On June 6, 1944, a coalition of mainly British, Canadian and American forces launched their ambitious D-Day invasion. Allied infantry sailed to the beaches of Normandy (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword) on fairly flimsy landing craft with Allied navy and the air support, which was often unreliable. It was a good day for the largest amphibious invasion in military history; Adolf Hitler overslept on that day, and General Erwin Rommel was away from Normandy, visiting his family in Germany. Ultimately, the invasion would prove to be a huge success, and become one of the key turning points of World War Two. Yet, the invasion was costly. An accepted statistic of casualties suffered by the Allied Powers resulting from the D-Day invasion is 10,000 dead, wounded or missing. The U. S. D-Day Memorial Foundation has identified 4,413 total deaths that resulted from the invasion, with 2, 499 of them being from the United States military.
The remarkable survival story of U. S. Private Harold “Hal” Baumgarten (1925-2016) demonstrated just how chaotic and violent the D-Day invasion was and vividly illustrated some of the dangers and obstacles the invasion force faced in Normandy. At just nineteen years old, Baumgarten would receive five major injuries—three on June 6 and two more on June 7. By the time D-Day was over, he and one other comrade would be the only survivors from their original thirty-person landing crew on Omaha Beach.
Hal Baumgarten had paradoxical good and bad luck. On the one hand, he was exposed to (and hit by) numerous painful and deadly forces. Yet, he was fortunate to have survived all of the gruesome wounds he sustained. First, on June 6, German machine gun fire riddled his landing boat crew. Though many of his company were injured or killed by the incoming bullets, Baumgarten was saved by his rifle, which took the brunt of the impact. Baumgarten was alive and uninjured, but his gun was disabled—it actually snapped in two when he attempted to unjam the damaged weapon.
Next, an explosive shell hit near Private Baumgarten, shredding the left side of his face and blasting shrapnel through his jaw and teeth. Despite half of his face and mouth having been blasted thoroughly into a bloody mess, Baumgarten continued to fight. He kept calm and actually went to rescue an injured soldier. It was at this time, however, that he was once again hit by an explosive projectile. This time, it was a mortar shell. The shrapnel from the shell managed to puncture through Baumgarten’s helmet, causing even more damage to the Private’s already mangled head. Hal Baumgarten shrugged off the blast and succeeded in carrying the wounded soldier to safety.
The battered and bruised forces on Omaha Beach continued to press on, despite their wounds. Hal Baumgarten’s third major injury occurred when he stepped on what he called a “castrator mine.” The mine was designed to fire a projectile upward when triggered, usually hitting between the victim’s legs. Fortunately for Baumgarten, the mine’s projectile passed through his foot, and not his groin, resulting in an unsightly infection and the loss of a toe.
Despite his face being blasted apart and his foot ripped open, Hal Baumgarten continued to limp forward against the Germans. He suffered his fourth major injury under more heavy machine gun fire. Bullets ripped into Baumgarten’s face, blasting out even more teeth and jawbone, this time from the right side of his face. Finally, after having the left, right and top sections of his head hit by bullets or shrapnel—as well as stepping on a mine—Hal Baumgarten injected himself with a large dose of morphine and collapsed, resting among the dead and dying.
Soon, medics picked him up in a military ambulance that had managed to make its way to Omaha Beach. He got the attention of the medical crew by firing a few shots from a submachine gun he had scavenged from the nearby dead. The medics stopped and added him to their already-crowded ambulance. The Germans, however, were not done with Hal—a sniper fired shots at the medics and a bullet smashed into Baumgarten’s knee, resulting in his fifth major injury during the D-Day invasion.
Even though Baumgarten’s final wounds were sustained on June 7, he did not receive official hospital treatment until June 11, when he landed back in England. While in Britain, Baumgarten was—unsurprisingly—awarded the Purple Heart for the many injuries he experienced on behalf of the United States. From there, he began a long string of surgeries and plastic surgery to mend and reconstruct his head and leg. He went on to become a teacher and a doctor, and wrote of his WWII experience in his book, D-Day Survivor: An Autobiography. Finally, in 2015, Dr. Baumgarten received the Silver Service Medallion, which is awarded to veterans who served with distinction in WWII.
Written by C. Keith Hansley