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Seventy years later, a dwindling few recall the chaos of D-day

D-day veterans Bernard Glassman and David Rosenthal, now and during the war.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

D-day veterans Bernard Glassman and David Rosenthal, now and during the war.

REVERE — This Memorial Day is particularly special for a select group of veterans, one that is dwindling faster every year.

They are the survivors of D-day, the largest seaborne invasion in history. It marked the start of the three-month Battle of Normandy, which broke the Nazi grip on Western Europe. It also claimed the lives of thousands of the Americans that we honor on Monday.

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June 6 marks the 70th anniversary of D-day. Today, the youngest veterans of the battle are in their late 80s. Tracking them down isn’t easy, as there is no master list of their names. Thanks to veterans groups and area retirement homes, we found five to share their experiences. Their stories are recounted here and in an accompanying story (see page 5).

They include two residents of a Revere retirement home, who only just met a few weeks ago because of this story.

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Visiting a mockup of the D-day landings at a war memorial, David A. Rosenthal, 94, noticed a key detail missing.

The exhibit showed bullets showering troops as they waded onto the beaches. The water was clear. It should have been red, he said.

“The thing you remember is getting off the boats with bodies just floating around you. They were alive; they were dead,” Rosenthal said of that morning on Omaha Beach about an hour after the first wave of troops landed. “You don’t think of anything but getting out of the water and behind a bush or tree. You don’t have time to think about possibly getting killed. It’s just go, go, go, go.”

As Allied ships pounded the shore and Allied planes patrolled the sky, Rosenthal’s unit plowed through waist-deep water to the narrow beach. They immediately came under fire from Germans hiding behind hedges. As the bullets whizzed by, they stormed the enemy position. After that began the slow trek inland.

The then-24-year-old private from Marblehead was part of a two-man mortar team. They had to continually adjust the angle of fire to strike an enemy they themselves couldn’t see.

In the countryside, they encountered German bunkers camouflaged by mounds of earth. In towns, they were cheered on by the French, but sometimes had to dive for cover to escape German snipers firing from upstairs windows. They passed bodies of Germans and Americans in the streets.

After four months in action, Rosenthal was hit in the spine when his squad was trapped in a gully under German fire. After hours of agony, he crawled his way to safety and eventually was hospitalized in France. He was left with a lifelong souvenir, shrapnel that becomes a conversation piece every time he passes through airport security.

After the war, Rosenthal worked in his family’s dry-cleaning business for a short while and then for several moving van companies. He retired at 91. He and his wife, Rose, have two children and three grandchildren. They now live in the Jack Satter House in Revere, which is operated by Hebrew SeniorLife.

The war still haunts him. His wife said that two days before he was interviewed, he woke up screaming, frightened by a flashback to the battlefield 70 years ago.

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Living two floors down from Rosenthal at the Jack Satter House is Bernard Glassman.

The Chelsea native, then 28, served as a cook in the officers’ mess of the First Army, satisfying General Dwight Eisenhower’s craving for salad with onions and tomatoes and regularly preparing three meals a day for up to 500 soldiers.

After spending three days bobbing in a holding ship, he landed in Normandy on the afternoon of June 9. Greeted by German sniper fire, he recalled thinking, “This isn’t for me.”

Glassman jumped into a foxhole, where he stayed until dark. He then stuck his head up and looked around. “I was supposed to set up a kitchen. If I didn’t do it, nobody was going to eat,” he said.

Hearing other American voices, Glassman left his refuge to join a group of other soldiers. They set up a tent and made supper. Nothing fancy that night, just K rations, ready-to-eat meals consisting of canned meat or cheese, biscuits, and powdered drinks.

As the troops moved inland, Glassman and fellow cooks accompanied them with their field kitchen. He heated up cans of beef stew and other rations in a portable oven. Sometimes, French farmers supplied fresh vegetables and eggs.

Eisenhower would fly in from England each morning for a meeting with generals George Marshall and Omar Bradley. Glassman said he once cooked breakfast for General George Patton. “Tough guy; nobody liked him,” Glassman said.

The cook never chatted at length with the brass, but he did have a private moment with a general. Stepping into the shower tent, “who do I happen to see but General Bradley,” Glassman said. “He was a nice guy.”

A benefit of being a cook was bunking down in a hotel after a town was overrun. When farmers supplied him with potatoes, Glassman made himself popular with the officers by cooking potato pancakes. “They couldn’t get over it,” he said of the Jewish dish he grew up knowing as latkes.

After France was liberated, Glassman moved on to Belgium, where he found himself in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. The German bombardment forced him out of his hotel. “The mess sergeant gave all the cooks rifles. He said, ‘You’re on your own now,’ ” said Glassman. “It was cold. It was terrible.”

On the road, he witnessed convoys carrying back the wounded. “All I saw were arms and legs, sticking out of the trucks,” Glassman said. “These soldiers were green; they just threw them into battle. When I saw that, I cried my eyes out.”

Glassman would see even worse at the end of the war. He visited Buchenwald, shortly after it was liberated. “I started talking in Yiddish to one of the guys there and then they all came over and wouldn’t let me go.” When he returned to his base camp, he organized a clothing drive for the survivors among his fellow Jewish soldiers.

After the war, Glassman married, and raised two daughters in Everett. He spent most of his career in the food business, running Bernie’s Delicatessen in Malden for 25 years.

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If all had gone according to plan, Sergeant Matthew Glinka’s 538th Ordnance Company would have succeeded in speeding up the Allied drive through Normandy.

Before being sent overseas, the Greenwich, Conn., native had been trained for a top-secret wonder weapon: powerful tank-mounted lights that literally could turn night into day. The theory was that they could temporarily blind the enemy to attacking Allied troops and armor.

Glinka participated in trials in the Arizona desert, where the lights proved so dazzling that people living 150 miles away complained. But in France, where Glinka came ashore on Omaha Beach June 7, it was a different story. “There were hedgerows all over the place,” said the 97-year-old Chelmsford resident. “If the light hit the hedgerows, it went up in the air. We were putting snowplows on the front of tanks to knock off the hedgerows. It was a crazy mess.”

The lights did prove useful in illuminating river crossings so engineers could work around-the-clock building bridges, but Allied commanders lacked the patience to work out the kinks and put the torches to their intended use.

Glinka said he spent much of the war repairing tanks and other artillery. He said he never fired his rifle in action.

After the war, Glinka faced another battle. In the 1950s, he came down with polio. Doctors told him he wouldn’t walk again. He proved them wrong.

He went on to spend 30 years managing the Cottage Club, a student dining club at Princeton. Meanwhile, he and his wife, now dead, raised four daughters. Three years ago, he moved to Chelmsford Crossings, a senior living community, to be closer to his children.

Glinka said that looking back, it’s not the secret experiments that stand out most in his memories, but a small demolition job in a German village. He was told to blow open a safe, which turned out to be packed with Nazi-era currency. Calling the cash worthless, his commanders ordered it burned in a barrel. Glinka managed to stash a wad of bills in his pocket. “There was a brewery in town, and I bought it out,” he said. “We had a big party for four days.”

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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