I’d watched ABC Evening News for years until a couple of years ago, when the wife of a Medal of Honor recipient told me Brian Williams of NBC News profiles each Medal of Honor recipient the day he dies.
Last week, I was saddened to hear Williams tell of the death of the only living recipient from Kansas, Walt Ehlers, 92, who had lived in California since the 1950s. I had the great pleasure of meeting him several years ago when he visited Leavenworth and Col (Ret.) Roger Donlon, Vietnam War recipient, brought him by our house.
He was a very humble man, and I liked him at first sight. He was rare, as many recipients are, for his citation was for two days of fighting against German forces after the Normandy Invasion of June 6, 1944.
Amazingly, during the “Longest Day” as it has been dubbed, of the thousands of invading forces there was only one Medal of Honor awarded for D-Day. That was to Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. His award was posthumous, as he died of a heart attack that day.
Ehlers’ award was for fighting on June 9 and 10 as a staff sergeant in the famous First Infantry Division, known as The Big Red One.
He was born in Junction City, Kan., and he and his brother joined the Army before Pearl Harbor to help their family during the Depression. The brothers served together in North Africa and Italy, but were separated before the Normandy landings.
Sadly, his brother Roland was killed on D-Day, although Walt didn’t know it until several days later. Roland’s remains were never recovered.
He said after the war the best thing he’d ever done in his life was getting the 12 men in his squad off the beach without a single casualty. That didn’t last for long, as he was wounded in one of the battles that led to his award of the Medal of Honor.
A sad aspect of Ehler’s death, which leaves 75 living recipients, is it was not in any newspaper I’ve seen. A large metropolitan daily paper in the area publishes each Sunday what it titled “Final Chapters,” that profiles prominent deaths during the previous week.
Ehlers died Thursday, which should have been plenty of time for it to be in the Sunday notices. But, it wasn’t. It was doubly sad due to his local connection as the only living recipient from any war from Kansas.
After the war, Ehlers decided to live in Buena Park, Calif., and worked for the Veterans Administration, helping fellow veterans during his working career.
His citation for the Medal of Honor, written in the stilted language of “official militarese,” tells of him “crawling forward under withering machine gun fire, he pounced upon the gun crew and put it out of action.”
I thought it was carnivorous animals that pounced on their prey.
He was credited with killing at least seven German soldiers during several of his actions during the two days of fighting.
In November, the U.S. Postal Service released a new commemorative stamp that featured a photograph of the few living World War III Medal of Honor recipients. Again, sadly, Ehlers is the third one pictured who has died since the stamp was issued.
The decorated Old Soldier lived a long, productive life helping others. Now, he has joined his comrades of battles so long ago in the eternal rest they have earned. That doesn’t mean we who met him won’t miss him.