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May 2008

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To mark Memorial Day and the 64th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, our contributing editor offers an account of his father’s participation, as a sergeant in the 29th Division, in the historic invasion and battles across France and Germany, from the hedgerows of Normandy to the River Elbe. – Ed.

Sixty-four years ago, on June 6, 1944, my father, Frank F. Sempa, was one of thousands of American soldiers on ships in the English Channel waiting his turn to land on Omaha Beach on France’s Normandy coast to participate in the historic invasion of Hitler’s fortress Europe. At the time, he was a sergeant in the 29th Division’s 175th infantry regiment, a part of V Corps which was assigned to reinforce and exploit whatever beachhead had been gained at great cost by the initial D-Day assaults made by the 1st Division and the 116th infantry regiment of the 29th Division. My father’s regiment landed on Omaha Beach on June 7, D-Day +1.

For the next eleven months, my father and his regiment and division fought its way across France and into Germany, reaching the Elbe River by V-E Day, May 8, 1945. There have been several fine accounts written of the 29th Division’s historic journey from D-Day to the end of the war, including Joseph Ewing’s 29 Let’s Go, Joseph Balkoski’s Beyond the Beachhead, Michael Reynolds’ Eagles and Bulldogs in Normandy 1944, Leo Daugherty’s The Battle of the Hedgerows, and John McManus’ The Americans at Normandy. In this article, I will draw on those books and others, but also from the snippets of history gleaned from the numerous letters that my father wrote during the war to his parents (my grandparents) from “Somewhere in France” and “Somewhere in Germany,” an interview he did, shortly after returning home from the war, with the local newspaper, the Scranton Tribune, where he worked for more than forty years as a reporter and editor, an article he wrote for that paper on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the D-Day landings, and my own recollections of the few times that he would talk about some of his war experiences.

Frank F. Sempa was drafted into the army at the age of 24 on April 25, 1941. At the time, he lived with his parents and two brothers in Avoca, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, and worked as a local correspondent for the Scranton Tribune. He subsequently trained at Ft. George G. Meade in Maryland and other forts in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Florida. In October 1942, he and his regiment traveled from New Jersey across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth to Scotland, settling at the old British Army cavalry camp at Tidworth Barracks near Andover and Salisbury. There and at other locations in Great Britain, the 29th Division trained for the long-planned opening of the second front in Europe.

Opening the Second Front

The decision as to where and when to open the second front in Europe was repeatedly debated by President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and their top advisers. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose Russian troops bore the brunt of the fighting in Europe during the first few years of the war, continuously urged the Western leaders to open a second front in Western Europe. The cross-channel invasion had been planned and postponed in earlier years, largely at the urging of Churchill who instead advocated the allied moves into North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. By the spring of 1944, however, the die was cast. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, appointed supreme commander of the cross-channel invasion, decided that D-Day would be in early June.

On D-Day, my father and the other soldiers of the 175th regiment boarded ships at Falmouth and sailed into the rough waters of the English Channel. I recall him telling me how rough the sea was that day, and later how difficult it was to climb down the rope ladders onto the landing craft on the approach to Omaha Beach. It was a lot rougher that day, however, for the American troops who made the initial landings in the face of murderous German machine-gun and artillery fire. Those brave troops suffered tremendous casualties in their effort to establish a secure beachhead. I remember my father telling me later that most of the war’s real heroes never came back; they are buried, he said, under those Crosses and Stars of David at the American Cemetery in Normandy and elsewhere in Europe and the Pacific.

At 11:46 a.m. on June 7, 1944, General Charles Gerhardt ordered Col. Paul Goode, commander of the 175th, to begin landing my father’s regiment on Omaha Beach. “[N]avy motorboats buzzed around the transport ships, as crewmen… shouted over loudspeakers, ‘All elements of the One-seventy-fifth Infantry urgently needed on the beach.’”[1] As my father and his regiment hit the beach, they were under intermittent machine-gun, sniper, and artillery fire. At least two landing crafts struck mines on their way to the beach. Captain Robert M. Miller later commented that the beach “looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno.”[2] The men of the 175th saw the bodies of the American soldiers that were killed the previous day, and many of them were wearing the blue and gray patch of the 29th Division. My father later wrote, “Death was everywhere on Omaha Beach.”[3]

The 175th landed at the Les Moulins draw, about a mile east of where they were supposed to land. Amidst confusion and the “fog of war,” they were ordered to move west and advance inland near the Vierville draw and take the town of Isigny, located at the confluence of the Vire and Aure Rivers. In two days of fighting, the 175th captured Isigny, which served two strategic purposes: first, it enabled the entire 29th Division to advance even though the Germans had flooded the Aure River valley; and second, it facilitated the junction of the Omaha and Utah Beachheads.[4] British military historian Michael Reynolds called the capture of Isigny by the 175th “a remarkable achievement.” “In less than the thirty-six hours after coming ashore on OMAHA beach,” Reynolds explained, “Colonel Paul Goode’s Regiment had advanced 20km and eliminated the German corridor between the OMAHA and UTAH beachheads. In the face of this rapid advance, the entire enemy defensive system north of the Aure valley… collapsed. And the whole operation had been achieved on foot – and with little or no sleep or food.”[5]

Inside Fortress Europe

Six days after landing on Omaha Beach, and four days after the capture of Isigny, my father wrote his first letters from France. He told his brother John that he “was now inside the Fortress of Europe,” and was writing from his foxhole, which he described as his new home. “Have had plenty of experiences to date,” he wrote, “but they will have to wait until later…Can’t write too much as Censorship will not permit it until a later date.” In a separate letter to his parents the same day, my father wrote that he had experienced “plenty of excitement,” and noted that his home was a foxhole.[6]

Three days later, on June 16, my father’s regiment began its attack toward St. Lo, and for two days it steadily advanced. But this was hedgerow country and the Germans began to counterattack. “The fighting,” one historian wrote, “was sickening and desperate.”[7] By June 18, the 29th Division was only five miles from St. Lo, but due to stiffening German resistance and the difficulties of hedgerow fighting, St. Lo would not be captured for another month, “and only then at a cost of some of the most intense and deadly fighting of the war.”[8]

The great British military historian John Keegan has explained that the hedgerows in Normandy were “field boundaries planted by… Celtic farmers 2000 years earlier. Over two millennia their entangled roots had collected earth to form banks as much as ten feet thick.” “To the Germans,” Keegan wrote, “they offered almost impregnable defensive lines at intervals of 100 or 200 yards. To the attacking American infantry they were death traps.”[9] One American general wrote of the hedgerow fighting:

I doubt if anyone who ever ducked bullets and shells in the hedge-rows, waded through the mud on foot, and scrambled over the hedgerows never knowing when he might find himself looking into the muzzle of a German tank gun, will look back on those days with any remembered feeling other than of the deadly un-relenting fatigue and danger. Except when the Germans counter-attacked, there was so little result to show for so much suffering; just a few hedgerows gained, each one just like those already behind and those still to take.[10]

“Whenever the 29ers stormed and won a hedgerow,” writes Balkoski, “there always seemed to be another one 100 yards behind it resolutely defended by the enemy.”[11]

Writing from hedgerow country on June 18 and 19, my father remarked to his parents, “Whoever said ‘war is hell’ was right… If I told you of some of my experiences you’d probably worry so I just won’t.” In early July as the campaign to take St. Lo continued, my father noted in a letter that he’d been trying to write more letters, but “everytime I start the shells start thick and fast and I have to give up.” He expressed the hope that “it lets up a bit,” and said he was “a bit tired after being in the front lines for almost 40 days.”

On July 18, 1944, elements of the 29th, 35th, 30th, and 2nd Divisions, assisted by the 3rd Armored Division, captured the rubble of St. Lo. That day, from the outskirts of the town, my father wrote, “War is hell so why talk about it.” The capture of St. Lo and its immediate aftermath “marked the first time in forty-five days that the 29th as a division had been out of contact with the enemy. Since the Omaha Beach landings, [the 29th] had been in front every day of the long six-week campaign.” The battle for St. Lo was “the most costly engagement in the history of the Division.”[12] Three days after the fall of St. Lo, my father told his parents that he was finally “enjoying a bit of a rest — after days of continuous action.”

Dash Across France

June and July 1944 were the costliest months of the war for the 175th regiment and the 29th Division as a whole. In those two months, the 175th suffered more than 2,300 casualties (dead, wounded, missing), while the 29th Division as a whole suffered over 8,600 casualties. The costly Normandy campaign, however, set the stage for the launching of Operation COBRA, a concentrated armored dash across France conceived by General Omar Bradley and executed by, among others, General George S. Patton’s troops.

My father and other infantrymen in Europe were, of course, oblivious to the high policy and diplomatic discussions among the allied war leaders and their advisers. FDR and Churchill debated, sometimes heatedly, the political and military issues involved in the plans to militarily defeat Germany and Italy and bring the war to a successful political conclusion. The war’s end seemed within reach in the late summer of 1944.

In early August 1944, “highly encouraging war bulletins tended to bolster the morale” of U.S. soldiers. “The thrill of victory had taken possession of the troops.”[13] This was reflected in my father’s letters during that time. On August 8, he wrote to his parents that the “war news is mighty good and its just a matter of a short time and then it will be all over.” Later that month, he speculated in a letter that he might be home for Christmas.

In late August 1944, Paris was liberated. The circumstances under which Paris was liberated involved much diplomatic wrangling and maneuvering, especially among the contending leaders of the Free French movement; another example of diplomacy guiding military decisions. As Paris was being liberated, my father’s regiment and division were participating in the campaign to take Brest, the second largest port in France and home to a German submarine base. During that campaign, the 175th engaged in an eight-day battle for “Hill 103,” the commanding position in the area, and a five-day battle for the city of Brest, which was taken on September 18, 1944. In an October 7 letter, my father revealed to his parents that he participated in the Brest campaign, and that he had been in Paris, Belgium, and Holland. It was also in that same October 7 letter that my father revealed that he was now “somewhere in Germany.”

Also on October 7, 1944, Lt. Col. William C. Purnell recommended to the 29th Division’s commanding general that my father be appointed a temporary warrant officer. The recommendation noted that Sgt. Sempa’s character was “Excellent,” and stated further that “Sgt. Sempa has at all times demonstrated superior leadership, courage and performed his duties in a superior manner.”

In early November 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed services. On November 9, my father wrote that FDR’s election “bore out my prediction that a change at this time was uncalled for,” and in a subsequent letter he told his parents that he voted for FDR.

In mid-November, the 175th began a move toward Julich. During this campaign, my father’s regiment participated in attacks on Siersdorf, Bettendorf, Aldenhoven, Niedermerz, and Bourheim. By December, the 29th Division stood across the Ruhr River from Julich, but the crossing of the Ruhr was delayed for almost three months by the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest, known to history as the Battle of the Bulge.

In a moving letter dated December 3, 1944 from “Somewhere in Germany,” my father informed his parents that he had seen his brother Eddie (my Uncle Eddie), who was fighting with another unit nearby:

Dear Mom and Dad:

Got some good news for you today. Saw Eddie and let me tell you he looks swell. Found out his whereabouts this morning. Permission to go was gladly given and a jeep furnished… .He was tickled pink to see me. Spent about 3 hours with him. Talked about most everything under the sun… .

Love, Frankie

It was also in December that my father informed his parents that he had been promoted to Tech Sergeant, and was awarded the prestigious Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

Christmas in Germany

On Christmas Eve, 1944, my father wrote two letters to his parents. He mentioned decorating a Christmas tree, and noted that the “surroundings aren’t the best here in war torn Germany but we are making the best of it.” “Tomorrow,” he wrote, “is just another day in this war but that certain something will be there in everyone’s heart.” He also urged his parents to be “thankful that we are all alive – even though not together,” and commented that “for certain we will all be together by next Xmas.”

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0After a relatively quiet holiday, however, it was back to the war. In January 1945, the Russians began an offensive that would ultimately lead them to Berlin. On January 17, my father informed his parents that “News from the Russian front today is good and very likely to hasten the end of this war.” In late February, Julich fell to the 29th Division, and in early March my father’s regiment took part in the capture of Munchen-Gladbach.[14]

On March 9, 1945, my father was awarded a Bronze Star. The citation accompanying the medal reads as follows:

T Sgt Frank F Sempa, 33024465, (then S Sgt and T Sgt), 175th Inf, U S Army, for meritorious Service in military operations against the enemy in Western Europe. From 7 June 1944 to 13 February 1945, T Sgt Sempa, Communications Sergeant, excelled in the performance of his duties and contributed materially to the fine record established by the organization of which he is a member. The high standards of courage, initiative and discipline required during long periods of combat were met by T Sgt Sempa in a manner that reflects great credit upon himself and the Military Service. Entered Military Service from Pennsylvania.

àt»In late March to early April, the 29th Division crossed the Rhine River and headed toward the Elbe River. On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. The next day, my father wrote to his parents that “News of FDR’s death came as a distinct shock to all of us here. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see the victory he fought so hard for… ”

On May 2, 1945, a German V-2 Rocket Division surrendered to the 175th. The war in Europe was coming to an end. As the American troops moved farther into Germany, Nazi concentration camps and slave-labor camps were liberated. In a letter dated May 5, 1945, my father mentioned to his parents that he saw a slave-labor camp. “Everything you read about those German camps is true,” he wrote. “I saw one of them and let me tell you it was brutal… You should have seen this camp. Very, very brutal. Can’t understand how anybody could treat people like the Germans treated the slave laborers.”

Two days later, my father informed his parents that, “The radio just informed us that tomorrow, 8 May, will be V-E Day. That’s the day we have been waiting for… . Guess I’ll go and get drunk tomorrow. It sure is worth a celebration. It sure has been a long and hard struggle.”

On May 25, 1945, my father was promoted to Master Sergeant. Soldiers were demobilized according to a point system and needed 84 points to be discharged. My father had 110 points. He was separated from the service on July 9, 1945. During his service, he earned the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Arrowhead for the assault on Omaha Beach, four major engagement stars, five overseas stripes, and the Good Conduct Ribbon. He returned to his job as a reporter and later city editor for the Scranton Tribune. He died in 1988.

Like many of his generation, he rarely spoke about his wartime experiences. He considered himself very fortunate to have survived the war unscathed, and he always taught me to honor those who made the supreme sacrifice for our country.

NOTES
[1] John C. McManus, The Americans at Normandy: The Summer of 1944ÑThe American War From the Normandy Beaches to Falaise (New York: Forge, 2004), p. 36.

[2] Joseph Balkoski, Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999), p. 152.

[3] Scranton Tribune, June 6, 1969.

[4] Joseph Ewing, 29 Let’s Go: A History of the 29th Infantry Division in World War II (Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1948), p. 62.

[5] Michael Reynolds, Eagles and Bulldogs in Normandy 1944 (Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2003), p. 124.

[6] My grandmother kept my father’s letters from France and Germany in a shoebox in our family’s home in Avoca. Many years ago, after my father’s death in 1988, I happened upon them in the cellar of the home. They have since been donated to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

[7] McManus, The Americans at Normandy, p. 133.

[8] Leo Daugherty, The Battle of the Hedgerows: Bradley’s First Army in Normandy, June-July 1944 (London: Brown Partworks Limited, 2001), pp. 89-90.

[9] John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Viking, 1989), p. 390.

[10] St. Lo (Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, War Department, 1946), p. 125.

[11] Balkoski, Beyond the Beachhead, p. 190.

[12] Ewing, 29 Let’s Go, p. 104.

[13] Ewing, 29 Let’s Go, p. 120.

[14] Ewing, 29 Let’s Go, p. 243.

Francis P. Sempa is an American Diplomacy contributing editor and has written frequently for this journal as well as other publications on geopolitics, foreign policy, and historical topics. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.



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