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(Enlarge) 65 years ago today, Merle Howard stepped foot on the sands of Omaha Beach as part of Operation Overlord in World War II. (Photo illustration by Phil Grout)

When Merle Howard, 88, recalls the scenes and events he witnessed on Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France during the D-Day invasion 65 years ago, his voice takes on a tone of amazement, sometimes even disbelief.

"They had so many bodies on the beach they just pushed them up with a bulldozer and covered them with a canvas," says Howard, who hit the beach on the second day of the battle, June 7, 1944.

"Some of them, they didn't even know if they were alive or dead, but they had to be moved. We had to get across that beach."

Howard, a Winfield resident who grew up in Hampden, enlisted in the Maryland National Guard in 1939, when work was scarce and war seemed distant.

In 1942, Howard had shipped out with the 175th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division to England, where he spent nearly two years training and preparing for the Allied amphibious invasion of France on June 6, 1944.

Howard, a retired union carpenter, father of two and grandfather of two, kept his own counsel for many years about the things he saw during the invasion -- and the subsequent 11 months.

Actually, it was "10 months, 28 days, eight hours and 45 minutes," he says with precision.

That was the time he spent as a prisoner of war.

"For years after he came back, he didn't talk about it at all," says Mildred Farinholt Howard, 84, Merle's wife of 65 years.

Like many members of what commentator Tom Brokaw dubbed "the greatest generation," Howard has never considered himself a hero.

The way he sees it, the D-Day invasion was a job that needed doing. And as the days approached toward it, he says he was anxious — perhaps naively — to get it done.

Maybe that's why when he recalls his experiences in the European theater — getting shot at by snipers in a church steeple, looking down the barrel of a submachine gun wielded by the German soldier who captured him, getting strafed by allied planes as his captors force marched him and other POWs — he is often low key and matter-of-fact.

"I don't think about it all that much," says Howard.

"But when I do, it's like it all happened yesterday."

From England to POW camp

It was during his months in England preparing for the invasion that Howard got his initial glimpses of what was to come.

"In London you could see the German buzz bombs coming in," he remembers as he sits at his kitchen table and sips coffee in the farmhouse he shares with Mildred.

"The buzz bombs would putt-putt along and looked kinda dinky, but when one of those SOBs hit, it took out seven city blocks."

Those times were filled with hard training and fear, but lighter moments also persist in memory, such as his unsavory encounters with British cuisine.

"When they boiled potatoes, they boiled them with the skins on," he says with a distasteful smirk. "I'd have to be damned hungry to eat that."

But he says mere months later, when he found himself as a prisoner subsisting on slop stew boiled from the innards and bones of a broken-down mule, he remembered those boiled potatoes with genuine longing.

It was June 7, when he and his fellow soldiers got their first glimpse of Omaha Beach as they approached the Normandy coast in small landing craft.

That's when he had his first harrowing encounter with his own sense of mortality — and the possibility that he'd be one of the more than 2,000 members of the 29th who would die in the next four and a half months.

Sappers — combat engineering units — had cleared narrow channels through the German mines that had been placed at 10-foot intervals in shallow water near the shore.

In order to approach the beach, the dozens of landing craft had to funnel into these narrow channels, making them easy pickings for German artillery that hadn't yet been dislodged from the nearby bluffs.

"We were coming into the beach and all the sudden the pilot threw the boat in reverse and we all fell forward," Howard recalls. "A shell exploded right in front of us."

The close call gave Howard a sense of optimism — that perhaps he had dodged his bullet.

"At that point, I thought maybe I had a chance."

He survived the beach assault and mentally moved past the scenes of horror on Omaha, but a couple of weeks later, as Howard's unit moved inland, they were cut off and surrounded by Germans. In an effort to break out, Howard jumped a hedgerow. That's when he found himself staring down the barrel of the machine gun.

"I knew even if I shot that German, he'd still cut me in two with that machine gun. There was a table of German officers sitting nearby. They suggested I surrender. So I did."

En route to prison camp, Howard and his fellow POWs were forced to wear their helmets and march in single-file columns so allied planes would mistake them for enemy troops.

"Everybody strafed us except the Germans," he recalls grimly.

"Then they put us in box cars," he continues. "Every time the air raid sirens would go off, the engine would unhook and hide in a tunnel and leave us out there to get strafed. Later, we'd have to pull the bodies out of the cars.

"God, it was terrible."

Scare on the home front

Meanwhile, back home, Mildred, who'd grown up in the Halethorpe and Arbutus area and met and started dating Merle before he shipped out, was dismayed when the letters she sent to him started coming back unopened and stamped "M.I.A." — missing in action.

At the time, Mildred also had four brothers in the service, three of whom were overseas.

One of them was the late Joseph A. Farinholt, a much-celebrated veteran and Carroll County resident who won an unprecedented four Silver Stars while fighting with the 29th in France and Germany.

Her distress was heightened when Joe, who was also with the 29th, mistakenly informed her that Merle had been killed — that he'd seen him lying along the side of a road with his head blown off.

Needless to say, she was relieved when she received a card that Merle was finally allowed to send from the German camp.

"They only let them send two cards each," she remembers. "He sent one to his dad and one to me."

In 1945, abandoned by his captors as they fled eastward from advancing allied forces, Howard was liberated by Russian soldiers, returned to his unit and shipped back to England. Within a few months, he was back home in Maryland, once again in civilian clothes.

He and Mildred married in 1945 and moved to Carroll a few years later.

"When I came back I was skinny as a rat, wasn't I?" he says to Mildred with a grin.

"Yes, you were," Mildred agrees.

As he approaches his ninth decade, Howard is spry and lucid, and keeps busy mowing nearby Clearview Airport, in Winfield, once a week. He's also restoring a prized 1929 Ford roadster in his garage, and working on various carpentry projects around the house.

Through the years he has stayed active in veterans' groups, and his son and his grandson have both served in the armed forces.

Like many of his brothers in arms, he says there's not enough money or glory in the world to make him go through the Normandy invasion again.

On the other hand, he wouldn't have missed being there for anything.

"Yes," he says with a shrug, "I'm proud to have been a part of something that was so important and such a big part of history.

"I wouldn't change it if I could."

user comments (1)

user siszkay says...

I saw your story on the internet & had to comment. My dad was also in the 29th, 175th infantry & landed on Omaha Beach & also spent several months as a POW. He turns 85 yrs old this year & is still active in the POW committee here in Oklahoma. This is such an important part of history.




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