Port veteran can’t forget how twist of fate during Normandy invasion saved life of 19-year-old soldier
Shortly before dawn on a stormy June 6, 1944, 19-year-old Fred Beck of Port Washington climbed into an Army amphibious vehicle prepared to land on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.
The sea was so rough that 11 of the 13 ducks capsized, including the one carrying Beck. Each duck held 14 men from the 111th Field Artillery Battalion, 29th Infantry Division.
“If it hadn’t been so cold and stormy, we would have made the beach and I would probably have been killed. The rough water saved my life,” Beck said.
“The duck I was in took a wave sideways and turned turtle.”
He pulled the cord to inflate his rubber life belt and popped up in the water.
“I looked around and my whole battery (about 600 men) was in the water. I couldn’t swim, but I had the life buoy,” he said.
The fact he can mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day — when more than 2,000 American soldiers were killed at Omaha Beach during the first wave of the Allied Forces invasion that brought more than 156,000 troops into Normandy — can be attributed to several fluke events.
Beck was initially assigned to one of the ducks that reached shore. The men in both vehicles, including the soldier who took his place on a howitzer gun, were killed by German troops.
Beck was one of the fortunate soldiers who was plucked from the rough sea. He was placed on a barge that tried to make it to shore that day, but it got stuck on underwater obstacles and didn’t make land until the next day.
There may also have been some divine intervention, Beck said. His mother Gertrude, who had two sons fighting in the war, prayed the rosary every day for their safe return. Beck’s brother Clarence, who was in the Navy and took part in the August 1944 invasion of southern France, also came home. He died in 1997.
When Beck reached Omaha Beach on June 7, he saw a sobering sight.
“They had dug a trench on the beach and bodies were laid, one next to the other, for about 100 yards. It was a temporary burial ground,” Beck said.
Beck’s unit was assigned to back up the 116th Infantry Regiment composed of National Guard units from Virginia and Maryland.
Beck was in charge of giving the orders to fire four howitzer guns.
As the invasion continued and Allied troops pushed forward, Beck’s unit followed, staying about 5,000 yards behind the front lines all through France, Belgium, South Holland and into Germany.
“They would bring replacement troops in during the night, and some didn’t even live to see morning,” Beck said in a 1994 interview in Ozaukee Press to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
“As soon as you saw a dead person, it made you think a lot more, and I saw enough of them. When you’re so young, you think you’re immortal. But when you get into war, you see how weak this human body really is.”
As a member of the fire direction crew, Beck was usually in a headquarters building. He never fired a gun, but gave the orders to do so.
“I used a slide ruler and pencil to determine when to fire,” Beck said. “It’s much more computerized now.”
Beck, a 1942 Port Washington High School graduate, joined the Army Jan. 18, 1943. He was initially assigned to an anti-tank platoon that was disbanded. He arrived in Scotland on June 2, 1943, then sent to England to train at the fire direction center. That’s why another soldier was assigned to the howitzer gun during the invasion.
Beck served in the Army for 34 months, spending 29-1/2 months overseas, including time in Denmark. He returned to the United States on Nov. 14, 1945, and was discharged Nov. 20.
He came home with some memorabilia, including a German helmet, Nazi flag and a gas mask. The items are on display at the Landt-Thiel American Legion Hall in Saukville. He kept his dog tags.
Beck will celebrate his 90th birthday on June 19. He and his wife Carol celebrated their 65th anniversary on May 14.
“We went dancing almost every Sunday, mostly polkas and waltzes, until my knees gave out,” Beck said.
“I never smoked or drank (alcohol), and my wife takes good care of me.”
The couple have six children, 13 grandchildren and are expecting their first great-grandchild in September.
Image information: D-DAY SURVIVOR Fred Beck of Port Washington remembers that day 70 years ago when rough seas capsized his amphibious vehicle, preventing him from making it to shore at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, when more than 2,000 American soldiers were killed. Beck, who was 19 at the time and will turn 90 on June 19, held pictures of himself as a young soldier eager to see the world.
Photo by Sam Arendt