Robert Bern’s first job upon landing on a Normandy beach in France 67 years ago today was to pick up the dead. “We couldn’t even walk on the beach because of the dead,” the 86-year-old said.
Robert Bern’s first job upon landing on a Normandy beach in France 67 years ago today was to pick up the dead.
“We couldn’t even walk on the beach because of the dead,” the 86-year-old Galesburg native said. “We couldn’t even bring the motor vehicles on."
“There were so many bodies … everywhere,” Bern chokingly said.
Today is the 67th anniversary of D-Day, the pivotal World War II invasion that left more than 9,000 Allied soldiers dead or wounded.
“It was horrible,” Bern said.
He enlisted in the Army at age 18 on June 5, 1943. One year and one day later, Bern found himself on the other side of the world on that historic day that marked the beginning of the drive to break the German occupation of Europe.
Of the 16 million U.S. soldiers who served in World War II, only 1.7 million are still alive.
Bern was an engineer with the 6th Engineer Special Brigade assigned to the 405th Infantry, 102nd Division.
“We had to clear the path for the second wave,” he said, recalling the Normandy campaign that lasted until June 30, 1944.
“There were times we had to use our rifles” as German troops fired down on the American soldiers from pillboxes, he said. “They were killing our boys.”
Bern spent 21 months overseas before being discharged on Dec. 30, 1945.
During his service, Bern received the Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf, Good Conduct Medal, European Theater of Operations with four stars and arrowhead, WWII Victory Medal and occupational medals.
After being discharged, Bern returned to Galesburg. He retired about 20 years ago from commercial painting.
Today, he recalls his service and reflects on the duty he and his fellow soldiers completed.
“I was really proud being in the Army,” he said.
He returned recently from an Honor Flight trip to see the World War II Memorial and other sites in Washington, D.C.
“That was amazing,” he said. “It was wonderful … beautiful.”
On Memorial Day, Bern missed the parade in Galesburg because he was in the hospital.
His health has deteriorated greatly in the last two years or so after being diagnosed with skin cancer. One and a half years ago, his left leg was amputated just above the knee due to the cancer that persists.
The recent hospitalization was due to malignant pleural effusion, a lung condition possibly caused by spreading of the cancer.
“They say there’s nothing more to do really,” Bern said. “I probably have about six months.”
That’s one reason why he contacted The Register-Mail to tell his story.
“I just want people to remember the service of all the men, and to remember D-Day,” he said.