Editor's Note: To mark Memorial Day and the 64th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, our contributing editor offers an account of his father's participation, as a sergeant in the 29th Division, in the historic invasion and battles across France and Germany, from the hedgerows of Normandy to the River Elbe. --Ed.
Sixty-four years ago, on June 6, 1944, my father, Frank F. Sempa, was one of thousands of American soldiers on ships in the English Channel waiting his turn to land on Omaha Beach on France's Normandy coast to participate in the historic invasion of Hitler's fortress Europe. At the time, he was a sergeant in the 29th Division's 175th infantry regiment, a part of V Corps which was assigned to reinforce and exploit whatever beachhead had been gained at great cost by the initial D-Day assaults made by the 1st Division and the 116th infantry regiment of the 29th Division. My father's regiment landed on Omaha Beach on June 7, D-Day +1.
For the next eleven months, my father and his regiment and division fought its way across France and into Germany, reaching the Elbe River by V-E Day, May 8, 1945. There have been several fine accounts written of the 29th Division's historic journey from D-Day to the end of the war, including Joseph Ewing's 29 Let's Go, Joseph Balkoski's Beyond the Beachhead, Michael Reynolds' Eagles and Bulldogs in Normandy 1944, Leo Daugherty's The Battle of the Hedgerows, and John McManus' The Americans at Normandy. In this article, I will draw on those books and others, but also from the snippets of history gleaned from the numerous letters that my father wrote during the war to his parents (my grandparents) from "Somewhere in France" and "Somewhere in Germany," an interview he did, shortly after returning home from the war, with the local newspaper, the Scranton Tribune, where he worked for more than forty years as a reporter and editor, an article he wrote for that paper on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the D-Day landings, and my own recollections of the few times that he would talk about some of his war experiences.
Frank F. Sempa was drafted into the army at the age of 24 on April 25, 1941. At the time, he lived with his parents and two brothers in Avoca, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, and worked as a local correspondent for the Scranton Tribune. He subsequently trained at Ft. George G. Meade in Maryland and other forts in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Florida. In October 1942, he and his regiment traveled from New Jersey across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth to Scotland, settling at the old British Army cavalry camp at Tidworth Barracks near Andover and Salisbury. There and at other locations in Great Britain, the 29th Division trained for the long-planned opening of the second front in Europe.
Opening the Second Front
The decision as to where and when to open the second front in Europe was repeatedly debated by President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and their top advisers. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose Russian troops bore the brunt of the fighting in Europe during the first few years of the war, continuously urged the Western leaders to open a second front in Western Europe. The cross-channel invasion had been planned and postponed in earlier years, largely at the urging of Churchill who instead advocated the allied moves into North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. By the spring of 1944, however, the die was cast. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, appointed supreme commander of the cross-channel invasion, decided that D-Day would be in early June.
On D-Day, my father and the other soldiers of the 175th regiment boarded ships at Falmouth and sailed into the rough waters of the English Channel. I recall him telling me how rough the sea was that day, and later how difficult it was to climb down the rope ladders onto the landing craft on the approach to Omaha Beach. It was a lot rougher that day, however, for the American troops who made the initial landings in the face of murderous German machine-gun and artillery fire. Those brave troops suffered tremendous casualties in their effort to establish a secure...