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Medal of Honor Recipient Walter D. Ehlers Interview
Leadership came naturally to the young Kansas native, newly promoted to Staff Sergeant on the eve of the landing at Normandy. He had, after all, a perfect model: his older brother Roland, who would be landing with the second wave, right behind him.
With his brother about to land a few hundred yards away, Walter Ehlers led his unit through the beach and eight miles inland, where they destroyed several machine-gun nests and severely weakened the German defenses over the next day. Even after being wounded, Ehlers managed to provide cover for the entire company to withdraw and carry his wounded rifleman to safety. Despite his wounds, Ehlers refused to be evacuated, and left the makeshift hospital to resume command of his unit. He would learn in the months that followed that his actions had earned him the Medal of Honor, and that his brother Roland never made it off the beach on D-Day.
It is a common refrain among Medal of Honor recipients: they speak about the award not in terms of themselves, but about their fellow soldiers, the ones who did not survive. In Walter Ehlers' case, his own admiration resides with his brother, Roland, who died on the beach. "He was always kind of looking out for me," Ehlers said. "He was my hero."
Ehlers retired after 29 years working for the Veterans' Administration and eight more on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans. He returned to Normandy in 2002, and was recently interviewed for The War, a documentary by Ken Burns.
His Citation Reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 9-10 June 1944, near Goville, France. SSG Ehlers, always acting as the spearhead of the attack, repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy strong points exposing himself to deadly hostile fire whenever the situation required heroic and courageous leadership. Without waiting for an order, SSG Ehlers, far ahead of his men, led his squad against a strongly defended enemy strong point, personally killing four of an enemy patrol who attacked him en route. Then crawling forward under withering machinegun fire, he pounced upon the guncrew and put it out of action. Turning his attention to two mortars protected by the crossfire of two machineguns, SSG Ehlers led his men through this hail of bullets to kill or put to flight the enemy of the mortar section, killing three men himself. After mopping up the mortar positions, he again advanced on a machinegun, his progress effectively covered by his squad. When he was almost on top of the gun he leaped to his feet and, although greatly outnumbered, he knocked out the position single-handed. The next day, having advanced deep into enemy territory, the platoon of which SSG Ehlers was a member, finding itself in an untenable position as the enemy brought increased mortar, machinegun, and small arms fire to bear on it, was ordered to withdraw. SSG Ehlers, after his squad had covered the withdrawal of the remainder of the platoon, stood up and by continuous fire at the semicircle of enemy placements, diverted the bulk of the heavy hostile fire on himself, thus permitting the members of his own squad to withdraw. At this point, though wounded himself, he carried his wounded automatic rifleman to safety and then returned fearlessly over the shell-swept field to retrieve the automatic rifle which he was unable to carry previously. After having his wound treated, he refused to be evacuated, and returned to lead his squad. The intrepid leadership, indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness displayed by SSG Ehlers in the face of overwhelming enemy forces serve as an inspiration to others.