On D-Day, some 10 hours into the epic invasion that marked the beginning of the end of the Third Reich, Kenneth Happel waded onto a beach lined with corpses.The Army private from Allentown, 19 years old, was amazed enough at the scope of what had happened that day: Along the Normandy coast in northern France, 156,000 Allied soldiers had stormed Adolf Hitler’s barbed-wire western wall, running into an inferno of artillery, mines and machine gun fire but nonetheless pushing the Germans into the retreat that would ultimately lead to Berlin and surrender.But the sight that greeted Happel on Omaha Beach — one of five sectors of the front, along with Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword — stunned him. The bodies of the dead, strewn across the sand in the chaos of combat, had been arranged in long, orderly rows.
“There was no action on the beach anymore because they were inland,” recalled Happel, now 94. “The only thing I saw on the beach were the dead that didn’t make it.”Today’s 75th anniversary of the invasion that saved Europe is being marked with solemn ceremonies, particularly in the cemeteries that hold the thousands who died in those terrible hours and the thousands more who have passed in the decades since.Happel, now of Upper Macungie, is one of the last surviving Lehigh Valley men who took part in the invasion. Looking back, he retrieves memories that capture the horror of war, but also unexpected glimpses of humanity.Drafted into the Army just after his 18th birthday in 1942, he was a raw youngster with little life experience beyond working in a grocery store to help support his big family. He underwent tough training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, then, in October, shipped to England aboard the Queen Mary, the luxury ocean liner converted into a troop transport during the war.“That big, beautiful ship,” Happel said, recalling how soldiers were crammed into staterooms for a queasy four-day voyage that turned distinctly ripe because there were no showers.WWII veteran Kenneth Happel, 94, shows images of his time while in Europe during the war in his Upper Macungie home. (Rick Kintzel/)Assigned to the 110th Field Artillery Battalion, 29th Infantry Division, Happel immediately began training for the invasion of northern Europe. No one knew when or where it would happen, but the 29th Division moved in May 1943 to the Devon-Cornwall Peninsula on the English Channel and trained for attacks on entrenched positions.A little more than a year later, D-Day arrived. Happel was blessed not to be part of the first waves to storm the beaches. Upon landing, though, his battalion learned it had none of the equipment it needed to fight. The artillery pieces and weapons carriers had been sunk.While the soldiers waited for new equipment, Happel helped keep watch over German prisoners. One mocked the youth of his guards so incessantly that Happel finally lost patience and barked at him in the Pennsylvania German dialect he had learned growing up: “We are young, but this youngster can shoot you dead!”The new guns and carriers arrived and the battalion moved inland. One morning, Happel encountered Freddy Bletz, a soldier from Wilkes-Barre he had befriended during basic training. Bletz and his combat engineer unit had been assigned to plant explosives to destroy countryside hedgerows — earthen embankments topped by foliage — that were providing Germans cover against Allies advancing toward the key city of Saint-Lo.Two days later — June 27, his 20th birthday — Happel was lining up for breakfast when another soldier sought him out.“I got some bad news,” he said. “Freddy got it.”Bletz had stepped on a mine. Happel went to see his body.“He had no eyes at all,” he said. “The concussion blew his eyes out. He had no legs. He was blown completely apart. Boy, that made me sick.”The march to Saint-Lo, a city coveted by the Allies because it sat at a strategic crossroads, was grueling and slow. Once, along the way, Happel’s unit fell under sniper fire. He hit the ground alongside a truck as gunners fired into the treetops where the snipers were perched.When the shooting stopped, the soldiers made a disconcerting discovery. The snipers weren’t German soldiers but female French collaborators.“There were nine or 10 of them,” Happel said. “I didn’t go down to look.”Saint-Lo, which had fallen to the Germans in 1940, had been targeted in a massive bombardment June 6-7. The battle to take the city began July 7 and ended 11 days later. The Allies entered a city of rubble but established a firm foothold in France.From there, the 29th Division fought on to the coastal city of Brest, one of the sites where the Germans had constructed massive submarine bases called sub pens. After weeks of battle, the Germans surrendered on Sept. 18.In the ensuing days, soldiers explored the base, which included an underground hospital big enough for 14,000 patients. Happel, with his commanding officer, passed through a big ward where a single, forlorn-looking German soldier lay in a bed.The man, legless and one-armed, asked for a cigarette. Happel gave him one, then placed the rest of the pack and a box of matches on his chest.“It was five or so cigarettes,” he said. “I felt so sorry for him. He was the only guy left in the hospital. I pitied the poor guy.”Kenneth Happel, 94, a WWII veteran, holds a watch given to him by a German prisoner who was recovering from battle wounds in a hospital in France. The prisoner gave Happel the watch because Happel had given him his cigarettes and the German soldier gave him the watch in appreciation.
(Rick Kintzel/)As Happel walked away, the German called him back and handed him a silver pocket watch.Happel hesitated, but took it after his major nodded assent. He still has it, a reminder of the moment when the war receded and two men briefly returned to ordinary life.The 29th continued the march toward Germany. As it advanced against ferocious resistance, Happel passed countless shells to artillery gunners, stepping back as the 105 mm howitzer fired — the powerful gun tended to jump — then resuming the task. The gun would eject the red-hot shell casings. A soldier with heavy gloves would move them aside.“There were seven of us on the gun — four of us did nothing but carry shells,” Happel said. “It was such a roar, you could feel it in the earth.”In the European theater, no division did more or suffered more than the 29th. It recorded more than 20,000 casualties, including almost 3,900 dead.In 1945, the Stars and Stripes newspaper published a booklet about the heroics and achievements of the division’s soldiers, referred to as “doughs” — short for doughboys, the appellation given to American soldiers in World War I.“In the 11 months from the time they had stormed Omaha Beach, 29th Division doughs had pushed the enemy inland, hammered him through hedgerows, broken through at St. Lo, reduced the great naval port of Brest,” it said. “They had crashed through the Siegfried Line, assisted in crushing Aachen, shoved the enemy over the Ruhr, swept across the Cologne Plain, wiped out Nazi resistance beyond the Rhine, scooped up 38,912 POWs.”The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945 — V-E Day. Happel shipped home from Marseilles, returned to civilian life and married his wife, Jessie. She died in 2015, 10 months shy of their 70th anniversary.Happel worked as a service manager at a Pontiac dealership and had a side job playing guitar for radio personality Dopey Duncan. He seldom talked about the war, until his grandson asked him to speak at his high school nine years ago.He has since told his story in other forums, and gave one of some 350 interviews recorded by the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project and archived in the Library of Congress.Mike Sewards, founder of the history project, is grateful Happel chose to share his story. Sometimes veterans just need a little encouragement to do so.“A lot of guys don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “There’s only been maybe two or three vets that would never talk. Almost everybody, at some point, decides to talk.”The stories are always interesting and often surprising.“I always tell people, most of these stories you’re not going to hear in history books,” said Sewards, an Allentown restaurant owner.Four years ago, Happel traveled to Washington, where he and other D-Day survivors received the French Legion of Honor, that nation’s highest civilian award.Even then, the ranks of D-Day veterans were in steep decline.“There were 17 of us there that day,” he said. “I was the youngest one and I was 90.”Staff writer Kayla Dwyer contributed to this story.