- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

About noon on June 7, 1944, the 175th Infantry regiment of the 29th Division began landing on Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast of France. Among the young men who emerged from the landing craft that day to begin an 11-month journey across France and into Germany was my father, Frank F. Sempa.

Twenty-five years later, in an article he wrote for the Scranton Tribune (where he worked as a reporter and editor for more than 40 years) he recalled, ¿Death was everywhere on Omaha Beach.¿

The ¿death¿ he observed included the bodies of some of the men who had made the horrific D-Day assault the previous day, so memorably depicted in the first scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

Capt. Robert Miller of the 175th recalled, ¿The scene was almost unimaginable. There were burning tanks. There were wrecked boats that were either sunk or broached in the surf and pounding themselves on the beach. Most noticeable of all, beginning at the water´s edge, you could see the bodies of the assault elements … rolling back and forth in the wave surge at the high-water mark on the beach.¿

Many of the bodies observed by my father and the other men of the 175th wore the same blue-and-gray patch of the 29th Division. (The 115th and 116th Infantry regiments participated in the initial D-Day assaults on June 6.)

After getting organized on the beach under intermittent sniper and artillery fire, the 175th was ordered to move inland and take the town of Isigny, near the Aure and Vire rivers. Two days later, the 175th captured Isigny, which ¿ British military historian Michael Reynolds points out ¿ led to the crucial junction of the Omaha and Utah beachheads and set the stage for the assault on St.Lo.

It was during the month-long struggle to capture St.Lo that my father began writing letters home to his parents (my grandparents) who resided in Avoca, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania. After my father´s death in 1988, my sister discovered those letters in a shoebox in the cellar of my grandparents´ house.

There are hundreds of letters covering the time period from my father´s stateside training at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, and forts in the Carolinas and Florida, to his overseas training in Scotland and England, to his combat experiences in France and Germany.

Most of the letters from Europe are written on small pieces of paper known as V-Mail. They carry the wartime censor´s stamp and a return address of ¿Somewhere in France¿ or ¿Somewhere in Germany.¿ The letters provide a historical window into the thoughts and perspectives of a combat soldier in the midst of history´s greatest and most destructive war.

On June 13, 1944, my father wrote that he was “now inside the Fortress of Europe¿ and that he was writing from a ¿foxhole … that is now my home.¿ He noted that he had ¿plenty of experiences¿ and ¿plenty of excitement,¿ but that censorship would not permit him to go into any detail.

Five days later, he expressed in a letter how combat soldiers long for the many little conveniences that we take for granted, like a ¿good meal,¿ a ¿bath,¿ a ¿change of clothing,¿ and ¿some sleep.¿ On June 22, he told his parents that he slept until 11 a.m. and that it was ¿the first opportunity we´ve had to get some sleep in quite some time.¿

The terrain between Isigny and St.Lo was hedgerow country, where ground was gained a hundred yards at a time in desperate, unrelenting fighting. Writing in late June from hedgerow country, my father commented, ¿Whoever said ¿war is hell´ was right. … If I told you some of my experiences, you´d probably worry, so I just won´t.¿

On July 3, he noted, ¿It’s July 4th tomorrow, are they having fireworks back in the states? Here we have them everyday.¿ In mid-July he told his parents that every time he started to write them another letter, ¿the shells start thick and fast and I have to give up. Hope it lets up a bit this afternoon. … I´m a bit tired after being in the front lines for almost 40 days. Hope we soon get some rest.¿ In a July 18 letter, my father, obviously tired and exasperated, wrote, ¿War is hell, so why talk about it.¿

St.Lo finally fell to a combined attack by the 29th, 35th, 30th and 2nd divisions, along with elements of the 3rd Armored Division. ¿[A]t a cost of 3,000 casualties in the 29th Division and more than 2,000 in the 35th,¿ wrote British military historian Max Hastings, ¿the Americans gained the vital heights of St.Lo. The battle for the shattered rubble of the town was one of First Army´s outstanding feat of arms in the campaign.¿ The battle for St.Lo, Joseph Ewing wrote, was ¿the most costly engagement in the history of the [29th] Division.¿

St.Lo set the stage for Operation Cobra, an armored dash across France that encouraged the idea among the troops that the war could end before Christmas, if not earlier. On Aug. 2, 1944, my father optimistically wrote to his parents that ¿it won´t be long before this mess is over.¿

Two days later he wrote, ¿War news is very encouraging and optimists, and even others, say that it won´t be long now.¿ Later, on Aug. 26, he wrote, ¿War news looks better with each passing day, and I´m sure the end is soon to come.¿

In late August 1944, Paris was liberated. A photograph in the Scranton Tribune shows my father in a jeep shaking hands with French citizens. Next my father´s regiment and division were ordered to attack and take the city of Brest, the second-largest port in France and home to a German submarine base.

My father´s regiment fought a lengthy battle for ¿Hill 103,¿ and Brest was taken by the 29th Division on Sept. 18, 1944. Yank Magazine later said, ¿The siege of Brest probably will never receive the worldwide recognition it rightly deserves. … [I]t is said to have been one of the hardest battles fought by American infantry in Europe since 1918.¿

On Sept. 30, 1944, the 29th Division crossed into Germany. This is reflected by the return address on my father´s letters dated Oct. 2 and 4, which for the first time indicated that he was ¿Somewhere in Europe¿ instead of ¿Somewhere in France.¿ It was on Oct. 7, 1944, that my father revealed to his parents that he was ¿Somewhere in Germany.¿ In that Oct. 7 letter, my father also revealed that he had participated in the Brest campaign.

In mid-November, the 29th Division began a move toward Julich. By December, it stood across the Ruhr River from Julich, but its crossing of the Ruhr was delayed for three months by intense fighting in another sector, a struggle known to history as the Battle of the Bulge.

In late February 1945, Julich fell to the 29th Division. The troops were made aware of developments on the Eastern front. My father wrote to his parents, ¿News from the Russian front … is good and very likely to hasten the end of this war.¿

In March, the 29th Division participated in the capture of Munchen-Gladbach, the largest city in Germany to be taken up to that time. My father wrote about the arrival of better weather and the military advantages that would result. ¿Our Spring weather continues ideal,¿ he wrote. ¿Hope it stays that way. It’s ideal flying weather and should shorten this war over here.¿

¿The air corps,¿ he noted, “calls it ¿Victory weather.´ ¿

In an interview he did with the Scranton Tribune after he returned home from the war, my father described the course of the war for his regiment in early 1945. ¿We crossed the Ruhr and the Rhine,¿ he said, ¿and pounded our way across Germany until we reached the Elbe on May 1.¿

¿We would have been to Berlin in a few days,¿ he continued, ¿but the agreement … was for the Russians to make that capture.¿

On May 2, 1945, a V-2 Rocket Division surrendered to the 175th. My father´s letters in early May spoke of the imminent German surrender. On May 4, he wrote, ¿Just heard the good news of Germans surrendering in Northern Germany, Denmark, etc. It should be all over any time now.¿

On May 5: ¿It seems to be all over … but the final details have yet to come.¿ In that May 5 letter, my father also told his parents that he saw a German slave-labor camp, and the conditions were ¿very, very brutal.¿

May 8, 1945, was V-E Day, and my father wrote to his parents that he was going to ¿get drunk¿ in celebration of the end of what he accurately called ¿a long and hard struggle.¿

In a May 22 letter, while waiting to be sent home, my father recalled an instance ¿when the Germans bombed and strafed us continuously for over an hour.¿

¿I happened to be out of my cellar at that time ¿ in another ¿ and was even caught without a helmet. God was with us that day.¿ Three days later, he was promoted to the rank of master sergeant. Under the Army´s ¿point system,¿ he needed 84 points to go home; he had 110 points.

My father was discharged from the Army on July 9, 1945. His meritorious and courageous service to his country was reflected on his uniform: the Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge, the Arrowhead for the assault on Omaha Beach, four major engagement stars, five overseas stripes and the Good Conduct Ribbon. He returned to his job on the news staff of the Scranton Tribune and eventually became the paper´s city editor. He retired in 1983 and died five years later.

Like many of his generation, he did not often talk about his war experiences. Occasionally, when we would watch a war movie together, he would briefly reminisce about the difficulty of descending the rope ladders into the landing craft on the approach to Omaha Beach, about the rough waters of the English Channel, about the difficulties of hedgerow fighting and about how fortunate he considered himself to be for having survived the war unscathed.

The 29th Division suffered more than 20,000 casualties during the war. My father never spoke about the horrors of war that he witnessed. I never knew that he saw a slave-labor camp until I read it in one of his letters. I did not know he had won a Bronze Star and earned the other combat medals and ribbons until I read about them in his obituary shortly after his death. He was a good soldier and patriot and a great father.

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