D-Day sailor cheated death by inches
Washington - As Leo Scheer swam for Omaha Beach from his burning landing craft that morning, he watched a pattern of machine gun bullets splash toward him and stop short.
On the beach, he spotted a land mine a foot from his head right before he tripped it. And when a buddy was about to make a hazardous dash under fire, Leo pulled him back just in time to save his life.
Amid all the bloodshed and destruction of World War II's D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, something always seemed to shield Scheer from disaster.
Seven decades later, Scheer, now 90, one of a dwindling number of living D-Day veterans, said he is still troubled by the anguish he felt three weeks after the D-Day landings, when he was being sent out of danger and back to England.
He was despondent. Why had he survived the Allied landings in Nazi-occupied France?
Why this small-town son of an Indiana bricklayer? Why, when 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, had he come through without a scratch?
"There's things I saw planted up here that I can't get rid of," he said, tapping his forehead. "The memories you never forget ... the worst ones ... guys that was killed, dead people ... things you try not to remember."
But he is proud of what he did that historic day, he said: "And you're eternally grateful that you survived."
Today is the 70th anniversary of the famous landings, when 160,000 Allied troops assaulted a 50-mile stretch of fortified coastline to begin the liberation of France from the Germans.
Commemorations are scheduled at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, and elsewhere in the U.S. and in Europe, where President Barack Obama and other world leaders will gather in France to mark the event.
Even as the number of veterans falls and the date recedes into the past, the event still stands, in the eyes of history and those who were there, as one of the most heroic and dramatic battles of the war.
And the code names of the Normandy beach sectors that were attacked - Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword - remain etched in the annals of the 20th century.
Scheer, a widower who uses a wheelchair, said the day he learned he was departing the battlefield, he left his buddies and went alone to a secluded spot.
He had been worried about his parents if he should be killed.
Now he was anguished that he had lived.
"I was down . . . depressed, sad, just totally screwed up," he said. "You think you're dead, or going to die. And then you find out you're not. It's an emotional damned thing."
Scheer, then a 20-year-old Navy corpsman who had to pilfer bandages from the dead, crawled into some bushes, did some crying and stayed there all day. "I slept part of the time, thinking about all I'd seen," he said. So many dead. "And I wasn't one of them," he said.
"Why did I survive?" he said he wondered. "You think about all those dead kids. ... How did I get out of this myself, and not a scratch?"
Scheer, a retired bricklayer and contractor whose handshake is still powerful, told his story while visiting Washington from his hometown of Huntington, Ind.
His trip was part of an Honor Flight - the program that flies World War II veterans from around the country for free visits to Washington.
He was among some 70 veterans from Indiana - equipped with wheelchairs, oxygen bottles and hearing aids - who packed three buses that toured the city last week and made its most important stop at the National World War II Memorial.
There, Scheer was wheeled to the bronze relief panel that depicts the D-Day landings. He immediately recognized the jagged enemy beach obstructions shown in the image.
"If you happened to run into one of them, [in] a . . . boat, it would just ... punch a bunch of holes in the hull," he said. "And that was it."
Omaha Beach was littered with such obstructions, as well as enemy mines, machine gun nests, bunkers and gun emplacements.
It was "terrible," he said. "Terrible."
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When World War II reached the United States with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Scheer, his sister and two brothers were coming of age in rural northeastern Indiana.
But across the street lived a woman who was married to a sailor.
"He was home on leave," Scheer recalled. "He chatted with me and ... told me about the Navy."
Scheer was familiar with the expanse of the Midwest. He was curious about the great expanse of the ocean.
In the fall of 1942, four months after graduating from Huntington Catholic High School, he enlisted in the Navy. He had to sign up in Marion, Ind., about 25 miles away, because there was no recruiting station in Huntington, he said.
A photograph from that time shows a serious-looking teenager in a dark uniform, light-colored leggings and a cap that says "U.S. Navy."
After his initial training, he became a hospital corpsman, an assignment he really didn't want.
"I didn't like ether and drugs and blood and all that stuff," he said. But when he complained, he said an officer told him: "This is wartime and you'll do what you're told."
He then got another surprising assignment.
He and a buddy signed on for what they thought was duty on a cruiser. But when they reported to Norfolk, Va., they were told that they were now members of something called the 7th Naval Beach Battalion.
This was a relatively new outfit that was designed to help the Army with the chaos of amphibious landings - with communications, medical aid and coordination, among other things.
It was timely, because the war's biggest amphibious operation was not far off.
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On the morning of June 6, 1944, Scheer, loaded down with gear and wearing a red cross armband, was among about 150 men crammed aboard a small landing ship called an LCI, for landing craft infantry, headed for Omaha Beach.
The day before, the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours, he said, and he and his comrades had been switched from the front of the ship to the back.
A group of Army engineers was moved up front.
The trip across the stormy English Channel was rough. "We bounced all over the place," he recalled. As it neared the French coast, Scheer and his comrades were down in the ship's hold.
"We could hear what was going on," he said. "We could hear the explosions. Your mouth's pretty dry."
As the vessel steamed for the beach, it hit two mines, including one right where Scheer and his buddies had been the day before. Eighteen soldiers were killed, and the blast ignited flamethrowers they had been carrying.
The forward part of the ship became an inferno - "flames 30 feet up in the air" - and Scheer and other survivors were ordered to drop their gear, jump off the ship and swim for it.
He dropped his pack and two medical bags and jumped in wearing three layers of clothing, a helmet, combat boots and a life belt. As a corpsman, he did not carry a rifle.
It was about 100 yards to the beach, and he joined what U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley called "the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the Channel coast of France" that morning.
As Scheer and others swam, they drew enemy fire.
"You could see it," he said. "To my left, here come a pattern." Splash, splash, splash. "About every six or eight inches a machine gun bullet would hit, coming right at us. Talk about my guardian angel."
The bullets came within a few feet of him, and stopped.
Had the enemy gunner continued, "he would have ripped us," Scheer said. Did he run out of ammo? Did he aim somewhere else? Was he killed?
"I've wondered all my life what made him stop," he said.
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Now on the beach, soaked from the cold water, Scheer had to go about his work.
Although he had left his medical equipment behind, there was a ready supply of waterproof bandages, morphine and an antibiotic powder called sulfa.
Many soldiers carried on their belts a cloth pouch containing those items, he said. And the dead GIs didn't need them anymore.
Scheer gathered supplies from the deceased and set about patching up the living.
One soldier had been peppered with shrapnel from his knees to his chest. When Scheer finished bandaging him, "he looked like he had a fight with a wildcat," he said. "He was all tore to hell."
Enemy artillery, machine guns and mortars continued to pound the beach, and Scheer had to tell many wounded soldiers that they were stuck there for the time being.
Meanwhile, he continued to improvise. For a casualty in need, Scheer said he cut up a rubber life raft with his knife and created a makeshift blanket.
But he didn't coddle his patients. "They were tough guys," he said. "You don't soft talk. You just tell them what the facts are."
As darkness fell on the first night, Scheer said he dug a narrow slit trench about 2 feet deep and tried to sleep. He woke in the morning, partly covered in sand that had been blown into the trench by an artillery shell that had exploded nearby.
It was yet another narrow escape on Omaha Beach.
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After the war, Scheer went home to Indiana and joined his family's brick and stone contracting business. While attending school in Chicago he met a girl named Dagmar Carlson, Daggie for short.
They married and settled down in Huntington. They never had children, and she died in 1982. He sold the family business in 1986.
He said he has twice been back to Normandy to visit and recently donated the wide cloth belt he wore on D-Day to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Attached were his knife, his canteen holder and several bandage pouches he had taken from fallen comrades.
Last week, wearing a red Honor Flight T-shirt, blue pants and white sneakers, Scheer was wheeled around the thronged World War II Memorial for a thorough look.
Other visitors stopped to thank him.
"Was he on D-Day?" one man asked. The answer was yes.
"Oh my gosh," he said. "I can't imagine."
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