Local veteran keeps D-Day history alive through sharing stories

Local veteran keeps D-Day history alive through stories

WYOMISSING, Pa. - Seventy years after D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944, many nations and citizens take time to remember events that happened that day and the freedoms that came as a result.

Few people, however, have a memory of D-Day like Richard Biehl, 91, of Wyomissing, Berks County. He was traveling with his comrades of Company B of the 1st Division's 26th Infantry Regiment at the time.

On that day, Biehl went above deck on his travel vessel and caught his first glimpse of Omaha Beach about two miles from shore, already a scene of flames and smoke.

The vessel hit a sandbar about 100 yards from the beach itself, and the young coast guard attendant said to the captain, "I cannot move forward. I cannot move in reverse. We're a sitting target, and we will have to leave it here."

Biehl said he hesitated to leave the vessel because he could see medics dragging a wounded GI toward the vessel and did not want to interfere, but the executive officer was urging the troops to go quickly.

Biehl, the first off of the port side of the vessel, was up to his chin in water, but he held his M-1 rifle above his head and made it to shore to be immersed in the chaos. 

"There was a lot of confusion, a lot of noise, a lot of destruction, and a lot of bodies," Biehl recalled.

Look back: D-Day troops storm beaches

Omaha had bluffs 80 to 120 feet high that they would move overtop after waiting for their objective, to get to Colleville, a small fishing and farming community. 

Biehl distinctly remembers the steeple had been blown away because it could have been used as a lookout point for the Germans.

That night he and two other GIs huddled under the safety of a large bush and were cold, wet, hungry and mentally and physically exhausted.

A light, in the otherwise bleak situation, came about at dusk when the American flag came ashore, along with Divisional Commander Major General Clarence Hubener.

The night, however, would soon be lit with gunfire, as the German Air Force made an appearance and hundreds of ships offshore started firing.

Biehl described it as "a grand Fourth of July" with different colors of exploding shells.

The battle of Normandy would last 74 days, and Biehl only left briefly from being hospitalized for a return of Malaria he contracted while in Cecily on his first assignment.

Upon his return to the unit, they were approaching the Belguim border.

Though the conditions were unfavorable, with long battles and the loss of comrades and friends, Biehl still considers himself very fortunate.

"So many images remain, even after 70 years. I must've said 'thank you' thousands of times," Biehl said of his gratitude to be alive after D-Day.

Biehl holds many memories, and quoted James M. Barrie, saying, "God gave us memory so we might have roses in December."

"My December is here, but I've got lots of roses and lots of memories," he said.

He kept his memories to himself until 1992, when Gerald Aster approached him about telling his story for a book he was writing about D-Day.

He thought of the words, "When the last survivor dies, who's memory will live?" and told his wife Lois, who was an army nurse he met while in France, that from then on he would share his experiences with others.

Now, Biehl shares his story with fellow veterans, high school students, and anyone who is willing to listen.

"At the time, it was just part of what we were trained for... Later on, the idea arrived that you were a part of a defining moment because, 11 months later, the war in Europe was over and people were able to return to a normal life," said Biehl.

A normal life back home for Biehl meant continuing his service to the postal service, where he worked until 1981.

Biehl has gone back to Normandy five times since D-Day, receiving high honors from France and Belgium, including the Knight's Cross, French Legion of Honor. 

He recalls one time in particular that, while looking at a memorial for familiar names, he came across Four Star General Commander Jolwain, who served as a commander during Vietnam - of Company B of the 1st Division's 26th Infantry Regiment.

The two spent the rest of the day talking, and Biehl still marvels at the strong, common bond between men and women who have served, and all the people his service has led him to get to know.

Remembering D-Day 70 years later

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