Seventy years ago, Pfc. Russell Stover’s landing craft ground to a halt.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, it lodged itself on an underwater anti-boat trap, far short of Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.
Ahead, past the surf, corpses and equipment from the first and second waves littered the wide, flat sands. German defenders poured rifle, mortar and machine gun fire down from the bluffs beyond.
Stover’s craft lowered its ramp.
Seasick soldiers, ill from the choppy ride and laden with gear, scrambled out.
“We jumped off into the water over waist deep,” Stover said in a 2008 interview with the Centre Daily Times. “When the waves hit us, after we got away from the boat, why, then we were up to our shoulders in water.”
Now 94, Stover lived in Millheim for decades, working for a local bank. He currently resides in a Belleville nursing home.
On D-Day, he landed with Company I, 3rd Battalion, 116th Regiment, 29th Division as a machine gunner and part of the largest amphibious invasion in history, the start of western Europe’s liberation.
In a 2002 CDT story about his wartime service, he recalled how he and the rest of his company struggled through the surf at the bloodiest of the invasion’s five beaches.
“Some got bowled over,” he said. “Some lost their weapons.”
Like many units at Omaha Beach, Company I landed in the wrong sector, diverted by currents and confusion.
Smoke from grass fires set by artillery veiled the unfamiliar bluffs. The haze partially obscured the aim of German gunners, possibly sparing the soaked men from the fate of Company A of the 116th in the first wave.
Almost all its men were killed or wounded. Nineteen from the small town of Bedford, Va., died within minutes.
But for Stover, the low-tide beach still stretched too far, a slaughterhouse almost three football fields across.
“They were firing right down our throats and we couldn’t hide from them,” he said in 2002. “They were 90 feet above us.”
He ran past bodies, debris, jacks of welded steel meant to thwart landing craft.
Then he could run no more.
“I didn’t get all the way,” he said in 2008. “I petered out and laid down to get my breath.”
Sand exploded around him. He got to his feet. A nearby man fell back down.
At the high-water mark, a bank of loose stones, Stover finally collapsed among survivors of the earlier waves still pinned down.
Allied casualties on D-Day numbered about 12,000, including about 4,414 dead. Omaha Beach alone saw more than 3,000 casualties.
Men drowned after falling overboard from burning landing craft, sinking in swamped amphibious Sherman tanks, or bleeding and unable to escape the rising tide.
They died while crouched behind boat traps and exposed in the flats.
Bullets and shrapnel caught them as they hugged the stone banks.
Stover got off the beach.
He advanced through a gap blown in the rows of concertina wire, across a swamp and up the Les Moulins draw, a valley from the beach, as mines took lives around him. One man clawed his way forward despite a shattered foot.
Stover dug a foxhole near a Normandy village around 11:30 p.m., nearly 15 hours after dashing ashore. He would be wounded twice, the second time in February 1945 when his half-track struck a mine, breaking his legs and sending him home.
But on D-Day, when the overcast sky rained lead, not a round even grazed him.
“Anybody who has lived a long time has pondered, ‘Why me? Why did I survive and 119 of my friends didn’t?’ ” he said in 2002.
“There is no answer.”