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Bearing Witness to D-Day

Edition of: June 6, 2014


‘An army marches on its stomach,” Napoleon said, and he must have known.

In Bonaparte’s view, then, Alex Bauer, a 22-year-old Army cook – “I looked like I was 12”; he is now 92 – played as critical a role as anyone in the successful D-Day assault on June 6, 1944, and subsequent battles that drove the Germans back into their Fatherland and, on May 8, 1945, to surrender.

On “The Longest Day,” 160,000 Allied troops were ferried across the English Channel in an assault on a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast, the largest such endeavor in world history. Today, an estimated 4,000 veterans of the assault survive, making Bauer – he moved to Cooperstown eight years ago to be near his son, Dr. Mike Bauer, and his family – one of a select group.

It was a distinction he never sought. After the U.S. entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, young Alex, exempt from service as his family’s breadwinner – his job supported his mother and a younger brother and sister – had been working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

By the spring of 1943, however, recruits were running short. Young Alex – “just a kid from The Bronx; I only weighed 130 pounds” – was called up and, after just one night at Fort Dix in New Jersey, found himself on a train, headed for Camp McCain, Miss., for basic training.

His fate for the rest of the war was settled when his sergeant declared, “We need cooks.” The duty was one day on, one day off. “It sounded like a pretty good deal to me,” said Bauer.

After basic and training on amphibious Higgins boats in Fort Pierce, Fla., Bauer’s 1116th Engineer Combat Group arrived in England on Jan. 17, 1944, and was redesignated as part of the 6th Engineer Special Brigade, with Col. Paul Thompson as commander. The brigade was billeted around Torquay and Paignton, seaside resorts in Southwest England, and training began at “a frantic pace,” according to the unit’s history.

Security was tight. In April, a tragedy occurred that Bauer only found out about many years later. A training exercise off Slapton Sands on the 28th was attacked by German U-boats. Many men, wearing lifejackets improperly, landed in the water and, flipped by the heavy equipment they were wearing, drowned.

Then came that fateful day. The channel was full of boats, and Bauer was on one of them. “Next thing I knew, I was going down a cargo net,” he said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘If I get through this … If I don’t get through this, what would happen to my mom?’”

While Bauer’s contingent didn’t land until mid-afternoon, soldiers of the 6th had come under fire at 8:10 on approaching Omaha Beach’s Dog White zone. “About 500 yards from shore, all h— broke loose and they came under accurate, observed artillery fire along with mortar fire,” according to the history, which noted that 112 German gun emplacements were later identified along Omaha’s five miles of shoreline.

Colonel Thompson led “a hastily improvised assault team against fortifications” and was badly wounded. A bullet went through his right shoulder; another through his jaw, exiting without hitting any teeth. He continued to fight, but was evacuated later in the day, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart for his actions.

By mid-afternoon – about the time Bauer was landing – the brigade was “finally able to start their original missions,” and by dusk had landed 2,900 tons of supplies and eight “dumb barges” with 1,000 tons of supplies on each. Bauer remembers heading inland through the hedgerows with his unit for about 15 minutes, rifle fire all around them, before they withdrew. “I slept on the beach that night,” he said.

The 6th’s responsibilities were to ensure the landing zone and nearby roads and bridge were in good enough shape to allow hundreds of bulldozers, thousands of trucks and tons of supplies to move inland behind the Army. The first few days, everyone ate field rations; then the field kitchen arrived. There was an overload of sensations. “Truthfully,” Bauer said in an interview, “I can only remember little things that happened to me.”

The 6th’s soldiers were on Omaha Beach for five or six months, then spent a few weeks on the French shore across from Jersey and Guernsey, with GIs assigned to prevent German troops that still controlled the Channel Islands from coming ashore. Then, the 6th followed the Army inland.

Bauer’s kitchen was connected to a headquarters unit that contained everything – mailmen, a barber shop – that a small community might need. That unit only experienced two casualties, two men caught in an air attack on their way back from an evening in a nearby village. Bauer had been invited to go along, but it had begun to snow and he decided to stay home.

His stove was a square unit with a Bunsen-burner like flame at the bottom and a grill that slid in and out. He cooked full breakfasts – eggs, pancakes, French toast – stews, pies, biscuits. “We always tried to get fresh eggs,” he said. “We got a carton of cigarettes at the end of the week and always tried to swap eggs for cigarettes.”

There was an everyday-ness to it, and young Alex had little idea of the bigger picture. “The concentration camps – I had no idea that was happening – no idea,” he said.

In the famed Allied assault on St. Lo, he got an inkling of where things were going. One thousand U.S. bombers were flying over, battering the German positions. The Germans had no planes, no means of retaliation.

On Aug. 24, less than three months after the landing, Paris was liberated. Bauer and a couple of pals borrowed a Jeep, saying they intended to visit Mont St. Michel, the famous island castle on the Normandy coast. Instead, they raced into Paris and experienced the elation, although they had to quickly turn around and head back to camp before they were missed.

And so through the Battle of the Bulge, and so into Germany, where the Germans surrendered in May 1945. That July, the 6th returned to the States and was inactivated in October.

And so the adventure ended. On the GI Bill, Bauer went to Sampson College, set up at a former Naval Station in the Finger Lakes to meet the demand of returning veterans, and studied surveying. He was one of 7,500 students who graduated there in the college’s three-year history.

He met his future wife, Joan, at a New Year’s Eve party. They married and raised three children in Bayside, Queens.
After retiring, he studied photography and sculpture at a community college near his home and began making busts, first of famous Jews – David Ben Gurion, Einstein, Freud – then branching out. An exhibit of his works is ongoing at the Smithy Arts Center through June 29.

He kept in touch with an Army pal, Audie Sisco, who lived in New Jersey. With their wives, they would get together occasionally. “We had a drink and dinner together,” he said. “But we never talked about our war experience.”



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