Walter Ehlers, the last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor to participate in the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II, died Feb. 20 at a veterans’ hospital in Long Beach, Calif. He was 92.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced his death. The cause was kidney failure.
The Kansas-born Ehlers joined the Army in 1940 along with his older brother, Roland. They spent much of the war together in the same units and took part in campaigns in North Africa and Sicily before the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France in 1944.
Both brothers were members of the 18th Regiment of the First Army Division, but shortly before the Normandy invasion, Roland was transferred to a different company. They were several hundred yards apart, aboard separate landing craft, as the second wave of Allied forces swarmed ashore during the amphibious assault on Normandy’s Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, or D-Day.
Walter Ehlers, then a staff sergeant, led his 12-man reconnaissance team onto the sands through water that was sometimes above their heads. They found a path that skirted German-laid land mines, crossed barbed-wire fences and moved inland.
“All 12 of us got off Omaha Beach without a man wounded, which was a miracle,” Ehlers told World War II magazine in 2012. “There were so many bodies everywhere. It was 60 times worse than ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ “
A day after the invasion, he learned that his brother was missing, but that was all he knew. On June 9, Ehlers and his small unit came under attack. He spotted four German riflemen through an opening in a hedgerow and picked each of them off, one by one, before they could fire back.
Next, he crawled toward a Nazi machine-gun emplacement, sneaked in from behind and, in the terse language of his Medal of Honor citation, “put it out of action.”
With his team still under bombardment from two mortar positions and machine guns shooting in a crossfire, Ehlers ordered his troops to fix their bayonets.
“I came upon a mortar section with five or six people,” he told the Orange County Register in 1994. “That’s where my bayonet came in handy. They looked horrified and started running.”
Ehlers killed at least three enemy soldiers himself, then crawled toward another machine-gun position. He “leaped to his feet,” his citation noted, “and, although greatly outnumbered, he knocked out the position single-handed.”
The next day, surrounded by German soldiers, Ehlers and another soldier climbed a small rise and, standing completely exposed, kept up a steady barrage of rifle fire to allow the other men to withdraw.
Although Ehlers was shot through the back, he managed to carry a fellow soldier, who suffered more grievous wounds, from the field. He then returned to retrieve his fellow soldier’s rifle.
After having his wounds treated, Ehlers was unable to wear a backpack, so he strapped two bandoleers of bullets across his chest, grabbed his rifle and led his squad to safety. In a two-day period, he killed at least seven and as many as 18 German soldiers.
“I was very lucky,” Ehlers said in 2012, describing the bullet that made a clean transit through his body. The bullet hit a bar of soap in his pack, tore through the edge of an envelope containing a picture of his mother, then pierced his trench shovel.
“It was very close to my spinal cord,” he said. “I still have that picture of my mother, with that stern look her face that says, ‘How dare they!’ “
Walter David Ehlers was born May 7, 1921, in Junction City, Kan. He and his brother spent summers together working on family farms.
More than a month after D-Day, his brother’s commanding officer told Ehlers that Roland was killed when his landing craft was struck by an artillery shell as it approached Omaha Beach.
Ehlers saluted, walked away, then for the first and only time in the war, in his words, “went to pieces.”
He was one of 12 participants in the Normandy invasion to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for military valor. Nine of them received it posthumously.
Ehlers later returned to combat in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded three more times. His other decorations included the Silver Star and two Bronze Star medals.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Dorothy Decker Ehlers; three children; three sisters; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
After the war, Ehlers settled in Buena Park, Calif., and worked as a counselor for the Veterans Administration for almost 30 years.
During 50th-anniversary observances of D-Day in 1994, Ehlers returned to Normandy and walked alongside President Bill Clinton on Omaha Beach. Only after speaking to a group of thousands of veterans gathered at Normandy, he said, did he stop having nightmares about losing his brother.
He may have received the Medal of Honor, but many others, Ehlers said, were just as brave.
“I know my brother, Roland, was one of them,” he said in 2003. “He was the bravest man I ever knew. My hero. Not a day goes by I don’t think about him.”