101st Airborne, D-Day veteran
Sgt. Fred Bahlau was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne who “dropped” behind enemy lines on D-Day. After fighting in France and a short return to England, he then dropped into Holland in September for Operation Market Garden. On leave in Paris in December 1944, he was ordered to Bastogne, Belgium where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and then guarded Hitler’s Eagle Nest as the war came to an end. Fred was promoted to a 1st Lieutenant.
Allied action to finally rout Nazi Germany from France and the rest of Europe began minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944 when paratroopers from the United States, Canada, and England landed behind enemy lines in Normandy. More than 150,000 Allied troops, 13,000 aircraft, and 5,000 ships participated in the largest air, sea, and land invasion ever attempted.
This June it will be 75 years since those events occurred. The number of World War II and D-Day veterans, called the Greatest Generation, is dwindling. They are all in their 90s now. Thankfully, their stories live on through oral histories, interviews, books, films, and family artifacts.
In 2009, Student News Net covered the 65th anniversary of D-Day from France and the beaches of Normandy through the Stephen Ambrose D-Day to Rhine tour with Ron Drez, historian and tour guide. Fred was on that trip to describe his experiences in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. Student News Net interviewed him on the Normandy tour and again on Nov. 10, 2009 at his Michigan home.
Student News Net interview with Fred on Nov. 10, 2009
“We’re flying into a lot of flak.” (Fred, Nov. 10, 2009 during his interview with Student News Net)
In Normandy for the 65th anniversary of D-Day
It was an honor meeting and talking with Fred while touring Normandy, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. At the end of each day of touring, Fred would relax in the hotel bar where he had his growing group of friends laughing one minute and crying the next. The band of brothers is real. The tour stopped at many military cemeteries in France and the Netherlands. Fred could often be seen quietly laying his hand on a tombstone of a fallen comrade. The years fade but not the memories when it comes to war.
For too many years, those memories were only alive within the band of brothers. You see, the events were too difficult to explain unless one was there. Soldiers were told to return home and forget about war. Wives and children never heard about the heroism of their husbands and fathers. That is, until 1984 when President Ronald Reagan became the first sitting president to attend a D-Day anniversary in Normandy. Douglas Brinkley brilliantly weaves that story with the Pointe du Hoc assault in his 2005 book, The Boys of Pointe du Hoc.
While Fred was scrambling behind enemy lines, the boys of Pointe du Hoc were defying gravity and notions of what soldiers could accomplish. Surely, the Allies would not be foolish enough to attempt to scale the cliff, the Germans thought. But just in case, the Germans moved the massive machine guns inland from the promontory. But the boys of Pointe du Hoc successfully scaled the cliff, found the German artillery, and rendered the guns almost useless. Of 180 Army Rangers who reached the sands of Normandy, only 90 were still in the fight after two days.
But the Allies prevailed and Europe was eventually liberated.
What follows is Fred’s story, the first of many on the upcoming 75th anniversary of D-Day.
First Lieutenant Fred Bahlau (1923-2014)
Fred remembers listening to the radio with his parents following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was anxious to enlist but needed both parents’ signatures because he was only 17 when he graduated from high school. His mother strongly objected.
An Army recruiting officer told Fred to tell his mother he would be sent to Idaho for electrical school. The ploy worked. Fred’s mother was happy to learn Fred would be following in her husband’s footsteps so she signed his enlistment papers. After enlisting, Fred and two of his friends were recruited to train as paratroopers, not electricians. Fred was sent to Camp Toccoa in Georgia for paratrooper training. Idaho was nowhere in the plan.
Fearless, funny, and a natural born leader, Fred quickly earned promotions. By the time he was sent to England to train for D-Day, he was a Staff Sergeant with soldiers under his command.
He landed within 100 feet of his target near Utah Beach on D-Day with a mission to secure a wooden bridge. For his actions on D-Day and in the first few days after D-Day, he was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.
From France, he dropped into Holland in September where the Allies suffered large casualties in an operation known as Market Garden. Fred vividly recalls details of that ferocious combat. Some of his best friends died there.
In late fall 1944, Fred and some buddies had just arrived in Paris for a few days of leave. Before they could even begin exploring the city that the Allies had just liberated, trucks rolled through the streets shouting to soldiers to return immediately to the train station where they would board a train bound for Bastogne, Belgium. They were needed to thwart Hitler’s final offensive to capture the port city of Antwerp. The road to Antwerp went through Bastogne.
Fred did not have his winter gear with him so he arrived in Bastogne unprepared for what turned out to be one of the most severe winters in Europe. The German Army had Bastogne completely encircled but the Allies would not surrender. Fred and many soldiers lived outside in foxholes for almost one month after the Germans began their march on Dec. 16, 1944. For the rest of his life, Fred suffered leg problems from exposure that winter. He eventually received a special stipend in his military benefits as a Battle of the Bulge veteran.
The Allies prevailed at Bastogne. Hitler did not capture Antwerp and his quest to dominate Europe collapsed.
From Belgium, Fred was sent to Germany where he was part of the unit that guarded Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at the end of the war. Victory in Europe (VE Day) was declared on May 8, 1945 when the German Army surrendered. Hitler committed suicide in April.
Fred stayed in the Army until 1948. He would have re-enlisted but the 101st Airborne Division was disbanded. He did not want to start all over in a new unit. He left the Army, returned to his home in Michigan, and took over his father’s electrical business finally fulfilling his mother’s wish!
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