With bullets zipping by his head, artillery shells exploding around him, and wounded soldiers everywhere he looked, 23-year-old Lt. Charles Giese wasn’t sure he’d be alive in 70 minutes, much less 70 years.
“My first thought was if I live through this, I’ll be lucky,” said Giese, recalling his impressions of the bloody battle for a Normandy beachhead in World War II’s D-Day invasion, 70 years ago Friday.
Giese, a retired FBI agent who lives in Seattle, was an Army medic whose unit landed on the beach just an hour into the invasion, facing the task of helping as many of the wounded as they could reach.
“I was scared as hell,” admits Giese. “But I talked to myself and said, ‘You’ve got a job to do, so concentrate on that.’ It didn’t kill the fear, but it got me through it.”
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He carried no weapon, he says, because his commanding officer didn’t believe in medics carrying weapons. And Giese, who turned 93 last December, figures a rifle might have just been one more thing weighing him down.
As the invasion progressed along a 50-mile stretch of French coastline, casualty numbers soared. Of the 160,000 Allied troops in the first day of the attack, some 9,000 were killed or wounded on the first day.
The land-sea-air assault, officially named Operation Overlord, targeted five Normandy beaches, which the Allies code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Giese landed on Omaha, scene of the fiercest fighting. It was there that German forces held their strongest positions, raining rifle fire, machine-gun bursts and artillery shells from fortifications above the exposed beach.
In the decades since the invasion, historians have explored how disorganization, confusion and incomplete intelligence hampered the D-Day invasion.
But in the midst of the melee, Giese sensed this was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s grip on Western Europe.
“I think the Germans were defeated because we had the greater number of troops,” he said.
The numbers grew: By the invasion’s sixth day, the Allies had landed 326,547 troops on French beaches, along with 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies, according to the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, England.
J.D. Wyneken, a military historian with Seattle’s Museum of Flight, said accounts of Allied success in the Normandy invasion often fail to mention that two weeks after D-Day, German forces were hit by an even greater assault from Russian troops on the war’s eastern front.
Facing the two campaigns simultaneously doomed Hitler’s forces, said Wyneken, who’ll give a presentation at the Museum of Flight at 2:30 p.m. Saturday about some key aircraft the Allies used in the invasion.
Giese continued to serve in France as the Allies drove back the German occupiers. In one battle, he suffered cuts to his cheek and jaw from fragments of an artillery shell.
He’s quick to note the wound didn’t put him out of service, and he almost sheepishly explains that the Purple Heart he received for it was the idea of his superiors.
Giese’s honors also include a Bronze Star, awarded the month following D-Day, for his “meritorious achievement in military operations against the enemy.” He rose to the rank of captain before leaving the Army in 1946.
A native of Washington, D.C., Giese went to work for the FBI shortly after the war and was based in Los Angeles before being transferred to Seattle in 1972.
In 1976, he took his wife, Eleanor, on his only return trip to Normandy, an emotional visit. D-Day had been the most horrible experience of his life, he said, and he wanted to see the picturesque coastline in a context other than war.
Eleanor Giese died in1998, after 48 years of marriage.
That same year, Giese went to see the Tom Hanks film “Saving Private Ryan,” which opens with an extended, particularly graphic depiction of the landing on Omaha beach.
The movie’s depiction of ocean waves stained red with blood, and a sandy beach covered in corpses and body parts was consistent with his memory, he told a reporter who attended the showing with him.
These days, Giese doesn’t think of D-Day often, but it does come to mind when he’s watching a military history program on TV.
He has a small collection of war-era snapshots and faded news clippings, along with his medals and Army jacket.
Giese knows the ranks of his contemporaries are thinning.
The last of his close military buddies died in Florida several years ago. Christmas cards still come from the address, but now they’re from his friend’s widow.
In 1994, at the time of D-Day’s 50-year anniversary, The Seattle Times published an article in which a sampling of local D-Day veterans — then about 70 years old — shared their recollections.
Of the seven veterans interviewed for that piece, only Giese is still living.
He suffered a slight stroke in 2012 and doesn’t get out as much, said the younger of his two daughters, Emilie Nielson, who moved back to the family home to care for him.
Nielson tells about one part of her dad’s D-Day experience, the fact that the skipper of his landing craft decided — on his own — not to land at the precise spot on the beach he’d been assigned, which was coming under intense German fire.
Instead, the vessel went two miles farther up the beach before landing.
“Dad got detoured by his skipper and we’re thankful every day for that,” she said. ‘Without that, we wouldn’t be here.”
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Jack Broom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2222