Sixty-six years ago, on June 6, 1944, Bangor resident Lester Cohen was one of the thousands upon thousands of troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, and created a toehold for Allied forces that 11 months later would lead to the fall of German dictator Adolf Hitler.
Cohen, now 85, was 19 when he led a group of eight U.S. Army soldiers up the steep banks of Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, called history’s “Longest Day.”
He and his men were part of Battery B of the 110th Infantry Gunnery Battalion, which was attached to the 1st Army, and landed on the beach just after noon in the battle that began in the early morning hours.
Cohen remembers the seawater that crashed ashore in waves was dark red from blood. He remembers leading his team past the dead bodies of his fellow soldiers who had fought to take the ground before them.
He remembers German bullets raining down on his team from the beach’s high embankment and having to take cover by jumping behind a dead body. And he remembers the first time he had to raise a weapon against another human being.
“When you see them firing at you, you get mad and fire back,” Cohen said Sunday.
Cohen, like many World War II veterans, kept his wartime experiences secret, and only in the past few years has he been able to speak about them.
The WWII veterans, many now in their 80s and 90s, wanted to protect themselves and the ones they love from the pain and grief that are associated with death and injury, Cohen explained.
On D-Day, he and all eight men in his command made it to the ridge of Omaha Beach and cleared the way for the installation of anti-aircraft artillery.
After securing the beach, Cohen’s unit made its way to “a little French town called Vierville-sur-Mer” Cohen said. “That means old town by the sea.”
In a field just before the town, Cohen decided to get rid of his military dog tags, in case he was captured. To be Jewish at the time was a dangerous thing, he said.
“My name is Cohen, and there was no doubt that I was Jewish, and I heard what they were doing to little Jewish boys like me,” he said. “I threw them into the first field we went to. I took off my dog tags and crumpled them up and buried them using the heal of my boot.”
During a trip back to Normandy Beach in 1983, he saw a set of crumpled dog tags in a museum that was erected near that field, but because of the way they were displayed he couldn’t read the name
His curiosity made him return to the museum during a second trip to the region in 2000, but the dog tags were gone. He was told the display had been sold to a larger museum.
After Normandy, Cohen went on to serve in four other major European battles during World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge. The bronze arrowhead that was given to all soldiers who landed on D-Day is the medal he said he treasures the most.
Cohen’s stories about the carnage of war are counterbalanced by his stories of liberating the French.
He recalled the French people shouted, “The liberators” in their native tongue when he and his battalion — the first Americans to arrive — made their way into Paris.
The fact that many were Jewish lifted his heart.
“Many have been hiding in cellars and houses and other places for four years, and many have kept their nationality a secret for fear of being harmed,” he wrote in an Aug. 30, 1944, letter to his mother, Celia.
The strength of one man, a Parisian wearing a red Star of David patch, which Jewish people were required to wear while the area was occupied by the Germans, stands out in Cohen’s memory.
He spoke to the man briefly through a fence, but that short interaction speaks volumes about strength, he said.
“I told him, ‘You don’t have to wear that now,’” Cohen recalled of the patch. “He said, ‘I know. I had to wear it before, and I choose to wear it now.’
“That little 30 seconds has stayed with me for the rest of my life,” the Bangor resident said.
He was in Germany when the war ended.