Diary of war: Former medic's diary sheds light on Normandy and aftermath

Sarah Roberts

From 1942-45, Gene Kleindl served as a medic in the U.S. Army. He was a litter bearer with the 90th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Tough ’Ombres,” primarily responsible for evacuating wounded soldiers and carrying them to medical stations.

During his three-year stint, Kleindl kept an almost-daily diary recounting such historic events as landing on Utah Beach in Normandy and being in Bastogne, Belgium, for the Battle of the Bulge.

Kleindl, now 85, is retired and living in rural Capron. For the 64th anniversary of D-Day, he is sharing excerpts of what he wrote in his diary in the days surrounding June 6, 1944.

Gene Kleindl’s division landed on Utah Beach on June 7, 1944. Before that, they waited on ships in Cardiff Harbour in Wales, he said, trying to figure out where they were going next.

Kleindl’s diary entries from June 9-13 document a time of heavy casualties. His division was moving into “hedgerow country” near the Picauville area of France. Hedgerows were mounds of earth originally intended to contain cattle and mark boundaries.

Typically there was only one entry into the small field enclosed by the hedgerows, which were irregular in length as well as height and set at odd angles.

Over centuries, vines, branches and other vegetation grew and mixed overhead, giving GIs in World War II a feeling of being trapped in a leafy tunnel. German soldiers would typically wait outside an opening and ambush American troops as they exited the hedgerows.

It was during these five days that Kleindl received the Bronze Star for retrieving a colonel who had been wounded by machine-gun fire and transporting him to an aid station, which Kleindl and other medics had helped set up near a convent about a mile away from the battlefront.

“From there, we would take our jeeps and rush to the hedgerows and bring back the wounded,” Kleindl said. “I recall we picked up this German fellow, and I looked down at him, and his foot was just hanging by a sliver. Somebody had put a cig in his mouth. I looked at the expression on his face; I thought maybe he would be a little upset about losing his foot, but I saw nothing. Later, I discovered that he realized the loss of his foot meant that he wasn’t going to be around there much longer. He was going to live and get out of there.

“By the time June 10 was over, the 90th had gotten basically nowhere. We had pushed about 500 yards west and had suffered over 99 casualties. The litter bearers were having a big workout bringing the wounded back to the aid station at full speed.”

Diary excerpts

June 6, 1944

Still in the harbor. The medics are on the top floor of the ship working on dental patients and watching all the activities taking place around us. Later we heard what was going on at the beaches.

June 7, 1944

Finally as it became light, we knew we were moving and can see the whole channel area. It is dotted with ships and landing crafts of all description. The large ships have huge balloons moored to their masts. Aircraft hovered and maintained constant watch of the skies. Still small bits of information are given to us. All medics are located on the top deck. Still a pleasant trip for us. Still no word of landings. The channel is rough; a huge storm has been going on for five days. Now the midday weather is hot as the sun beats down on us. It’s now about 11 or so. We stop, and it is our turn to debark ship. With equipment we go over the side of the ship and climb down nets to get to the small craft below. Then we went toward shore. After we stopped, I happened to be out of the boat first, so I lead the way. Looking to one side, I recall it was a general frantically rushing to reach shore first. It must be important to him, I thought, so I slowed my pace. It made him happy to touch the shore first. We proceeded across the beach in a single file. The area all around is cluttered with destroyed equipment. As we followed the path before us, we noted the scenes around us — all the signs of the battle that had been fought earlier. Leaving the beach, we saw a roped-off area with signs marked “Minen.” So we stayed on the paths for safety. Signs of bones and skulls got our attention, as well as seeing dead Germans in the ditches. This was a long walk of eight miles without a break. At this point, I find myself in the rear of the line. An officer with a GI up front who could speak French talked to a Frenchman and they were looking at a map. Guess what — we turned and went in another direction. We were lost the first day out. Not a good sign, I thought. After a while, we ended up in thick woods. Being the last one in line, for safety, I took hold of the belt of the soldier in front of me, in case anything happened to me from behind. 

It was a very dark night in the woods, and we quickly dug a foxhole for the night. Later we heard that a jeep driver, a man called Private Springer, was shot by mistake. He arrived late, and a guard got jumpy and thought he was a German. Our first death was done by friendly fire — pretty sad.

June 9, 1944

The regimental ranks are moving down a dirt road, single-file. We heard the fight taking place ahead of us. Before the beach landing, all equipment such as Jeeps, weapons and gas masks had a black rubber substance on them to keep the water out. After that they would have to be de-waterized to use. When this next surprise event took place, most guys forgot to do the cleanup job on their gas mask. We were all being shelled constantly by the German military. Someone panicked and thought we were being gassed. Someone called out “gas” and quickly altered us to put on gas masks. Quickly all of us who were walking down the road made a turn heading back to the beach in panic mode. A mistake had been made. The fumes of the shells coming in — someone mistakenly thought it was gas. Everything calmed down, and we turned back on the road. We had many close calls as our lives were risked many times. We were always under sniper fire, as they hid in the trees. We were always aware of snipers above. Fighting and going about giving aid to the wounded was very difficult because all of this was taking place in the hedge rows.

June 10, 1944

“What a slaughter.”

June 11, 1944

Still in the convent. Snipers are still firing all around from the trees. Jeeps are going to and fro with the wounded. Just got bad news that my brother, Cliff, has been wounded. He was picked up and sent back to England for care.

June 12, 1944

Still feel bad for Buddy Gillis, who was only 18 years old, getting killed. He was a replacement and was on litter (duty) and got hit by shrapnel. We had slept in the same foxhole together the night before.

June 13, 1944

Today, after taking Pont L’Abbe, we got battered by friendly planes, suffering 100 more casualties, known as friendly fire.

Sarah Roberts can be reached at smrobert@rrstar.com or (815) 987-1354.