29, Let’s Go!
Called the Blue and Gray for its initial makeup of citizens from both the Union and former Confederacy, the 29th Infantry Division represents both American strength and unity. Though formed in 1917, the 29th will forever be remembered for its role on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Like much of the American military, the 29th Division experienced an extensive buildup of its personnel and equipment as the war in Europe threatened to engulf the United States. Though it would eventually come to include artillery battalions, signal companies, and various logistical elements, the core of the 29th was its infantry regiments. The soldiers who stormed the beaches and braved the German machine gun fire were primarily made up of the 115th, 116th, and 175th Infantry Regiments. Prior to D-Day, the unit had been moved to England and Scotland. Immediately upon their arrival, they began preparations and training for the invasion of Europe. When the assault on Normandy finally came, the 29th was assigned the western flank of Omaha Beach, one of five beaches that made up the objectives of Operation Overlord.
Due to the difficult terrain and heavy fortifications, Omaha Beach was regarded as the most difficult landing spot with the heaviest casualties expected. Stormy weather conditions and the chaos of the battle combined to wreak havoc on the landing forces. Many of the soldiers were blown off course while the tanks meant to support them sunk in the English channel. When they finally landed, the Blue and Gray was met with overwhelming fire from the German defenders. Entire companies were wiped out while Army leadership considered evacuating the entire sector. Though bruised and bloodied, and with hardly a man uninjured, the 29th rallied and took the beach.
By June 9, the entire division had landed and was ready to press on. Already badly depleted from D-Day, the 29th was further taxed during the battle of Saint-Lô. The Germans fiercely resisted, subjecting the soldiers of the division to incessant artillery fire until the town was finally taken at heavy cost. Major Thomas Howie, who would later be known in the press as the Major of Saint-Lô, was killed shortly before 29th was able to enter the town, his body placed atop the lead vehicle so that he could be the first American to enter. His flag-draped remains resting atop the rubble of a Saint-Lô cathedral has gone on to become an iconic image of the war.
The division continued to fight across Europe reaching all the way to the Elbe River where they set up defensive positions. After V-E Day, they were selected to be part of the occupying forces that remained in Germany until finally coming home and being deactivated in 1946.
The 29th Division has been portrayed numerous times in works of fiction, including The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. For many in the United States, their exploits are synonymous with the American war effort against Nazi Germany.
Hal Baumgarten has come to be a spokesman for the World War II generation. His story has been told in over forty books and was an inspiration for the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. He was born in 1925 in New York City only several years after the First World War had ended. Growing up, Hal travelled extensively around the Caribbean, exposing him early on to both diverse people and cultures as well as abject poverty, both of which would influence his later worldview and desire to help people regardless of their background.
Always dedicated to athletics, Hal was playing football when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. He was still in high school at the time but was already being vetted to play professional baseball. His potential baseball career was halted when his draft notice appeared.
Eager to serve his country, he happily accepted his orders for the Army. He was trained in England and was eventually assigned to the First Battalion of the 116th Infantry Regiment, of the 29th Infantry Division. His unit was to be assigned the capture of the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach, part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications that lined the Normandy Coast. Like many of his fellow soldiers assigned that mission, Hal did not believe he would survive.
Throughout his life, and especially in the lead up to the assault on D-Day, Hal took great pride and comfort in his Jewish heritage. The Nazi regime was systematically destroying his people in Europe. Allied Jewish POWs could expect none of the protections of the Geneva Conventions, but rather the harsh brutality of the Holocaust. Hal’s answer to that was to paint a large Star of David on his jacket for the assault on the beach. In his words, “I wanted Hitler to know who I was.”
His unit would eventually take the beach, with no reinforcements. The slaughter that was occurring convinced General Omar Bradley that Dog Green Sector was a lost cause. The price for victory was high, however. Hal sustained five serious injuries, including having much of his face blown off from an exploding artillery shell that killed several of his friends. Many of his actions that day have gone unrewarded as military policy requires the eyewitness testimony of officers before medals can be granted. Every officer that accompanied Hal and his fellow soldiers died that day.
It took months for hal to recover from his wounds. Having seen firsthand the great destruction of the war, Hal was determined to do his part to leave the world a better place than when he found it. He became first an educator and then a physician, crediting his hunger for learning with his academic ambition and success. He served his community, saving and bettering the lives of countless patients. He would cite this as his second great calling in life, one of the reasons he survived the war. His other mission was to tell the world what happened on D-Day.
“Why did I survive?” is a question many veterans ask themselves. The haunting memories of war combined with survivor’s guilt make it difficult for many veterans to come to terms with and speak of their experiences. For Hal, speaking of the events of D-Day is the answer to why he survived when so many others did not. Many of the soldiers who accompanied Hal will never have the chance to be interviewed about what they saw. They will never speak in front of a large audience or be an honored guest at receptions. They died on the beaches of Normandy. For Hal, the reason that he escaped with his life is so that the rest of the world can hear their stories.
Veteran Interview & Bio
Steven Melnikoff was born in Wonnsocket, Rhode Island in 1920. He served in 1st Battalion, 175th Regiment, of the 29th Infantry Division, eventually achieving the rank of tech/sergeant. For his actions during World War II, he earned three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, and numerous other awards. The decoration he is most proud of, however, is simple: his combat infantry badge.
Steve Melnikoff is one of the few veterans left who experienced the full horrors of the D-Day landings. When he speaks of his military service, his eyes gloss over. His voice shows a mixture of both pride in what he was a part of that day, as well as a deep sadness as seventy year old memories of war come rushing back. Even after so many decades, he remembers the dead, both his friends and the enemy soldiers, and he grieves. He describes with great respect the men he fought against. While he has no sympathy or admiration for the war criminals that filled many of the ranks of the Third Reich, he takes offense to fictional portrayals of the average German conscript that show them as inept or incompetent. The men who fought against his unit did so with honor, he maintains. As evil as the Nazi state was, the men who stood against him in Normandy, like him, were drafted and had job to do. For Steve, to diminish the warrior ethos of the average German soldier is to diminish what he fought for, what his friends died for.
His military service began in 1943 with his draft notice. Upon receiving it, he was neither happy nor afraid. The nation was at war. Being a soldier is simply what had to be done. He left the United States a young man, a draftee, and returned a veteran, more mature and confident.
He still keeps in touch with many of his friends from his time in the service. They, like him, are one of the few who knows what it was like to be a combat infantryman storming a beach. They, like him, know what it is to come back from war and carry on as a civilian.
After the war, he enjoyed his hard earned G.I. Bill benefits and studied mechanical engineering. He started a family which has grown to include two children, two grandchildren, and six great grandchildren. Despite all he did in service during the war, he cites his family as what he is most proud of.
For Steve, sharing his experience is a patriotic duty. He sees in younger generations an enormous potential. He rejects the name “Greatest Generation” for him and his peers. He believes all generations have the potential for greatness, needing only the proper education for the world to benefit from their talent. He shares his stories as a contribution to that, so that the world might see and appreciate both the horrors of war and the heroism of sacrifice for a greater good. Americans, and the world in general, owe Steve and the men he served with a great debt.
All he asks is that we listen.