Since interviewing 260 World War II veterans over the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with several who were part of that momentous military plan.
Leo Scheer’s story has always fascinated me. I met Leo early in my project of interviewing World War II veterans. He lived near me in Huntington, Indiana. I first heard about him on WOWO radio by popular radio host Pat Miller. He had read about Leo in a Washington DC newspaper. I don’t know how that newspaper heard about Leo, but I’m glad they did.
Through a series of circumstances, I found Leo and he consented to an interview.
When I arrived at his room in the nursing home where he lived, Leo was surrounded by three little boys who were listening to him relate his military experiences. Their grandmother – Leo’s niece – sat nearby.
Leo had no children of his own so I’m sure he appreciated having those little ones visit him. Conversely, what an opportunity for those little guys to hear a real story from a real hero who served his country so well!
Here is a portion of Leo’s story of approaching Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 taken from my book, D-Day: Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen Tell about Normandy.
D-Day: Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen Tell about Normandy is available on Amazon.
Keep reading to the end to find out an exciting rest-of-the-story about Leo’s service!
It was an audacious plan. The largest amphibious (sea) assault in world history was scheduled to take place on June 6, 1944. If everything went as planned, approximately 156,000 young soldiers, sailors and air men would put their boots on the beaches of Normandy, France over the course of several weeks with the objective of gaining control of Europe and ending the war there.
The war had begun in Europe on September 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States declared war on the Axis powers (Japan, Germany, Italy).
Allied leaders believed they needed to gain the offensive by invading the European continent and in summer 1943 Allied leaders began to plan this huge event. American General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
It was a huge undertaking. So much planning had to be completed, including the date and location for the attack which was assigned the code name of ‘Operation Overlord.’
The invasion would become better known by its nickname: ‘D-Day.’
On the early morning of June 6, Leo Scheer’s ship neared the shore of Omaha Beach. He was positioned tightly near the back of the vessel between other sailors crammed together. Suddenly, the front part of the vessel exploded. Leo blinked at the suddenness. The front part of the ship and all of the men who had stood there moments before were gone.
Scheer and those remaining in the boat stripped their gear and jumped overboard. However, the weight of life vests, layers of clothing and combat boots dragged many soldiers down into the frigid waters. “Drowned bodies floated in those waters for weeks,” said Scheer. “Many washed up against the sea wall with not a scratch on them.”
Scheer had enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from Huntington Catholic High School in Indiana in June 1942. After completing basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, Scheer was assigned to the hospital corps school.
He trained at Great Lakes and at Pensacola, Florida, before being assigned to the 7th Navy Beach Battalion. “We underwent strenuous training like commandos,” he said. At Ft Pierce, Scheer’s squadron was attached to the Army Combat of Engineers.
His group prepared to invade Europe for Operation Overlord, but nothing went according to plan.
Those who made it to shore were ordered to the west end. Scheer was almost killed twice from gunfire. By the time he arrived it was to discover the squadron doctor was missing, presumably killed.
Wearing the Red Cross arm band and helmet, Leo worked on injured soldiers, removing medical supplies from bodies of dead soldiers to treat the wounded. The first course of action was to stop the bleeding. Waterproof tins contained morphine shots and bandages. “We tried to prevent shock and used morphine when necessary,” he added. “It was all we had.”
A barrage of artillery file forced Scheer to administer medical attention while lying on the ground. “Even getting on your knees was risky,” he said.
Artillery fire continued non-stop for days. Soldiers were treated on the sand. “We eventually got a spot in front of a house and put the casualties there,” said Scheer. “We slept fully clothed with our helmets on,” said Scheer. “Shells came in close. I buried myself under the sand and in the morning crawled out, glad to be alive.”
Once Scheer discovered a trio of three soldiers lying on the ground. Two of the soldiers were dead. The third soldier was lying on his side, wounded by a bullet in his thigh. The bullet had not hit a bone but lay in the hip socket.
Unable to move the soldier, Scheer treated him for three days, checking on him often. By the third day, the soldier could be moved to a landing craft. “I slept good knowing that guy was being helped,” he said.
One of the worst things for Scheer occurred one night near the west end. “We were being shot at by a pillbox with a 88-mm cannon,” he said. “The Germans behind that fortification had sunk 10 of our boats. The Navy was interested in taking it out.”
Ten American destroyers bombed the pillbox. But when overspray drifted back on Scheer and other Allied troops, it killed some of them. “We were being shelled by the enemy and Allies,” said Scheer. Finally, an Allied battleship fired three 14-inch guns at the pillbox, disabling it.
As the Allied Army moved inland, Scheer was re-assigned to the USS Lander for the Philippines, then Pearl Harbor. … He was discharged in early 1946 and returned to his job as a bricklayer, working for his family’s business. L. N. Scheer & Sons in Huntington until retiring. In 1947 he married Dagmar Carlson from Chicago.
“I was glad I had the opportunity to serve my country during World War II,” said Leo. “I’ve always loved history and now I can say I participated in something unique. I also know I have a great guardian angel that saved my life many times.”
NOW FOR THE REST-OF-THE-STORY ABOUT LEO SCHEER’S D-DAY SERVICE
During my interview with Leo, he mentioned that he was a charter member of the #National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Twenty-one years ago, a group of people wanted to start a museum commemorating the events of June 6, 1944. They wrote to veterans and other people asking for donations and by so doing, become charter members.
Leo joined and in so doing he donated his web belt to their growing collection. A web belt was a standard item of an American military uniform equipped to hold many items a soldier needed in the field.
In 2015, my husband John (a lifelong World War II fan) and I decided to visit the museum which was later renamed the National World War II Museum.
While purchasing our tickets for the museum, I asked if Leo’s web belt might be available for us to see. The woman at the desk looked apologetic. “We have thousands of items in a warehouse that have been donated from the war.”
In other words, she had no idea where Leo’s web belt might be — or indeed, if it still existed.
We acknowledged the futility of the search and began walking through the museum. It was huge, well-organized and fantastic!
We planned to take two days to look at and read everything. It’s a good thing we did so as the displays and exhibits went on and on. We were not bored!
Upon entering the large room with special exhibits about D-Day, I squealed.
There, in a Plexiglas enclosure, was a photo of Leo. Better, it also contained his donated web belt and information about his service on Omaha Beach!
John hurried over to see what had caused my outburst. I pointed to the case, giddy with excitement. The belt was prominently displayed as the only item in the case. There was even a photo of a young Leo in his naval uniform that I had included in my book, We Fought to Win: American World War II Veterans Share Their Stories.
I could not believe it! Of the thousands of items the museum owned, they had chosen to display Leo’s belt for thousands of visitors who would see it annually (the National World War II Museum is New Orleans’ Number 1 tourist destination).
John snapped a photo of me pointing to the exhibit. When we arrived home, I printed out the photo as an 8×10” and took it to Leo.
He was very pleased and showed it to everyone who entered his room.
I am honored to have done this small deed for this man who helped save the world from tyranny.
Thanks to all of our veterans for their service.
What stories do you have to share about D-Day? Leave a comment below.