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75th anniversary of D-Day

‘The whole damn deck was covered in vomit’

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Enemy sniper fire and heavy staccato of heavy artillery are far removed from the warmth of Stanley Jaeger’s dining room table.

Vivid green hues of spring growth were just outside his large kitchen window as the grass and trees awake from their winter slumber. The song of birds cheerful as sparrows, robins and finches flew to an outdoor feeder, startled into flight after a neighbor’s dog trotted through the backyard.

Jaeger’s kitchen is homey. Family pictures line the wall and the rocking chair his wife Lenora sat upon to enjoy the outdoors is still in front of the large picture window, a colorful afghan draped on the chair back, a badge of honor to the wife he lost almost five years ago.

It has been many years since Jaeger spent every minute, of every hour, of every day praying to make it home to his Lenora and infant daughter as he fought his way through France with the Seventh Armored Division during World War II. Jaeger was in boot camp, trying to learn the skills he needed to survive the great war when D-Day happened. His invasion of Normandy happened a few weeks behind D-Day, caught in this tumultuous charge between Allied and German forces.

The beginning of the end of World War II happened 75 years ago with the Allied invasion of Normandy. Often referred to as D-Day, it was the largest seaboard invasion in history. Look inside this week’s News Monitor for a special section about D-Day recounting more stories from men who were there, including an account by Jaeger of battle and blood.

At 94 years old, his twinkling blue eyes are made even more vivid against the white drape of hair. Jaeger carries the scars of war, some internal, some external like the hook on his right arm after he lost it during what ended up being his last World War II battle. Jaeger’s left arm is scarred as well, thankful it wasn’t broken like his right arm after being hit by shrapnel and the percussion from a German tank.

The scent of gunpowder can trigger war memories with the speed of a shot. War memories are as apt to make Jaeger smile or ignore emotions welling his eyes while talking of blood and death, hardly older than a boy 75 years ago, from Hankinson on the North Dakota prairie, a young man who recently married his sweetheart Lenora Roeder and had an infant daughter back home.

Memories of war

Jaeger was in boot camp, learning skills to survive war when D-Day was carried out. His drill sergeant was a man Jaeger called a hard-edged Scottsman, who didn’t have an ounce of fat, built to withstand battle and pass on that knowledge. Jaeger said he thought that drill sergeant rode him pretty hard during basic, pointing out flaws while training, such as not hitting the bullseye dead center. Jaeger figured since it was near the bullseye that would be good enough, he said. Jaeger was wrong this time and every other time he questioned his drill sergeant.

During bayonet practice Jaeger was told to come at the drill sergeant like he meant business. One moment Jaeger was running full out and the next he was on his back while the drill sergeant pressed Jaeger’s own bayonet against his throat.

Then came the training day when Jaeger crawled through mud and underneath barbed wire while machine guns fired overhead to simulate battle. That same drill sergeant patted the pistol strapped to his thigh and called out to him. “He called me Yagger. He said, ‘Yagger, if that ass comes up I will put a bullet in it.”

Jaeger recalled this with a twinkle in his blue eyes, grinning at the memories. He said he often thinks about that drill sergeant — not because he was the villain in Jaeger’s war stories. “He was trying to keep me alive. My first day in war when the bullets were flying, I remembered everything he taught me. If he would have been there right then, I would have kissed him.”

Jaeger ended up at Omaha Beach weeks after the initial invasion. He went from being a fresh recruit on a transport ship moving troops to the coast one day, and the next landed on Omaha Beach. That is where he saw his first suicide, he said, when a young American soldier jumped overboard.

“There was hardly elbow room and the whole damn deck (of the landing craft) was covered in vomit. You can imagine how slippery that was. The kid, he stood there. You could see it in his eyes, he was just gone,” Jaeger said, and the next thing he knew the solider jumped off the ship and into the turbulent seas.

A lieutenant tried to save the soldier. Heavy seas pushed the landing craft back into the transport ship, crushing the lieutenant’s arm and leaving a large blood spot in the water from the soldier, Jaeger said.

Moments later after stepping off the landing craft, Jaeger said he walked through water and saw a different soldier floating facedown, killed during the D-Day invasion. Weeks later men were still rising to the surface, soldiers who drowned during D-Day in overturned tanks or landing craft, Jaeger said. Knowing the next tide would likely carry the soldier out to sea, he grabbed his backpack and pulled him into shore. Questioned why, Jaeger had only one answer.

“You know, if that was my body, I would have appreciated it if one of you guys would have taken me in so I could go home,” he told his fellow soldiers.

Days of battle and blood

Jaeger was part of the Seventh Armored, dubbed the Lucky Seventh, among 15,000 soldiers tasked with moving heavy artillery through France. He fought house-to-house as the Seventh retook 150 cities, villages and towns from German forces.

Shortly after arriving on the beach, Jaeger was ushered to the front. With bullets flying, he was part of the assault against German-held hedgerows, which were used for centuries by the French people to grow crops and vegetables for themselves and livestock. Surrounded by trees and often built up by soil, armored tanks and vehicles had a difficult time maneuvering within the hedgerows. It seemed like forever, Jaeger said, before the Seventh pushed the Germans out of the hedgerows.

Jaeger said the Seventh was on Gen. George S. Patton’s left, while the Fourth Armored was on his right, spearheading the push through France.

When not in actual battle, Jaeger was on roadblock duty. He held a light machine gun, while his partner a bazooka. The light machine gun couldn’t actually breach the hull of a German tank. His job was to get the tank to turn so his partner could disable it with a bazooka.

His partner was a man from Minnesota the squad called Whitey because of his white hair. One day Jaeger peppered a German Tiger tank with light machine gun fire since it sat in a crossroads the Seventh was supposed to pull back on, he said. Instead of the tank turning, the turret shifted toward Jaeger and Whitey, he said.

“I looked up the barrel of that .88 and said all my goodbyes,” Jaeger said. “If that damn thing would hit you, birds wouldn’t have found enough to feed on.”

The Tiger tank hit close enough to send Jaeger flying, breaking pieces of his right arm from shoulder to hand. When he landed, Jaeger’s right arm was wrapped around his throat, he said, no feeling in it, turning black.

Jaeger and Whitey were left for dead. He remembered lying in the dirt, bleeding, in shock when two medics came upon him. They gave Jaeger morphine and informed him his partner died in the blast.

Something about those medics stuck with Jaeger. He said it took him years to figure it out, until one day when he was driving home from the VA with his daughter Bridget.

He asked his daughter if she believed in angels. He said, “I do now. All of a sudden it dawned on me what was missing. Those medics said they were crawling around a battlefield. They weren’t dirty. They would have been filthy if they were on a battlefield, but they were clean.”

Jaeger believes the medics were angels sent by his namesake Stanislas to keep him alive. He had a wife he wanted to return to, and a young daughter, he said. Jaeger did make it home.

The nightmares did come, but he said Lenora helped get him through those episodes, telling him repeatedly that he is home. Even today the memories trigger, something Jaeger related with a sad smile.

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