- Ada, Oklahoma

Local News

June 5, 2014

D-Day: Staring down death

Ada — When Darrell Bolich decided to lie about his age so he could help Uncle Sam win a world war, he had no idea what he was getting into.

 He was 17, small and skinny, a high school junior in Maitland, Missouri.

  A few months later, still 17, he sat in a large hull, surrounded by hundreds of young soldiers, all fearing instant death when the mouth of their landing craft finally opened.

  An unexpected storm had caused their journey across the English Channel to be long and rough, forcing them to delay their landing by a day. Their nerves were raw. Their stomachs were empty, too, from not eating for two days.

  They shared crowded toilet facilities, and they waited and thought of families, girlfriends and death.

  “We had been hearing the shooting from the first wave that morning,” Bolich said. “When the door opened, all we could see were bodies floating on water, which was up to our waists.”

  The 29th Infantry Division, 175th Regiment poured out of this giant can, one of 5,000 in the invasion. Some died before they even hit the water.

  A lot more died after they got out. Out of 2,300 soldiers in his regiment, 80 percent of them would become casualties on this day alone. It was the 6th of June, 1944. D-Day. The largest armada ever assembled was zeroing in on Normandy in a valiant attempt to gain a foothold in Europe.

 “The only reason I’m here talking to you today is because of God,” Bolich said. “I want to make that perfectly clear. I had seen dead bodies before. I had not seen dead bodies in war with people falling all around you. I was scared to death.”

  He remembers running on the edge of the beach, stepping on or over one dead body after another, thinking each step he took would be his last.

 Bolich said he tries not to dwell on the war and what happened, then adds: “I do think it’s good to talk about it though.”

  After a moment of silence, Bolich brought out a World War II magazine and without comment, showed the reporter a description of that monumental day written by 19-year-old Hal Baumgarten.

 “...I was looking to my right when an 88 shell went off a few yards in front of me. It ripped off my left cheek to my ear, along with the roof of my mouth, blew out my upper left jaw and left my teeth and gums lying on my tongue. The guy next to me got it full in the face and died.

 I washed my face out in dirty water, did a dead man’s float on the incoming tide and got to the seawall...

 The machine gun started, so I ran and picked up a rifle. They were a dime a dozen. Wounded guys in the water reached for it as I passed; I pulled up as many as I could. We ran toward our gathering point.

 A guy in front of me got shot in the head. ‘Why not me?’ I kept thinking...”

Together, Baumgarten and Bolich, fighting with all their wits and stamina, were just a couple of lucky kids who managed to survive.

 For whatever reason—those two lives moving through the same tragic carnage—would not be shortened. A full 70 years later, both are still alive.

 They still haven’t met but both remain proud members of the 29th Infantry, just the same.

 For one historic moment they were part of a massive 160,000 troop invasion, one that would pay a terrible price in paving the way for an Allied victory.

  Bolich said he was told recently how many of the men he fought with were still alive.

 The number is eight — counting Bolich and Baumgarten.

 After the D-Day invasion, he got a hefty raise — from $21 a month to $31 a month, he said.

 “I sent the $21 home to my mother to save for me,” he explained. “I kept the other $10 for spending money.”

  Bolich had learned early on about fending for himself and being resourceful as the son of an abusive, alcoholic father.

 He had been on his own since the age of 11. His mother knew where he was, but he was still on his own. Occasionally, he’d visit her.

 He learned how to work a projector for a theater owner, and in exchange for being able to eat popcorn and sleep in the projector room, he had his first off-the-farm job and a place to stay.

 He worked wherever he could to make a buck.

 After D-Day, he found himself as a first scout — a job he thought early-on would get him killed.

 The job consisted of using his swift legs and cunning to get behind the German pillboxes. These were fortresses that housed Nazis behind machine guns ready to spray a barrage of bullets into Allied troops.

 Bolich’s job was to sneak up on them and drop a hand grenade through one of two porthole openings.

  When he was successful, the Nazi soldiers were blown to bits. Bolich would return as quickly as possible to his troops, having successfully cleared away one more obstacle that stood in the way of an Allied advance.

 After the war was over, Bolich said he realized he had one of the safest jobs in the infantry.

 “Even if the enemy saw me, he wouldn’t dare fire on me because he knew it would give away their position.

 “He also knew I wouldn’t fire either, and for the same reason.”

 At the end of the war, they gave him a choice: a brief furlow and then on to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, or stay and be part of the U.S. occupation of Germany.

 He chose the latter.

 His movie projector experience would come in handy as he showed movies and newsreels to the troops and the military brass.

 He even got the chance to drive the late comedian Bob Hope around on his first tour to entertain the troops.

  After he returned stateside, Bolich spent just shy of 50 years married to an American girl named Eunice. When she died, he lived alone for a couple of years. He remarried Ladell, a woman he met at Baptist Village.

 Sadly, his second marriage didn’t last long. “She had a massive heart attack right in that room,” he said, pointing to his living room.

 The World War II veteran lives alone today in a small but well-manicured home on West 6th Street in Ada. There’s a WWII veteran sign on his front porch. Directly behind it are the Stars and Stripes.

 Seventeen-year-old Ada teenagers may drive past his home this summer with little notice, but they do have a kinship with this man.

 As they pile into their cars, sometimes feeling like sardines themselves, they can thank Bolich and millions like him, for providing them the freedom to just be kids a little longer.

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