Editor’s Note: Henry Langrehr, of Clinton, who will turn 95 this year, still clearly recalls his military service leading up to, during and after D-Day and has shared those memories with various media outlets throughout the years. In fact, his company’s jump into France was memorialized in the 1962 film “The Longest Day.”
Langrehr graciously accepted the Herald’s request to interview him as today’s 75th anniversary of D-Day approached. We are combining the information gleaned from that hour-long interview along with previous accounts published in the Herald to share his entire story about that day and the weeks that followed.
Henry Langrehr was in awe looking out of the plane and into the early morning sky.
He was ready to make his 67th parachute jump. Ships, about 5,000 of them packed in tightly, were bobbing in the English Channel below him. Layers of planes were flying above his, which was flying low as to not be picked up on radar.
He was loaded down with about 120 pounds of equipment, which included the main parachute he was wearing, a reserve chute, a sub machine gun and a pistol with ammunition, a jump rope for climbing out of trees or off buildings, a trench knife, a flashlight for map reading at night, food rations, six grenades, a canteen, first-aid kits, a pocket knife, a fighting knife in his boot, a small oil can for weapon cleaning and personal care items.
A pack of explosives, weighing 30 pounds, was strapped to his leg.
He was the first one set to jump out of the plane. Because they did not know where he was, his family and fiancée, Arlene, back home in Clinton, were worrying and praying for the 19-year-old soldier.
At 1:30 a.m. June 6, 1944, his plane flew over the coast of France. The clock struck the hour, then the minute he was to jump. The light signalling him to jump turned green.
It was time.
The road to D-Day
Henry Langrehr was one of 10 children and attending Lyons High School in Clinton when the United States entered World War II in December 1941. Set to graduate from high school the following spring, Langrehr instead decided that as soon as he turned 18, he would drop out of school and enlist. His goal was to become a paratrooper. The main reason was the money. The pay per month would be greater as a paratrooper than if he was drafted and became an infantryman, about $50 more per month. It was a new branch of the military and one that was considered elite.
He volunteered for the paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division, 2nd Battalion, F Company, made the cut and trained as infantry and a demolition expert. After training in Georgia and California, he set sail on the Queen Elizabeth headed to Ireland, stayed there for a month then went to England for training.
He would be trained for D-Day and the largest amphibious invasion the world has ever seen. Tens of thousands of Allied troops would be spread out across the air and sea, storm onto the beaches of Normandy and make their final assault on Nazi Germany.
Langrehr’s mission would be to parachute behind enemy lines into the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise to keep the Nazis from crossing a bridge. He had been instructed that the mission was to either hold the bridge or to blow it up.
In his own words
On his 18th birthday, Langrehr quit high school and joined the army as many of his friends did. He was one who believed in luck and self-reliance – that he could do anything he put his mind to. He would become one of 170,000 troops that would spearhead the invasion of France on D-Day.
On June 5, 1944, the day before the invasion, Langrehr and his company had been in quarantine, enforced isolation, for three days. They had nothing to do but wait.
“On the morning of June 5, we were asked if we wanted to go to church or talk to our chaplain for any reason,” Langrehr said. “I went to church because a few of my friends were going and I had nothing else to do. It started to rain and the wind was blowing hard. We were told that D-Day would be postponed until the weather cleared. So we had to sweat out another day with little to do. Some played cards or shot dice, read or checked their equipment. I checked my equipment again the third or fourth time. But I wanted to make sure all was in good shape when I landed in France.
“The next day cleared and the sun came out and we knew that this was to be the day. I don’t remember the exact time the word came because there was so much commotion at the time. We darkened our faces so it didn’t show at night in the moonlight. Then again going over our equipment. As night came around we went to chow and had a good meal – the best meal I had in England. We had pork chops and ice cream.
“We then went to the airstrip and chuted up and put on our equipment. We sat around under our planes talking and thinking as the pressure mounted. Not knowing what would happen. Gen. Leigh Mallory had told Eisenhower to expect 80% casualties in the airborne troops. Leigh Mallory was the air commander for the air forces for the invasion. We had heard about the 80% casualties at church.
“We took off from Spanhoe Airfield on D-Day. On board our plane, everyone was pretty much quiet with their own thoughts. As we began circling to get our group together, some lit up cigarettes and were talking about families and their mission. After awhile some went to sleep and it was quiet. All you could hear were the plane’s engines straining to take us to our destination – France. I was the first man in the door because I had a demolition pack.
“When we started over the English Channel we had a beautiful moonlit night. It was very bright. Looking out the door of the plane – the door was open, we had decided if the plane was hit we could get out quickly – I saw something no one else would ever see in history.
“I could see our planes filling the sky. ... I looked down on the English Channel as we flew low under German radar. I could see so many ships, what a tremendous sight! I was held in awe by what our nation could produce in the time of need. I knew they gave us everything they could. Now it was up to us.
“We were to jump into France four hours before the troops hit the beaches. We came over the coast of France about 1:30 a.m. on June 6th, 1944. D-Day. Our pathfinders came in about 30 minutes ahead of us to set up their guidance devices to guide our planes to our DZ (drop zone) but their planes alerted the German anti-aircraft gunners, who were ready when we came over.
“Being in the door of the plane, I could see all the fireworks. The tracer bullets and 88’s, everything they had, was coming up very heavy. It looked like the Fourth of July. Shells were bursting all around us. I didn’t think a plane could get through it.
“One shell burst just off our wing tip. We were hit in many places. Shrapnel came through the side of our plane, hitting the man next to me and one on the opposite side of the plane. We hit a patch of fog over our drop zone. It made us a little late. When we cleared the fog, we were about 5 miles past our DZ.
“Looking out the door I could see we were in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The green light came on, which was the jump signal – no questions asked – so I jumped.”
As the paratroopers descended upon Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a large fire was burning in a building near a church in the town square. The Germans had the French out fighting the fire, which was lighting the whole area and, because they could be seen more easily, made the paratroopers easier targets.
“There was a terrific amount of confusion,” Langrehr said. “The Germans and French were running all over. I could see it all going on before me. A sight I shall not forget.”
Langrehr crashed through the roof of a large greenhouse, which was part of a very large stone house.
“I was very fortunate my demolition pack (leg pack) hit the glass first – making a hole for me, or else I could have been cut up. It was all a blur what happened when I hit.”
He went out of the side door of the greenhouse and, in the light of the burning building, saw a lot of paratroopers who had been caught in the trees and were shot. One man had parachuted into the burning building. American paratrooper John Steele, of the 82nd Airborne, was dangling from a nearby clock tower after his parachute got caught during the D-Day invasion. Langrehr said that at the time, Steele was trying to appear dead so as to not be shot. It is Steele, who survived, who was memorialized in “The Longest Day.”
Langrehr said the Americans headed first to the bridge to stop the Germans and learned the Allied soldiers had held the bridge. He then was sent back to Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
While his D-Day mission was a success, Langrehr over the next year would experience all of the horrors of war.
As he and another soldier ran through hedgerows in a field that was under German fire, he saw his friend fall.
“I cradled him in my arms, his head,” he said. “He was dying. And he was saying the 23rd Psalm and his face was so pleasant. I thought, ‘Wow, could I die like that?”
A few weeks after D-Day, on June 30, American forces were holding off German tanks and he was in the front line and wondering why his bazooka man wasn’t firing. Turns out he had been knocked down, so Langrehr grabbed the bazooka. Shortly after that, a shell from a tank landed behind him and exploded and he was injured.
He now was a prisoner of war.
Taken to a field hospital in Paris, he had an operation on his back and legs. He was there for about a month, then was put in a cattle car with other POWs and sent to a work camp by way of Auschwitz, where he saw bodies stacked like cordoned wood before they were hauled away to be cremated.
“We were almost in an upright position the whole time,” he said of the train ride packed with POWs.
“They were sending us to a prison camp,” he said. “We didn’t know where it was at.”
In the first two weeks on the train, they only made three stops for water and food, he said.
“A couple of the guys died there,” he said.
He survived that ride, which took a couple more weeks to complete and included the train being strafed with gunfire, then worked in a coal mine at the work camp. There, he was beaten by German guards, worked long days and survived on meals that consisted of a little piece of bread that was 20 percent sawdust and sugar beet soup that was mostly water with a little pulp.
Ready to take their chances rather than die in the camp, he and another prisoner escaped while their work crew was being escorted between the mine and their work camp.
His friend was shot and filled by a Volkssturm guard, who spotted them as they entered a small village nearby. Langrehr was able to grab a 2-by-4 piece of wood in the barn they were in and hit the officer in the face, killing him and taking his weapon.
He walked the countryside alone along ditches and in streams for two weeks doing whatever he had to do to survive.
“Every night was a nightmare and every day was a nightmare,” he said.
Then one day, he saw German people coming down the road, followed by German soldiers, and a Piper plane above that was surveying the road. The road was shot up, killing the Germans. It wasn’t long before he could hear American soldiers and tanks.
He waited a couple days then decided to come out of his hiding place. He found an American radioman in a Jeep, told him he had been a prisoner of war, and was taken to headquarters. He was sent to Camp Lucky Strike, then flown to New York and granted a 90-day leave.
His family had no idea what had happened to him until he got back into the United States and he was able to call them to tell them what happened and to get a ride home. He also decided the time was right to marry his sweetheart.
On July 1, 1945, while he was home on leave, he married Arlene at Clinton’s Zion Lutheran Church parsonage.
He said it was knowing she was back home waiting for him that got him through the war.
“I carried that all the way through the war,” he said of the small black-and-white photo sitting next to his medals and POW dog tags now displayed in their Clinton home.
She also told him why he made it back – something he remembers to this day: “She said, ‘You know, everybody was praying for you and I was praying doubly hard for you. And you know God brought you through this. You didn’t do it.’”