I can remember reading about D-Day in the morning paper in Tucson as a small boy, but not really understanding what I was reading about. It wasn't until much later, after talking to veterans who had been involved in that and other battles, that I began to have some idea of the magnitude or importance of the event, and of what they might have gone through.
A few weeks ago at church, Virginia Berch mentioned that her husband, Ike, was going to be honored by the French government for his service during World War II. Here is a copy of the article and picture which appeared the next day in the Los Angeles Times, followed by some other information on this member of America's Greatest Generation.
A DAY FOR SPECIAL HONORS
Christopher Clay gives a home-made medal to his great-grandfather Isadore Berch at Knott's Berry Farm after he also received the French Legion of Honor from French Consul General Axel Cruau for his service in World War II.
Ike was also honored by the City Council in Buena Park, where he and Virginia live. That event was described by an article in the Buena Park Independent:
Buena Park honors American hero
Buena Park Mayor Dr. Beth Swift (left) presents French Legion of Honor Recipient Isadore Berch (center) with a proclamation honoring his WWII service as a decorated veteran. Looking on, is Virginia Berch (right).
Berch is recipient of French Legion of Honor
By Loreen Berlin
The Buena Park City Council honored Isadore Berch, a recipient of the "French Legion of Honor," the highest honor the French can bestow upon an American, during the regular council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
Mayor Dr. Beth Swift presented Berch with a proclamation from the city.
The proclamation read that Berch's "distinguished service, bravery and outstanding leadership in the invasion of France in 1944 is deserving of recognition and that as a recipient of the French Legion of Honor, Berch demonstrated exceptional valor as part of Company B of the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division."
As a Browning automatic rifleman, he was honored with the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Croix de Guerre unit distinction and various campaign medals.
Berch and his wife, Virginia, have been residents of Buena Park for more than 55 years and said that they continue to believe in the concepts of liberty and freedom.
"It is [fitting] therefore, that the members of the Buena Park City Council acknowledge Isadore Berch's sacrifices and contributions to the United States of America," Swift said. "We take great pleasure in honoring Isadore Berch, who represents the best of this country's strength – a patriot, war hero, decorated veteran and devoted family man."
Ike was so kind as to provide us a clipping of an article which appeared in the Boston Globe shortly after the events in France:
CAPTURES 12 GERMANS BY HIMSELF
Mattapan Boy Tells Story of Strange Happening
Private First Class Isadore Berch, son of Mrs. Bessie Birch, of 41 Evelyn Street, Mattapan, who was in the invasion of France, has the distinction of having captured 12 Germans on his second day in action. According to a letter from him, just received by his mother, he fell into the same hole with them, his rifle went off accidentally, they thought he was firing at them and surrendered immediately.
Mattapan boy, who captured 12 Germans on second day of invasion.
WELCOMED BY FRENCH
With others he pressed forward through French villages where children brought them flowers, and their elders gave them cognac and then through fields where they themselves milked the cows into canteen cups when they were thirsty. But soon the Nazis shot him in the leg and he was evacuated to an English hospital—his first plane ride, which he says he enjoyed—where he wrote the letter, which reads:
American Red Cross, June 17, 1944.
"First of all I want you to know that I am safe and sound and as well as can be. We made the invasion and I've seen plenty of action. It will be quite sometime before I see any more, though. On the eighth day of the fighting I got hit in the leg. Nothing serious, so don't worry. I am now in a hospital in England after being evacuated from France by plane. Enjoyed the plane ride, it being my first one.
Was kind of scared the first couple of hours of the fighting. But after getting out of a real tight spot, which I never thought I would, I was as cool and calm as could be. Even surprised me.
"The second day I captured 12 Jerries. Fell in the same hole with them and my rifle fell out of my hands and went off by itself. They thought I was firing at them and they all put their hands up. One of them did put a bullet through the sleeve of my field jacket, though, before he gave up. Lucky for me he was a bum shot.
"Every time we'd capture a village the French would ring the church bells and the children would bring us flowers. The people would pour us cider or cognac to drink as we passed through the villages. They sure seem to have plenty of cognac, but it's too strong for me to drink. The Germans took all the wine with them whenever they would retreat. We got plenty of milk too. Anytime we stopped in a field the boys would get their canteen cups and milk the cows right in the field.
"Am getting plenty of rest and sleep now. My leg doesn't hurt at all, so don't be worrying about me. Will keep writing. It will probably be a long time before my mail catches up with me, but keep writing. I'll probably keep sending home for stuff now, as I've had to get rid of or lost all my personal belongings such as my watch, cigarette lighter and pictures.
"Cousin Lou was on the beach when we landed and although I didn't see him, he was asking about me. I hope he is still all right.
"All for now. Regards to everyone. Love and luck.
"Your son and brother, IKE."
Mattapan is a neighborhood of Boston. The newspaper really was printed on pink paper and we've tried to preserve its appearance here. Ike's given name is Isadore, with an "a", not an "i", which only the Times was able to get right.
In March 2013, I visited Ike Berch in his home and we discussed his World War II experiences. Ike is a very modest, low-key individual who is reluctant to "blow his own horn". The following is a very brief summary of what he told me...
In May 1942, Ike was drafted and sent to Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia for basic training, which was conducted by troops from the 29th Infantry Division. He had further training at Camp Blanding, Florida, and Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The 29th Infantry Division was originally a Maryland National Guard outfit which was federalized and eventually expanded to full strength by taking in draftees, like Ike, from all over the Eastern United States. It didn't reach its full complement of about 15,000 men until after it arrived in Britain in October 1942. Ike made the voyage to Britain along with several thousand other soldiers aboard the Queen Elizabeth.
On board Queen Elizabeth, and on the vessel transporting the other half of the 29th, the Queen Mary, galley facilities were limited and meals had to be served around the clock to the troops. Ike recalls the food as being terrible. After the troops arrived in Britain, their food didn't improve. Due to shortages, they received mostly mutton and cabbage for quite a while. Eventually C rations and K rations arrived from the USA and they weren't much better.
Most of the Allied troops were away, invading North Africa, and there wasn't a very big force left behind to defend Britain. Fortunately, the Germans didn't try to invade. While in Britain, Ike and his buddies did a lot of training, marching, crawling and running, preparing for the eventual invasion of France. There were regular practice landings from LCVPs on the English coast.
During the last two weeks before D-Day, the 29th Divison, and other units who were to participate in the landings, were isolated in marshalling areas. The morning of 6 June 1944, Ike landed in an LCI with his regiment on Omaha Beach, Normandy, in the second wave. The first wave had already taken very heavy casualties while going ashore and although the 115th's losses weren't quite as severe, Ike remembers seeing a lot of his friends' bodies around him on the beach while he was lying there, pinned down by enemy fire.
Once ashore, the American troops had to keep moving, dodging sporadic fire and clearing mine fields. The Germans did not make a serious counterattack against Omaha Beach because they were expecting the major Allied attack to occur farther north, around Calais. Had they done so, they would have surely driven the troops on Omaha Beach into the sea.
During the second day, the American troops continued moving inland. The land there is criscrossed by the famous Normandy hedgerows,1 which slowed down our troops' movements. Trying to climb over a hedgerow, Ike Berch tumbled to the ground on the other side, and his rifle discharged twice. He looked up to see 12 frightened German soldiers with their hands up in surrender. Before they surrendered, though, one of them fired a shot which went through the sleeve of Ike's jacket, grazing his arm about 6 inches to the left of his heart. This was just one of the many close calls Ike experienced. What the Germans didn't know was that Ike's rifle had jammed and that he couldn't possibly have shot them! Ike was soon joined by some more American soldiers, who helped him guard his prisoners.
The 29th Infantry Division moved slowly inland against strong resistance, with its rifle platoons leading the way. Ike especially remembers the fine leadership of his platoon leader, a Lieutenant Chadwick. During this advance, Ike was shot in the knee and wounded so severely that he had to be evacuated to a hospital in England. The division eventually fought its way across France and Germany, taking very heavy casualties all the way. Perhaps 90 per cent of the men in the rifle platoons were killed or wounded by VE-Day.
After spending several weeks in an English hospital, Ike was flown to New York, then taken by train to Auburn, California, to one of only two hospitals in the USA which could repair his type of wound. He went to other Army medical facilities in Santa Barbara, and to the Mitchell Convalescent Hospital in Campo, where he got to ride a horse for the first time. Ike eventually reached Palm Springs in July 1945, serving as an MP at a hospital which had been a luxury hotel before the war.
While visiting the Los Angeles area in April 1945, Ike met Virginia and decided to stay in California after his discharge to marry her. They have participated regularly in 29th Division reunions over the years and still receive the division newsletter. In 1994, they went to France to celebrate the fiftieth annversary of D-Day and received a very warm welcome from the French people.
I'm grateful to Ike Berch for taking the time to reminisce with me about these events of almost seventy years ago. Although he doesn't consider himself a hero, I'm very thankful that there were a lot of guys like Ike who were willing to go wherever our armed forces needed them during those times. I hope that, by telling his story, I'll encourage others to learn more about our history.
1 "The hedgerow is a fence, half earth, half hedge. The wall at the base is a dirt parapet that varies in thickness from one to four or more feet and in height from three to twelve feet. Growing out of the wall is a hedge of hawthorn, brambles, vines, and trees, in thickness from one to three feet. Originally property demarcations, hedgerows protect crops and cattle from the ocean winds that sweep across the land."—Martin Bluminson, in Wikipedia.