By Janet Westling, REALTOR® at Prudential Network Realty Ponte Vedra
Dr. Harold Baumgarten – Jacksonville Beach, Florida – D- Day Survivor
Sixty nine years ago, on June 6, 1944, Harold Baumgarten, a 19 year old army private from the Bronx landed on a Normandy beach in France. The much awaited invasion began at dawn on a cold stormy morning with high seas, turbulent waters and 15 foot waves.
The landing did not go as planned. Under heavy German fire from bunkers on the top of the cliffs Baumgarten and one other soldier from his landing crew of 30 made it to shore.
He sustained 5 wounds in 32 hours, 3 were life threatening He was one of the lucky ones. Over 10,000 allies were injured or killed that day 2,499 Americans died. This D Day survivor lived to tell his story.
For 44 years Hal Baumgarten never spoke about D Day. He returned from the war, continued his education, married his wife Rita, raised 3 children, endured 24 corrective surgeries and became a physican healing others.
But in 1988, on his first trip back to Normandy that changed. Looking out on the beach, he could see his buddies who died. “On a visit to the American Cemetery in section D was the grave of my Lieutenant and all my guys who landed with me recalls Baumgarten .I looked up at Rita as I knelt over the graves with tears in my eyes and said that I now know one of the reasons God saved me, he wants me to be the spokesman for these people. They can’t speak anymore; no one will ever know their names or who they were. So I started speaking “.
D- Day Remembered –Soldiers Not Forgotten
From the French to the British ,CNN , the History Channel, Tom Brokaw ,Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and World War 11 museum Harold Baumgarten has spoken to, and been interviewed by them all and more. He has shared not only the horrors of war with great detail but vividly recalls the names of his buddies who died on an Atlantic beach in Normandy, France across the ocean where he lives today.
Hal Baumgarten and his wife Rita live in a beautiful condo overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. They have lived here for over 22 years. Dr. Baumgarten practiced medicine in private practice in Jacksonville, Florida for over 30 years, He spent the last 6 years before his retirement as a physician with the Veterans Administration Clinic.
Baumgarten has written two books with the prodding of his friend, the author and historian Steven Ambrose whom he met in Louisiana, at The University of New Orleans”. You can’t just speak about it, said Ambrose, ‘you have to write about it”
In 1994, Eyewitness on Omaha Beach was published. The revised edition was published in 1999. His second book D-Day Survivor was published in 2006. Today, his books are used in the History department at West Point and VMI.
On June 6, 2000, Baumgarten was the Veteran speaker at the opening of the World War 11 Museum, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The actor Tom hanks, who played Captain Miller in Steven Spielberg’s, “Saving Private Ryan” followed Baumgarten on stage.” He is the real thing; I am just an actor, said Hanks. His story is amazing”
After the speech, director, Spielberg approached Baumgarten to tell him that the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was inspired by Baumgartens oral history of events. Today they are friends and Baumgarten was a surprise guest on stage at the Kennedy Center honoring Spielberg.
Last August, I sat down with Dr. Harold Baumgarten for over four hours in his home. It was a beautiful summer day, the sky was clear and the ocean seas were calm. I listened as Baumgarten shared his recollections of D-Day. He started from the beginning with his induction in the military and assignment to the 116th Infantry of the 29th division. .
The Strong, the Brave, the Best- Our Greatest Generation
Assigned to the Stonewall Brigade, located in the crown heights of Plymouth, England, Baumgarten of company A /116th Infantry began to train for the “First Wave” on D-Day. “We didn’t know it at the time, recalls Baumgarten.” General Charles Gerhardt of the 29th was the former quarterback of the West Point football team. (In 1916, Gerhardt was the quarterback for West Point ,in the 30-10 upset win over Notre Dame, their only loss that year. The Fighting Irish, were led by famed Freshman George Gipp.)
He knew Eisenhower and Bradley because they were athletes at the Point”. Baumgartens outfit included players from the championship baseball team, championship football team and championship boxing team of the European Theater of Operation. . Part of their training, were 20 mile marches across England setting records. “So our General said to Eisenhower, we are the best here, so you have to let us be the first to land on D Day. So they put us under the command of the First Infantry.”
For three months along the coast of England and Wales, they climbed cliffs, conducted practice landings, and made preparations for the largest amphibious invasion in world history. They were told to burn their original gear and given new gear. It was then they knew they were going to be the first to land. Their first wave gear included morphine, bandages, a gas mask, seasick pills, and a combat jacket with grenades.
The Calm before the Storm – A Parade and Prayers
In April 1944 a parade took place at their camp in Blandford, England. The first battalion of the 116th Infantry 29th Division marched in the parade while the 29th division band played. General Eisenhower was in attendance. Two thirds of the men who marched that day never returned home.
A few days before deployment, Baumgarten and a few other Jewish soldiers were told they could attend Jewish services and Sabbath dinner before they shipped out.
The services were held in the small English village of Dorchester in their local Baptist church. The villagers placed the Jewish Star, over the Cross and for a short time the church became their synagogue. The church members donated their food rations to provide a Sabbath dinner to the young Jewish men who were preparing to ship out. Baumgarten attended the service and prayed. On D- Day he wore a jacket that bore the Star of David and the words “From the Bronx.” He wanted to let that Germans know who they were fighting.
The First Wave also known today as the suicide wave was the first to land on June 6, 1944. They went to shore at the Western part of Omaha beach, at Dog Green sector which was the most heavily defended. Their mission explained Baumgarten was to take the beach, capture the towns of Isigny-sur-Mer, St. Lo, Pont du Hoc, and eventually Germany.
The War Room
Inside Baumgartens home is a room he calls the “War Room.” The walls are lined with photos that have a special place in his heart. They include, among many, the photo of French President Jacque Chirac who awarded the French Legion of Honor to Baumgarten in 2005 to Tom Brokaw who interviewed Baumgarten on the NBC Nightly News and Bob Dole at his 80th birthday celebration and opening of the Bob Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence, Kansas. Prominently displayed is the print of his outfit the Stonewall Jackson Brigade. In 2007, he received a proclamation from the Florida Senate. After, he spoke at Florida State University, where Tom Brokaw set up an endowment in his name in their War Museum for $400,000
Today, Baumgarten, age 88, conducts interviews for print and television journalist, and gives speeches at Colleges, libraries, and museums. .When speaking, he refers to himself as a survivor with a mission, to make sure these men are never forgotten. He recently was interviewed for Vanity Fair TV and the History Channel for 2014. Dr. Baumgarten and his family plan to attend the 70th Anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2014, in Normandy, France.
Over 16 million men and women wore our uniform in World War II. This is the story of one but all were and will forever remain heroes.