Remembering D-Day: Two Kendal Residents Recount Experiences During World War II Turning Point
In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a U.S. Coast Guard landing barge, tightly packed with helmeted soldiers, approaches the shore at Normandy, France, during initial Allied landing operations, June 6, 1944. These barges ride back and forth across the English Channel, bringing wave after wave of reinforcement troops to the Allied beachheads. (AP Photo)
Clint Gardner, 91, holds his Army helmet at Dartmouth's Rauner Library, where it resides along with Gardner's wartime letters, in Hanover, N.H., on June 3, 2014. Gardner was wearing the helmet during the D-Day invasion in 1944 when he was struck by shrapnel. (Valley News - Will Parson)
Fifteen facts about D-Day, the 1944 Normandy invasion by Allied forces in World War II, with a map showing showing coastal assault areas; June 6, 2014, is the 70th anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy. The Sacramento Bee 2014
Francis Dymnicki relates wartime experiences at Kendal at Hanover in Hanover, N.H., on May 24, 2014. Dymnicki saw combat with the Air Force on D-Day in 1944. (Valley News - Will Parson)
“You are about to embark upon the great crusade. … We will accept nothing less than full victory.”
— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Order of the Day for June 6, 1944
Hanover — Eisenhower’s call to arms went out Monday night, June 5, 1944. Around midnight, he finished the last of his daily average of 80 unfiltered Camel cigarettes, downed the last of a dozen cups of coffee and, with his Scottish terrier, Telek, by his side, tried in vain to sleep.
Within hours, the largest invasion armada in the history of warfare set out across the English Channel for the French coast. At first it feinted north, toward the port of Pas-de-Calais, to deceive German defenders, then swung south to Normandy, intent on turning the tide against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, which now dominated most of Europe.
D-Day was on.
Two young men, unknown to each other then but now residents o f Kendal at Hanover, were part of that great crusade — one on a landing craft headed for near-disaster on a beach called Omaha; the other about 2,000 feet o verhead in an Army Air Forces B-26 bomber, set to drop hell on the Nazi coastal fortifications.
Clint Gardner and Francis Dymnicki, members of the rapidly shrinking “greatest generation,” scarcely b elieved that they would survive the bloody ordeal that was D-Day, never mind live to tell their harrowing stories on the 70th anniversary of the invasion.
Gardner, who helped organize and edit a book of World War II reminiscences by 56 Kendal residents, World War II Remembered, said he personally knows another survivor of D-Day combat, but said “he doesn’t want to talk. The memories may be too painful for him.”
Dymnicki, a voluble 91-year-old with an engaging smile, has no trouble recalling what he was thinking that June morning.
“I knew about the danger and was afraid,” Dymnicki, confided in an interview at Kendal. “I remember early on D-Day, after the briefing, a priest gave (the flight crews) absolution without us going to confession. As a Catholic, I believed that if I died free from sin I’d have a better chance of getting into heaven. So in the plane across the Channel, I figured I could get some insurance by saying the act of contrition (a Catholic prayer expressing sorrow for sin) over and over as fast as I could.”
The weather that morning was “horrible,” he said. “Cold rain, overcast, low visibility. Normally the (B-26) Marauder flies around 12,000 feet, but because of the low ceiling we had to drop to about 2,000 ... and then to the tree tops to get to the German tanks.”
The twin-engine Marauder, part of the 9th Air Force, had a crew of six. According to Dymnicki, the plane had various nicknames — the “Widow-maker” because it could be unforgiving to fly, and the “Flying Prostitute, because it was so fast and had no visible means of support.”
Dymnicki, called “Nick” by his crewmates, was a radio operator and belly gunner, manning two .50-caliber machine guns.
“My job was also to pull pins from the bombs in the bomb bay, arming them before they were dropped,” he said. “When the flak got heavy, the guys would yell, ‘Nick, pull in the gun’ (to get it out of the way) so they could bail out quickly if we were badly hit.”
Dymnicki and his bomber crew flew subsequent missions over France and Germany. In the Battle of the Bulge (a German counter-offensive in the winter of 1944-45, mainly in the Ardennes forest region of Belgium and France), he suffered a leg wound from flak, the exploding shells from anti-aircraft guns on the ground. He flew 65 missions in total and earned five battle stars plus a Purple Heart. After the war Dymnicki returned to his native New York City and ran a large printing business. An avid gardener, he and his wife moved to Kendal in 1996. She died in 2000. He is taking a course on Homer’s Iliad — the epic poem set against the Trojan War in an cient Greece — at the Howe Library.
Asked how he thinks D-Day should be remembered, Dymnicki immediately replied that “it should be integrated more into American history. Kids today don’t really appreciate how important that period was.”
Clint Gardner, a soft-spoken 91-year-old with a distinctive moustache and razor-sharp mind, had few of the D-Day forebodings that haunted Dymnicki. Nonetheless, he also opted for some spiritual insurance just before the Normandy embarkation.
“I was a Protestant, a Presbyterian, and went to that service. But I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go to a Catholic one, too,” he said in an interview at his Norwich home. He and his wife, Libby, spend the winters at Kendal, the rest of the year in Norwich.
Gardner was a Dartmouth College student when he enlisted in the Army in 1942. (He finished his studies after the war but is officially listed as a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1944.) He acknowledged “pacifist feelings at first. But then I read Mein Kampf (My Struggle, Hitler’s Nazi manifesto) and that changed my mind.”
He joined an anti-aircraft artillery battalion and quickly rose to the rank of first lieutenant. On D-Day morning, Gardner was on an LCT (a landing craft capable of carrying tanks and other large vehicles) with about 30 men and six to eight trucks, heading for Omaha Beach.
“The preparation was very well done. We knew exactly where we’d be going,” he recalled. “For a Dartmouth man, it was especially exciting because when we got off the boat, we were supposed to be looking for a big green D on canvas. It would be about 6 feet high, hanging from a cliff. … Advanced infantry were assigned to hang it. ‘Dog Green’ sector of Omaha, it meant.
“But when we landed, wading through two feet of sea water, there was no canvas. Bullets and mortars flying everywhere, hundreds of dead bodies in the surf and on the beach. It was total chaos, a complete fiasco, the worst sector to be in. If you saw the film Saving Private Ryan, that was based exactly on Omaha Dog Green.”
That afternoon, in a foxhole on the beach, mortar fragments tore through Gardner’s helmet, leaving a large hole. Blood poured from his head. He reached into the hole and thought he felt his brains, but it was loose flesh above his skull. He shook sulfa powder into the wound to prevent infection. British soldiers carried him to the base of the cliffs, away from mortar fire. He stayed there for about 24 hours until an American medical team evacuated him to a field hospital, and then back to England.
“Someone from the Imperial War Museum (in England) told me the hole in the helmet was the largest of any from a survivor in either World War I and II. They wanted the helmet,” he said. “I told them that I wanted it to show my grandchildren.” The helmet, with the hole and a trace of Gardner’s blood inside, is now in the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth, along with boxes of books, letters and postcards from Gardner to his family during the war.
A Vermont newspaper reported that Gardner was the first known Vermont D-Day invasion casualty among ground forces.
He earned a Purple Heart for the experience and a second commendation not long after in Malmedy, Belgium, where he somehow managed to survive a direct “friendly fire” hit on his quarters by an Allied B-24 bomber during the Battle of the Bulge.
Shortly before the war ended in 1945, Gardner volunteered for military government service and was promoted to captain. Partly because he spoke “serviceable German,” he was put in command of the just-liberated Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, overseeing care for the survivors and burying many of the estimated 55,000 who were killed there. That experience, he said, was probably the most traumatic and remains with him.
After the war, Gardner finished his Dartmouth studies, served as managing editor of a U.S. military publication in postwar Berlin, and started a business in Norwich with his wife importing arts and crafts from around the world. He also became president of a citizen exchange program called Bridges for Peace, whose aim was to promote understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.
Gardner is now working on another book about his Buchenwald experience.
Looking back, Gardner said, he has reservations about being part of what has been called “the greatest generation.
“If anything, we’re the disappearing generation. We were thrown into a situation and we responded. If there is anything great about it, it is the fact that some of us are still around. And that’s absolute.”