Pete Ster was 18 years old when he received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. It was on a day in early June 1944 when he and hundreds of sailors and soldiers knelt at the feet of a Catholic priest raising his hands in a sign of forgiveness over them.
None of them was gravely ill, and all were young, some even younger than Ster. Despite their youth and good health, all of those young men were about to be placed in imminent danger. There was a strong possibility that many of them would be killed in the coming days.
In that English port 70 years ago today, Ster and tens of thousands of other Americans were prepared to embark on what is arguably the greatest military invasion of all time. It would come the next day, June 6, a date that is still known simply and universally as D-Day.
Ster is 88 years old now, but what transpired in June 1944 in World War II is still fresh in his mind. He remembers in particular the euphoria he experienced after receiving the last rites of absolution.
“It was a sense of freedom,” the Cummins Inc. retiree said recently from his home in Four Seasons Retirement Center. “I felt so free because my sins had been forgiven, and I wasn’t afraid to die.”
He survived D-Day and the last year of the war, but many of those who knelt with him on the dock didn’t. They were some of the GIs who were to be deposited on the beaches of Normandy from LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) on which Ster served as a crewman.
“I’ll never forget that first trip to the beach,” he said. “We carried about 200, and those guys had been on our boat for eight hours before we got the go signal.
“The ship had a shallow draft, and you could feel every wave, no matter how small. Those poor guys were crammed in there, each of them weighted down by a 100-pound backpack, and they were getting sick all over the place. Some of them threw up so much that they didn’t have anything left.
“Then we went in, and those poor guys had to jump off the boat and wade into everything the Germans could throw at them.”
Ster was below deck when the first wave went ashore. It was only when his LCI pulled back to get another load that he could see what was taking place. It was a nightmare.
“There were just bodies all over. They were bobbing in the water and up on the beach. Some of them had sunk under the weight of their packs and just drowned.”
That first trip was followed by many others. “We were running flat out, 24 hours a day,” he recalled. “I think we averaged eight trips a day between the transport ships and the beaches.”
While there was a sense of horror at the slaughter taking place on the beaches and in the water, there was also a sense of awe at the size of the invasion force.
“It was just something to look around you,” he said. “There was a 20-mile stretch of coastline involved in the invasion, and everywhere you looked you could see an endless array of ships and planes.”
Eventually a certain numbness set in, and much of the history unfolding before him became a blur. There was no time to reflect on the ghastly scenes he encountered.
Ironically, it would be decades later before he got a real sense of what he had witnessed. It was during a showing of the Steven Spielberg movie “Saving Private Ryan” in the late 1990s that it was brought back to him.
“There was one scene on the beach a couple of days after the initial invasion when some of the heavy equipment was being brought ashore. They had to have clear paths for the tanks and trucks to maneuver, and in this scene you could see off in the distance a huge pile of bodies. They were GIs who had been killed on the beach, and they had to stack them out of the way of the vehicles. It’s kind of ironic, but they were trying not to damage their bodies any more than they had already been damaged.”
Ster lived through the invasion. He was injured during the latter stages when he slipped and fell from the LCI as it approached its mother ship.
“A lot of guys were killed in incidents like that when they were crushed between the mother ship and the LCI,” he said. “Fortunately, I was pulled free just in time.”
The invasion marked the turning point in the war in Europe, but Ster came to look upon it as a prelude to another invasion that was supposed to take place a year later. In 1945 he was assigned to duty in the Pacific Theater. Once again he would be part of an invasion force, charged with assaulting Japan.
Some officials projected that the death toll from this endeavor would dwarf that of D-Day, up to 100,000 American lives lost.
That invasion never took place. On Aug. 6, 1945, as Ster and his crew were preparing for their mission, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, another incinerated the city of Nagasaki.
Those two events precipitated the Japanese surrender.
Ster often thinks about D-Day, but it is not in an all-consuming manner. He looks upon it as an important event in his life but not a defining one.
He was reminded of it earlier this year when he was part of a group of Hoosier veterans who were flown to Washington, D.C., on one of the “honor flights” designed to give those who had served an opportunity to see the World War II Memorial.
“I’ve traveled a lot over the years. In Europe it seems that the most prominent memorials to the war are in the cemeteries for American soldiers who didn’t come back,” he said. “I thought about that as I looked about the World War II Memorial in Washington. It was beautiful, but it was also alive. People of all ages were walking about it, especially little tots.”
He paused when he said that and in a while he continued.
“When I looked at those children, I took pride in what we did.”