Savannah, Ga. (WSAV) – It’s been 75 years but Fenton Ludtke still remembers the day when he and thousands of other soldiers landed on the beaches of France.
“The whole operation was called Overlord, the landing on D-Day,” he told me as I spoke with him in his Savannah home.
A native of Michigan, Ludtke says he was drafted during his first year of college and at age 20, found himself as part of a group landing on Utah Beach which he says is about 75 miles from Omaha Beach.
At 95 (96 in a few weeks) Ludtke says he doesn’t remember every detail, but he remembers enough, including the scary parts.
“We had never had an experience doing this, but we went down there with equipment and got into the Higgins boat and if you’ve seen pictures of them, we were stacked up I think like eggs in a carton, everybody in front of each other looking forward, ” he said. “And I sort of looked over the shoulder of the fellow in front of me and I could see off in the murky distance the gray ribbon of land. And I thought for an instant that I could get a bullet right now and it could all be over.”
Ludtke though said he “put that out of his mind immediately and when they landed he ran ahead.”
“I was amazed at how long that beach was because as we landed and splashed ashore we had to climb up a great distance with equipment and sand slipping beneath my feet,” Ludtke said.
Ludtke says he and others kept going because that’s what was expected of them. “Our cause was to defeat Germany.”
He told us of leaving his home and going to training to Fort Sam Houston and within about 60 days going to Africa to retrieve some German prisoners.
He came back to the U.S. for a time. Then he told us he was in the 3rd Army and talked about going overseas and landing in Scotland.
“On January 18, 1944, and I remember this because it was my mother’s birthday, I boarded a ship in the Boston area, and we headed to Europe, and we landed in Scotland. It was dark. All of Europe seemed to be blacked out at night. And at one point someone pulled up in a truck, and they got out, and they said – do you know who your boss is now? And we said no. And they said it’s General George Blood and Guts Patton.”
Ludtke says he was thrilled but that a chill also went down his spine because Patton was known as a tough guy and disciplinarian. “He was also a hell of a soldier,” Ludtke said.
Ludtke says he spent much of the war with a group of soldiers that guarded Patton. “And sometimes I tell people I wasn’t guarding him, he was guarding me,” Ludtke told us.
Ludtke talked of that day 75 years ago and what he did when he made it to the beach. “I went straight in past a bunker, a German bunker that had been hit thank God and it was destroyed and that was a bit of luck that that happened,” he said.
He also told us of a close call the next day when a German pilot commandeered an American plane that had apparently been shot down and the Germans had rebuilt to fly.
“Someone yelled to take cover and I heard the approaching plane and then I heard the sound of gunfire and I looked up and I saw the bullets hitting the ground next to me but not me,” he said with a slight smile.
About 25 years ago Ludtke went back to France to the same beach. He shows us a picture of him standing and looking out to the beach below.
“Down near the water’s edge there were two or three children playing Ring around the Rosy and I looked back and I get emotional even telling you here but these are playing Ring around the Rosy and I thought this is really what we fought the war for, for the peace of children being able to play.”
He said he never thought of himself as a hero but thinks the many who died were. Ludtke e at that time as something that shaped him, and he hopes still serves as an example.
“But I have to say people come up to me and say ‘Oh my hero, you’re one of my heroes’ and I say no, to me the heroes are those that were killed. They gave everything, they gave their lives so that I could live and others, so they are the heroes,” Ludtke told me.
“But I guess it’s comfortable for me to say that I lived in the greatest generation but maybe it’s enough to say I lived in the greatest country,” he told us.