Henry Langrehr answers the door of his Clinton, Iowa, home with a briskness that belies his 94 years, his eyes bright with gratitude for the life he's been allowed to live.
Seventy-five years ago Thursday, Langrehr, then 19, was among 15 paratroopers in a plane of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, lifting off of British soil, heading for France.
Their C-47 transport was one of 822 planes that would take off that night from four different airfields, circling until all were in formation. The paratroopers were to drop in behind enemy lines, the advance force of what remains the most massive invasion of all time, the push to defeat Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, beginning with D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Langrehr was the first man in the door and could look out. He remembers the scene vividly, one of an ever-dwindling number who can tell the story first-hand.
This is his story, from landing to being wounded and taken prisoner, from his escape to his return to Clinton and his life and feelings today.
It was a beautiful night with a full moon, but the sky was barely visible for all the planes, flying three layers deep, with transport planes such as his in the middle, bombers above and fighters below, he said.
Down below, "in the English Channel, there were so many ships — they say 5,000 — I swear, and I will use that word, that I could have walked to England on the ships."
Scared? "A man would be foolish to say he wasn't afraid," Langrehr said.
As the planes neared France, the German anti-aircraft guns were ready.
"Being in the door I could see all the tracer bullets and anti-aircraft fire bursting around our plane," Langrehr said. "A shell burst outside and we took shrapnel. It killed a man next to me and one on the opposite side.
"I could see the look in his face. He was really bloody, then he collapsed."
"We hit a patch of fog over our jump zone and it made us late getting out of our plane. When we cleared the fog, we were about five miles past our DZ (drop zone) and in the city of Sainte Mere Eglise."
The scene before them was surreal, immortalized in the 1962 movie "The Longest Day," with an all-star cast including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton and Sean Connery.
A fire had broken out in the main square — likely started by a flare of bomb — with townspeople running around to try to put it out, German soldiers standing guard, and the town's church bells ringing, like a car alarm that is stuck.
Several paratroopers fell into trees and two dropped into the fire.
Langrehr plunged through the glass roof of a greenhouse, hit the floor and was out the door.
Hanging on a wall in the basement of Langrehr's home is a framed photo of how the greenhouse looks today, rebuilt after the war. Langrehr points to one of the glass ceiling panels. "This is about where I came down, and this is the door," he said.
"It was all kind of a blur what happened," he said. "There was a terrific amount of confusion and the Germans were running all over. There was a high wall around the place. I went up and over that and then out into the churchyard. That's when I looked up and saw John Steele."
Paratrooper hanging from a church steeple
Steele, a friend of Langrehr's who had been riding in the plane ahead of him, was dangling from the church steeple, his chute snagged on a spire. He had lost his knife so couldn't cut himself down. He played dead, dangling for more than two hours before a German cut him down and took him prisoner.
Today that scene is immortalized by the French who keep a uniformed mannequin hanging from the church.
That night, Langerhr recalls three women coming up to him, crying, pleading, "Don't leave us, don't leave us."
"I said, 'No, we're here to stay.'
"But the shelling was pretty heavy and the town lost quite a few civilians. I often wondered what happened to them (the women)."
Meantime, dodging gunfire, Langrehr made his way out of town and into the darkness of the surrounding countryside, heading for his destination at a bridge. Ste. Mere Eglise stood in the middle of a route that the Germans would most likely have used in any significant counterattack on the troops landing on the Normandy beaches, and Langrehr's unit was tasked with taking and holding the bridge or — if they could not hold it — to blow it up.
He guesses he covered a distance of three to five miles, running and walking. "It is a very strange feeling when you land alone in enemy territory and you have to recognize friend or foe at once," he said. "The fighting was at close quarters and very hard... You can see their faces, and they're young, too."
Langrehr and others defended the bridge for about a month when shrapnel from a tank shell tore through his back and legs. He drifted in and out of consciousness, coming to in a German field hospital as a prisoner of war.
Stopping in Auschwitz, working in a coal mine
From there he was transferred to a hospital outside of Paris, then was put on a train and transported to a coal mine in Czechoslovakia, stopping at Auschwitz, Poland, where about 2½ million people were executed in the notorious concentration camp.
This was the Holocaust, and don't tell Langrehr it didn't happen.
"We could see and smell what was going on," he said. "We could see trains coming in, filled with people, leaving empty. They (the Nazi) were gassing them (the Jews and others considered unfit) so fast that the crematoriums couldn't keep up with them, so they stacked the bodies along the fence. There were children and women with their hair cut off."
Langrehr was taken to Stalag 12A, where he was issued a dog tag — now in a frame on the wall of his basement — with the numbers 84 80.
The commandant — who spoke good English — lined up the prisoners and told them that they were never going to escape from the stalag, that no one had ever escaped, and that if they tried, "we will find you and we will shoot you," Langrehr said.
The commandant called two men out, lined them up, shot them and put them in a wooden box. "Then everybody had to walk by. That sinks in pretty good."
Langrehr's job was to mine coal in a cavern 2,500 feet below ground, and at first he resisted, saying that, under the accords of the Geneva Convention, he could not be made to work.
The soldier in charge "took his rifle and knocked me down and worked me over good," Langrehr said. "The next day it was the same thing all over again."
An old Czech miner told Langrehr to work or he would die, so he worked.
"It didn't bother me to be underground," Langrehr said. "What bothered me was how they treated people. It was run by the SS, the dregs of society. You could tell by looking at them that they didn't consider you anything.
"We worked 12-hour shifts, and when you came up the elevator to the tipple, (an apparatus for emptying coal), "you would see the bodies of the people who had died on your shift."
Langrehr's shirt would get wet with sweat from working in the mine, and, walking back to camp, it would freeze to his body. He marvels that more people didn't die.
He guesses he worked in the mine for about four months — until a cold and rainy night in April when he and another American escaped.
Escape, life on the lam
"We were coming back from our shift. The barracks were about a mile from the coal mine. The weather was miserable, and they were two guards short. There were usually six guards, two in the front, two in the middle and two in the back. They were missing the two in the middle (where he was)."
When Langrehr and his friend came to an area with brush and trees, they slipped away.
"I remember someone behind us saying, 'Good luck.'"
"There was a barn just a short distance away and we took off running for the barn. But a Volkstrum (people's policeman) saw us coming and hollered for us to halt."
They ran inside the door and "for some reason — I don't know why — I stood behind the door and grabbed a piece of board that they had used to hold the door shut with. I had that in my hand."
The policeman came in and shot Langrehr's friend. "I hit him (the soldier) in the face and killed him. I don't even like to say that. I took his pistol and ammunition and ran.
"A little ways away I could hear dogs."
Langrehr took to a stream, walking until he couldn't hear the dogs anymore.
Traveling at night, he made his way to where he thought the Americans eventually would be coming on their advance.
"Each day was a nightmare," he said, as he tried to remain hidden while the Germans were being forced into an ever-smaller area, in pretty much full-flight. What saved him, he said, is that they were sticking to the road. If they had fanned out across the fields, he likely would have been found.
Meantime, he needed to steal food. "I won't even say what I had to do to get food," he said. "I left a trail of people behind me.
"Nobody could tell you the amount of fear that is there when you know you don't have a chance of living if they find you.
"I'm not proud of what I had to do."
Deliverance, those who didn't make it
Eventually, Langrehr heard the rolling barrage of American artillery fire. "When you're a soldier, you know when it's your artillery. You can tell by the sound."
He knew he had to pick his time, though, because if he just stepped out of the bushes, he probably would have been shot before the soldiers realized he was an American.
So we waited, and finally there was a Jeep with a radio man who stopped. "He must have been making a call. I tapped him on the shoulder and he about died. I scared him to death."
"I told him, 'I'm awful glad to see you guys.'" Langrehr was wearing the uniform he had been wearing since D-Day, nearly 10 months before.
Langrehr was taken to field headquarters where he was debriefed — "they want to know what you know, if anything" — and then was flown to France.
And, one stop after another, he made his way back to Clinton on a train, back to his parents and his girlfriend, Arlene.
None of them had any idea if he was still alive.
The homecoming was so emotional that even today, "it's not real clear in my mind if I saw my folks first or my girlfriend," he said.
Langrehr is filled with gratitude for the life he has been allowed to live when so many around him were killed and when he, himself, could have been killed any number of times if things had gone just slightly different.
"Like I said, God's been good."
During a trip back to France in 1987, he visited the American cemetery, filled with white crosses, marking graves of the dead, for as far as the eye can see.
"When I was there and I looked at the cemetery ... I just hope the American people realize what they (those soldiers) gave up," he said. "They never had a family, they never reaped the benefits of what they were fighting for.
"There were a lot of Gold Star mothers."