‘I was afraid of getting captured’: Jewish Maine soldier who stormed Omaha Beach thankful to have survived
BANGOR, Maine — When 19-year-old Lester Cohen — one of the 160,000 soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day — joined the Army to fight against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi forces, he already knew that the German dictator was systematically killing off his people.
Cohen, who is Jewish, had heard the horror stories about what Hitler was doing to Jewish people in German-occupied countries during World War II and it scared and angered the young soldier from Biddeford.
“Being a Cohen, I was afraid of getting captured,” Cohen, 89, who lives in Bangor, said during a recent interview about the historic day 70 years ago when Allied forces created a toehold that 11 months later would lead to Hitler’s downfall.
“There was no doubt that I was Jewish, and I heard what they were doing to little Jewish boys like me,” he said during a previous interview.
Cohen said he hated the Germans for what they did, and he let that anger change him into a soldier during the war. He said he has spent the rest of his life repaying God for sparing his life while in uniform.
The U.S. Army anti-aircraft artilleryman, a mechanic who fixed guns, was aboard the LST-510, a large landing ship for tanks, on June 6, 1944, until he was loaded onto a smaller, flat-bottomed Landing Craft Tank for the approach to the blood-filled waters of Omaha Beach.
“The bodies were rolling all around the ocean on D-Day, in with the tide, out with the tide. Some with one arm. Some with no arms. Some with no legs,” said Cohen, who volunteered with others in his unit to check the bodies of his brothers-in-arms to see if any were living.
LST-510 had three doctors who treated wounded men on the ship’s tank deck.
Cohen and his men were part of Battery B of the 110th Anti-Aircraft Artillery, an infantry gunnery battalion that was attached to the 1st Army. Their goal was to remove the German artillery and replace it with their own. They landed on the beach just after noon in the battle, called history’s “Longest Day,” that began at around 6:30 a.m.
“One motor conked out [in the Landing Craft Tank], so we were going in circles,” Cohen recalled about the beach landing. “A man was out there in a boat directing traffic, like a traffic cop.
“I looked to my right where we were supposed to land,” he said. “A mine blew up right where we were supposed to go.”
Once on the beach, German bullets rained down on his team as Cohen led them up to the steep banks past the dead bodies of his fellow soldiers who had fought to take the ground before them. At one point, he had to take cover by jumping behind a dead body. They were ordered to stop the last remaining German 88 mm gun above them in heavily armed bunkers on the cliffs. As the land troops closed in on their target, artillery from ships offshore were able to destroy the enemy’s last cannon.
The memories have never left him, but he kept them hidden for decades from the people he loved as a way to protect them from the carnage he saw while in uniform, said his wife, Honey Cohen, who married him on Feb. 15, 1959.
He never stopped working to better the lives of people around him to repay God for sparing his life, she said, listing 55 years as a Mason, 50 years as a Bangor Noontime Kiwanis member, and countless hours on the board and volunteering at both the Shaw House for homeless youth and his synagogue, Beth Israel Synagogue in Bangor.
“He did a lot of community work,” his wife said Friday of her husband, who returned to the states to sell life insurance and do estate planning. “He worked in the soup kitchen, through Kiwanis, for years and years.”
After securing the beach, Lester Cohen’s unit made their way to the village of Vierville-sur-Mer, where Cohen buried his military dog tags in a field just in case he was captured.
“I said to myself, ‘Gee, I’ve got to take these dog tags off’ and hide them because I’m a nice little Jewish boy firing at those [expletive] Germans,’” he said.
During a trip back to Normandy Beach in 1983, he saw a set of crumpled dog tags in a museum that was located near that field, but because of the way they were displayed he couldn’t read the name. He believes those light aluminum dog tags were his, but he isn’t sure. On a second trip to the region in 2000, he learned the display had been sold to a larger museum.
He joined the U.S. Army in March 1943, following in the footsteps of his three older brothers and many others in the United States and Europe who signed on to defeat Hitler and the Nazis, who had already targeted and killed millions of Jews, gypsies and disabled people.
“There were about 160 guys in the original unit, and we’re down to 15,” said John Kreckler of Boston, who was in Cohen’s unit and continues to put out a newsletter for the ever decreasing group of veterans.
After Normandy, Cohen’s unit went on to serve in four other major European battles during World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge.
“We liberated a work camp — the first of three that we liberated,” Cohen recalled. “There were some Jews in there in black and white stripes. I saw people who didn’t know where they were. I remember pulling out my Lucky Strikes [cigarettes] and putting the pack under the fence. I lit one and then we were shuffled away from them, they said, ‘The medics are right behind us, keep moving.’”
The war stories are counterbalanced by Cohen’s stories of liberating the French when he and his battalion — the first Americans to arrive — made their way into Paris.
“Have you ever seen people who were crazy with happiness?” he said in an Aug. 30, 1944, letter to his mother, Celia, that he showed to the Bangor Daily News. “That is the way people are here” in France.
The French people shouted, “The liberators” in their native tongue as they lined the streets to meet the Allied troops.
“All they had was tomatoes and champagne,” the former sergeant said. “They had very little food.”
The lifelong Mainer learned that many of the Jews he met, “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,” Cohen said in the letter home.
That is why, when he arrived back in Maine, the first thing he did was borrow the keys to his local synagogue so he could thank God.
“I owed him a thanks, and he got it,” said Cohen, who spent his life helping those less fortunate than himself. “I paid him back through the years the best I could.”