,” Mortenson wrote. “We saw the concrete bunkers still in place, walked the beach and visited the cemetery where so many soldiers are buried. It was hard to imagine the devastation that took place that day. It felt peaceful and sacred as we stood there.”

Special meaning

Richard Shafer, a professor at UND is the son of Lt. Paul Shafer, an anti-aircraft officer in the Army who landed on Omaha Beach as part of the D-Day invasion.

Shafer said his father, who would’ve been 90 this year, always remembered his experience at Normandy as anticlimactic. Paul Shafer, of Moab, Utah, was drafted in 1940 and trained for years, spending at least six months training specifically for landing at Normandy.

When his time finally came a few days into the invasion, the driver of his jeep steered off the landing craft and the vehicle stalled in chest-deep water. While military police yelled for soldiers to clear the beach, Shafer and his crew had to wait for a winch to pull them out of the water. Once ashore, he had trouble finding his unit and hid inside a downed English plane until it had to be towed back to England.

Despite the lack of action Shafer’s father faced during his Normandy landing, Richard still took his son, also named Paul, to Normandy as a high school graduation gift.

“It meant something to me that I named him after his grandfather, and now he’s there on the beach and it’s such a calm and peaceful day,” Richard said. “You wouldn’t know the greatest (military) landing in history was there.”

‘Couldn’t see the sky’

Last June, Mark Brickson, who works for the UND Foundation, spoke about D-Day with his father, Kurt, who was a member of the U.S. Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force.

Mark said his father still remembered the day in vivid detail.

“He truly enjoyed reliving it to a certain extent,” Brickson said.

Kurt, who died this past January, grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and had left his banking job to enlist in the Air Corps after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

As a member of the 479th Fighter Group in the 8th Air Force, Kurt’s job was to assign missions to pilots who flew P-51 Mustangs, including over Omaha Beach. On an average day, Kurt would meet with the pilots each morning at 6 a.m. But on June 6, the alarm bell rang at 4:30 a.m. D-Day had begun.

Mark said his father never saw a sight like that of all the planes flying nonstop over the channel from England to France.

“He said you couldn’t see the sky because of all the white contrails,” Mark said.

The D-Day invasions prevented Kurt from seeing his brother, Cliff, who was in the Army infantry. The brothers had been planning on a reunion, but all passes had been canceled due to the invasion. Cliff landed in France on June 7 and fought through France and Belgium. He was killed on Sept. 14, while liberating Geleen, Netherlands. It was Kurt’s 22nd birthday.

In 2003, Kurt’s squadron held a 60th anniversary reunion of their activation in England.

“My dad and brother and I flew back to England back to the old base, and the old soldiers were honored by the community,” Mark said. “It was just fun to see.”

Mark said it was great to watch his dad reconnect with his friends from the war.

“We walked into Stowmarket and there are all his old buddies sitting in the pub, and then the stories flew,” Mark said. “They could’ve stayed there for three days.”

Call Richie at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1134; or send email to grichie@gfherald.com.

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