Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.
As President Obama observes this 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, here is the amazing story of one of the thousands of American heroes who embarked on what General Dwight Eisenhower described as "a great crusade."
My longtime friend and personal hero, Retired Brigadier General Alvin Ungerleider was a 23-year-old Army lieutenant on June 6, 1944. The soldier from Carbondale, Pennsylvania led 50 men from the 115th regiment of the 29th Infantry Division on the fateful day that changed the course of the war and history. Al Ungerleider and his men were among the troops who bobbed in the churning English Channel before they hit the hell that was Omaha Beach.
He often praised the Australian skipper of his landing craft. He recalled that the Aussie sailor kept his promise to get the men to shore dry. Al never forgot how the skipper lowered the ramp, allowing the men to put one foot in shallow water and the next on the sands of Omaha Beach. They were part of the second troop wave to hit the beach.
Of course other American soldiers were not as fortunate. Al often winced as he recalled the carnage he witnessed in the waters and sands of Omaha. He was wounded twice during the furious fighting of the opening days of the invasion. He reluctantly left the fighting for about two weeks to recover from his first combat wounds before returning to the thick of battle. After leading his men through the minefields of the French countryside, he fought in Germany. For his valor, he was awarded two bronze stars along with the Purple Hearts for his battle wounds.
But none of his Al's wartime experiences prepared him for the horrors he witnessed in the closing days of World War II. In April of 1945 he was tasked with liberating a sub camp of the Nordhausen prison. Al and his men subdued heavy fire from Nazi troops before smashing through the entrance to the camp. There they found the dead and the living dead of Nordhausen. As Al and a soldier under his command searched the camp for any German holdouts, they discovered an enemy soldier hiding in an oven that the Nazis used to cremate their victims. The German's threatening move was his final action.
See and hear the recollections of Al Ungerleider, who is one of many veterans who have been interviewed by the Library of Congress.
Al Ungerleider soon found himself trying to calm the liberated but still frightened survivors of the Nazi horrors. He never forgot the starvation or the stunned faces of the desperate people. He tried to reassure them by explaining a personal link. But many of the dazed survivors simply could not believe that the young soldier who helped free them was a fellow Jew. After speaking to them in Yiddish and German, Al turned to the one profound set of words that he knew would prove he was "one of them." He led them in reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. It was the first time that many of them were able to memorialize friends and loved ones lost to Nazi murderers. For Al, the nightmares of Nordhausen persisted for a long time.
I knew Al for many years before he told me of his Normandy to Nordhausen saga. It was only when I was assigned to cover President Ronald Reagan's trip to the 40th anniversary of D-Day that Al revealed his personal history to me. When I told him of my assignment he quietly said, "I was there."
Like many other members of "The Greatest Generation," Al is a very modest man. With each D-Day anniversary, he wrote and spoke more about his experiences. He also received many overdue honors. He accepted awards in the name of all who fought at Normandy.
On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Al helped President Clinton lay a wreath at the U.S. Cemetery at Normandy. More than 9,000 crosses and Stars of David mark the final resting place of the men who made the ultimate sacrifice. Al was front and center as Mr. Clinton said, "When they were young, these men saved the world."
In July of 1994, California Congressman Tom Lantos saluted Al in the House of Representatives. Lantos described Al as "one of the soldiers of Democracy who went ashore at Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944." The late Congressman Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, praised Al for his efforts to "teach us all the lessons of D-Day that nothing worth having is given freely."
In June of 2004 on the 60th anniversary, Al Ungerleider was one of 99 American veterans who proudly received the French Legion of Honor. It was France's expression of gratitude to the men who "saved the world."
In a remarkable military career, Al Ungerleider served in both Korea and Vietnam. He went on to command U.S. military bases. During his distinguished tenure, he was the recipient of three Legions of Merit.
A modest Al Ungerleider would not appreciate being singled out. He would say he was just one of many brave World War II soldiers. There are as many stories as there are men and women who served in World War Two. As President Obama noted, it is so very important to remember those who died and to acknowledge veterans "in the sunset of their years."
Sadly, Al Ungerleider is unable to attend this year's Normandy observance. Although the years have finally caught up with his mind and body, he is still a proud soldier of the 29th Division. Al will be at Normandy in spirit today. When I visited him at a Veterans Hospital on Memorial Day he told me to meet him at a point overlooking Omaha Beach on June 6th. He said, "You'll know where to find me. Just remember the 29th."
By Peter Maer