Walt and Roland Ehlers enlisted in the U.S. Army from Manhattan, Kansas in 1940 as the country prepared to meet the threat of war that was raging overseas. When that war finally came in December 1941 the Ehlers were among the first in the fight. They fought side by side in the same unit of the First Division for the country’s first battles in North Africa and Sicily. By June 1944 the Ehlers were experienced veterans and respected leaders among their men.
After Sicily the Ehlers were split up. Walt and Roland each lead a squad for the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. They landed on Omaha Beach in the second wave. It was the deadliest spot to be that day. Walt’s landing craft miraculously escaped the notice of the German defenders and came ashore unscathed. Tragically, however, the craft that Roland was in had just made it to the beach when it was hit by a German artillery shell. Roland and his whole squad were killed instantly as they tried to make it down the ramp onto shore.
Walt did not find out his brother’s fate until over a month later. In the meantime, he was busy making a name for himself in the fields of France. On June 9th Walt was leading his squad through a field when they were suddenly ambushed by German machine guns. As another squad was pinned down by fire, Walt rushed around the side and took the Germans by surprise, eliminating the threat. Encouraged by Walt’s actions, his men laid down covering fire as Walt systematically knocked out two German mortars and another machine gun.
On the very next day Walt and his squad were ordered to take the lead as his company crossed an open field toward enemy positions. When the Germans opened fire it became clear that there was no way to move forward. Walt was ordered to retreat, but the enemy was moving in. He knew as soon as his men turned and ran they would be cut down by the enemy. Seeing no other options, Walt and his automatic rifleman jumped up out of cover and began shooting into enemy positions, taking all attention on themselves while the rest of the men escaped. Finally, when the squad was safely out of sight, Walt, though injured himself, picked up his wounded comrade and escaped to the rear.
Walter Ehlers was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in France and become a hero to many Americans in his later years. On the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion Walt returned to France and gave a speech before President Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth of England. In his speech Walt told the audience, “I pray that the price we paid on this beach will never be mortgaged, that my grandsons and granddaughters will never face the terror and horror that we faced here. But they must know that without freedom there is no life, and that the things most worth living for may sometimes demand dying for.”
Roland Ehlers paid the ultimate price as a young man in France. Walter survived the war and went on to be the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from Normandy. He died at the age of 92 in 2014. We honor both of their sacrifices.
History of the 101 The Forgotten 101 2610 From Riley