A Memorial Day Tribute by David Montgomery

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Seventy-three years ago next week, Pfc Raymond Richard Stednitz landed at Omaha Beach with the 29th Infantry Division. It was his first day in combat, and he survived.

Ray was born and grew up in Hoboken, NJ. He married Rita Basso on April 19, 1942 and had three children – Ray Jr, Helene and my wife, Esther. Ray died in St Michaels in 1999. While terminally ill, he wrote a journal that chronicled his entire life. He served on active duty for 58 months, starting even before war was declared, and his account of those years provides a fitting reflection for Memorial Day.

World War II disrupted some of the most important years of Ray’s life. He met his wife-to-be on July 5, 1940, on a blind date arranged by his brother. They had only been dating for a few months when Roosevelt mobilized the National Guard, which Ray had joined some years earlier. At the time, Ray was working as a shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was a skilled job, going down into the hull of a ship after worn and damaged parts had been removed to make exact templates for replacement parts, and it paid well.

Because of his work, Ray was offered a deferment by the Commandant of the Navy Yard, who left the choice up to him. Ray writes that the activation of the Guard “was supposed to be for only a year. I guess I’ll never know if I made the right decision. Hitler was rolling through Europe and nobody here seemed worried…. A new draft for Service Personnel had just started and I probably would have got drafted later on. But I decided to spend the next year with the guys I knew.”

He and his friends were sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where their first job was to build the camp where they would spend the next few years. “I knew my way around a hammer, saw and tape measure and did a lot of carpenter work. Unlike the Navy, there was no such animal as a carpenter or fitter, you made do with whatever was around.” Ray’s unit was a heavy weapons company in the 44th Infantry Division. He thought the winter of 1941 was miserable at Fort Dix, but the trip home to Hoboken took only about two hours.

On Saturday, December 6 his unit was on its way back to Fort Dix from maneuvers near Fort Bragg. “It was the day we were all looking forward to. Back to camp in a few days and for some of us a discharge in a day or two, then back home to a normal life.”

“Around midnight some kid came into our camp saying that it came over the radio that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor.” Shortly thereafter, the 44th Division was reorganized and Ray’s regiment became the independent 113th Infantry Combat Team. After the Coast Guard captured a group of German saboteurs nearby, the 113th was assigned to augment the short-handed Coast Guard in patrolling the coast. “We roamed the highways along the coast for a couple of days, then off to Fort Monmouth” and then were sent to Eatontown Woods, 50 miles from home in Hoboken. “We patrolled the beaches from Ft Hancock on the south side of Sandy Hook and Seabright all the way down to Long Branch, which was more populated and about 15 miles away.”

“Our night headquarters we occupied the Highlands Police Station, the next town north of Sandy Hook. We had a jeep with a 30 caliber machine gun mounted on it for any emergency that might arise.”

“Around the end of March, on one of my visits home, Rita and I decided to get married, no engagement, no waste of time, we weren’t sure what would happen tomorrow.” They were married in April, 1942.

Ray’s regiment remained in New Jersey until March 1944. His first son was born on Christmas Eve, 1943. “My son was only two months old when we were told that we were moving out of the woods in Eatontown and were being replaced by some reconnaissance outfit. … I managed to make another trip home before leaving Eatontown for Fort Dix the next morning”

From Fort Dix, the 113th was sent to Fort Meade. “It was a madhouse and the first thing we had to do when we got there was to get a GI haircut. The first one for me ever. It seems that GIs from all over were assembled here. Our outfit was split in half. Half were sent to the Pacific and half to Europe.”

Ray’s unit was moved to Brockton, Mass, an embarkation port and staging area. They arrived around noon and found they would be leaving the next day for England. Ever resourceful, Ray hitchhiked into Boston and caught the next express train to NY where he caught the train into Hoboken. “I got there about 9:30 or so and I said by-by for a little while to my little girl. The time never went so fast, I knew it would be awhile until we saw each other again.” When Ray returned to Brockton, “the place was wide open and I guess that they expected that a lot of GIs would make that ‘last visit.’” Ray and about 3000 men boarded the passenger liner “Brittanica” and joined a large convoy that fought its way through the remaining U-boats to England.

Ray was not fond of England. “We slept on ironing boards with straw mattresses. … Their food was no better, they cooked everything in the same grease, including fish.”

From here on, I will just transcribe Ray’s memoir.

“However, things got worse. On the morning of June 4th, we went down to Southampton where the 29th Division were getting ready for D-Day and I was assigned to the 175th Infantry as a replacement machine gunner in Co. D, 1st Battalion. It would be quite a while before we would get a decent meal. We were now on K rations. A meal in the size of a Cracker Jack box. Three boxes a day, all protein, but you were always hungry.”

“We boarded a destroyer the afternoon of the 4th and joined a multitude of all kinds of vessels in the channel, and after dark, headed for France to land on a beach designated as “Omaha” Beach and the landing site for the 29th Infantry Division, with the 1st Infantry Division on our left.”

“We were supposed to land on the morning of the 5th, but the weather got bad, the sea got awful rough and they decided not to land and backed up into the center of the Channel. A little better weather was predicted for the next day and “IKE” decided to go in rather than wait for another “good tide.” So on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944 around 6 AM our 175th Infantry Regiment started landing on Omaha Beach, Normandie, France.”

“We went over the side of that destroyer on nets along the side and boarded little LCVP’s which held about ten men, and headed for shore. We were about fifty feet from the beach when we got hung up on an obstacle. A Coast Guardsman was operating the boat and he did the best job possible. Anyhow my guys got out in about three feet of water and waded the rest of the way to the beach. I looked at my wristwatch and it said 7:08 and I think it stopped there as it got all wet along with the rest of us.”

“Already there was sinking and burning of all types of our craft everywhere. There were also bodies laying all over the beach, which we tried to hide behind. That was a long day and we didn’t get off the beach until late afternoon. It was the worst beach of all out of the five landing sites. Eight thousand men died on that beach that day.”

Where Omaha Beach was a day of horror, the fighting was not over when Ray got off the beach. He tells the story of the rest of the war in one paragraph, and never talked about it to his family.

“The rest of the war was history. I wrote to Rita whenever it was possible and so did she, but I always told her that things were not too bad and would see each other again soon. The coldest winter in 57 years, we lasted it out, thank God, and on the 27th day of April 1945 we took the little town of Hitzacker on the Elbe River, the end of the line for us, the war was over and on the 8th day of May it was over for everybody, the terms of surrender were signed, Hitler had committed suicide. I had a few days to rest and write letters.”

Ray does not mention that at some point, he was wounded and awarded a Purple Heart. He may have been at the one of the most ferocious battles of the war on “Purple Heart Hill” on June 18, 1944. The 1st Battalion was positioned in front of the 175th regiment when it attacked German positions on the way toward St. Lo. After it took a small rise known as Hill 108, the Germans struck back with artillery and infantry counterattacks. More than half the battalion was reported killed or injured in the ensuing day of fighting. 1st Battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and the French Army’s Croix de Guerre with Silver-Gilt Star for its stand on Hill 108.

Once the fighting ended, Ray’s unit moved through several towns on occupation duty until “the boys upstairs got organized with the separation system. You needed 65 points to be eligible to go home. I had 127 points and on the morning of 6 June, they told me to get my stuff together and leave in a couple of hours … they were going to fly us home.”

The epic journey home was one of Ray’s favorite stories. He and his buddies went by train from the Weser River to a small town in the south of France, where “all of a sudden we were the cream of society, especially if you wore the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge.” At their next stop, “on the chow line in the kitchen tent was a German POW handing out food. We recognized each other immediately. I had captured him in France. He was glad that it was over, too.” Next came a ride on stripped down B17s to Casablanca and then hopping from one flight to another to make the fastest possible trip home. I heard stories about getting home and about his time at Fort Dix, but Ray never talked about his experiences in Europe.”

Ray’s reflections on the war are those of a man who did his duty but never wanted to be a soldier: “Somewhere along the line I discovered that military life was not meant for me. Wearing a uniform with all kinds of medals and braid never appealed to me. I still feel that there are more important things in life than soldiering, especially in the infantry. However, when the chips were down, I gave a good account of my self.”

“I missed one of the most important parts of a father’s life, seeing his son grow up and learning how to walk. Those 18 months they can never give me back. It definitely had an adverse effect on the future.”

Ray came home, but he still gave a good part of his life for his country.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

Letters to Editor

  1. Rem Simpson says:

    A wonderful story. Thank you.

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