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One Iowan's D-Day story, 75 years later

Ernest Raab's memoir keeps his WW II experiences alive

A photograph of Ernest Raab, taken about 1943, is seen May 29 at John and Peggy Raab's house in Iowa City. Ernest Raab registered for the selective service on April 23, 1942, when he was 18, and shipped out about a year later for basic training. (Raab family photo)
A photograph of Ernest Raab, taken about 1943, is seen May 29 at John and Peggy Raab's house in Iowa City. Ernest Raab registered for the selective service on April 23, 1942, when he was 18, and shipped out about a year later for basic training. (Raab family photo)
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IOWA CITY — In terms of last suppers, it was top notch.

“The evening meal that night consisted of steak, mashed potatoes, vegetables, pie and ice cream and all you could eat,” Ernest Raab wrote. “Someone asked if they were trying to fatten us up for the kill (no joke).”

The next morning, Raab, a Maquoketa native serving with the U.S. Army’s 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, sat in a boat lowered from the U.S.S. Samuel Chase into the English Channel off the coast of France in preparation for the largest seaborne invasion in history.

It’s easy to be awed by the magnitude of D-Day, the historic battle 75 years ago that left more than 15,000 Allied and German troops dead, marked the beginning of the end of World War II and inspired iconic movies including “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Longest Day.”

But each soldier had his own story.

Raab, a newspaper press operator and artist who died at age 88 in 2013, wrote his story in a 13-page, single spaced memoir with scope — “I spent two years and eight months in what was generally referred to as ‘this man’s Army’” — and detail — “The K ration was a small can of ham, a can of cheese with a cracker and a chocolate bar.”

The memoir has helped his children and grandchildren learn more about his role in WW II and about him as a person, said John Raab, Ernest’s son, of Iowa City: “I’ve always had a deep-abiding respect for my dad and what he did.”

READ THE MEMOIR: Scroll to the bottom of this story to read Raab's 13-page memoir.

Joining up

Ernest Raab registered for selective service on April 23, 1942, when he was 18 — just about four months after the United States joined the war. A year later, he shipped out for basic training.

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The 13 weeks of training at Fort Riley, Kan., included calisthenics, an obstacle course, guard duty, hikes, lectures and firing an M1 rifle, Raab wrote. Also “the very unpopular infiltration course,” which was a field covered with barbed wire the trainees had to crawl under as explosives were detonated to simulate enemy fire.

“The end of the field we were facing had two 50-caliber machine guns firing live ammunition over our heads,” Raab wrote. “They were set so that there was 12 inches between your head and the live ammunition being fired ... Above all, keep your head down.”

Going abroad

After sailing to England, Raab became part of the 1st Infantry Division, one of the oldest continuously serving units in the U.S. Army and nicknamed the “Big Red One.”

“January 1944 came and rumors began circulating about an invasion that would take place on the continent of Europe,” Raab wrote.

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Raab’s job was to be No. 2 to the man who fired a bazooka, “an antitank weapon that looked like a piece of stove pipe with a flange on the end,” he wrote.

“I would slide the rocket into the rear chamber, hook a wire to the conductor then tap the operator on the shoulder indicating it was ready to fire,” Raab wrote. “I would immediately step aside because when fired, there would be a burst of flame out of the rear chamber.”

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Operation Overlord

Raab’s platoon landed on Omaha Beach sometime around 6:30 a.m. June 6, 1944. One of his friends, a soldier named Ike, immediately was shot in the stomach and fell into the knee-deep water. For a time, the platoon was stuck on the beach, sitting ducks if German air power had been at full strength, Raab noted.

The platoon leader decided it was time to move and led the group over a ridge into a swamp with signs posted in German warning of land mines.

“He assured us the mines probably had been there for some time and due to wet conditions they would not be able to function,” Raab wrote. “He took off first and we followed without incident.”

Within days, the No. 1 bazooka man was accidentally killed by another American unit that hadn’t been properly trained on how to use passwords and countersigns to recognize friendly troops. Raab was promoted.

Omaha Beach was one of five beaches along the coastline of the Normandy region of France the Allies invaded in the first phase of Operation Overlord. The invasion allowed the Allies to establish a foothold on the continent — and from there, forge across Nazi-occupied France and into Germany.

March accross France

Hedgerow by hedgerow, the platoon advanced across northern France, sleeping in foxholes and watching out for butterfly bombs, which would explode a few feet above ground to send shrapnel in all directions.

Word came the Allies needed to take Caen, a German-held port city. Raab joined an eight-man squad that established an outpost near the city.

“Suddenly all hell broke loose,” he wrote. “Our own artillery began shelling the field behind us. I don’t know if they were unaware of our outpost, but it sure cut us off from contact with the company.”

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Three members of the squad, including Raab, tried to get back to the company. They came upon a German Tiger tank in the middle of a road. They determined the tank operators were firing to either side of the road periodically, apparently unable to see Raab and his fellow soldiers.

“The next burst, we knew would be on our side so we made a mad dash for the other side and we were right, they fired in the spot we had just left,” Raab wrote.

A new assignment

When Raab’s company had advanced into Germany, he went to a first aid station seeking medication to calm his nerves. Although he didn’t think it was serious, the request resulted in Raab being transferred to a field hospital, where he was “put to sleep for almost three days,” followed by more recuperation.

Raab was ready to return to battle when an order went out that anyone who had been in a hospital more than 10 days (he’d been there 11) would be sent to a rehab center before returning to combat.

“This chain of events that followed my visit to the aid station gave me a guilty feeling,” he wrote, “that I had deserted the rest of the company still engaged in battle. Finally I began to realize what took place was really beyond my control.”

He was reassigned to the 9th Air Force as a clerk-typist in the ordnance section.

Coming home

Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945, happened while Raab was stationed near Brussels, Belgium. “The people of the town celebrated for an entire week,” he wrote.

With six months training, 26 months overseas, three battle stars plus the arrowhead given for the D-Day invasion and a combat badge, he had no trouble qualifying for a trip home in November 1945. That trip involved camping on sand dunes by the Mediterranean Sea, riding out a violent Atlantic storm on an aging ship and arriving back in Iowa about 6 p.m. Jan. 3, 1946.

Unlike some veterans, Raab didn’t seem to struggle with his memories from World War II, said his son, a Methodist pastor. But John Raab did have to prompt his father several times to write the memoir so his experiences could be passed along.

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“Over the years, memories fade,” John Raab said. “But I’ve made sure all his grandchildren have copies. We also gave out copies at his visitation.”

John Raab’s niece, Rebecca Raab, visited Omaha Beach some years ago as part of a college trip to France. She sent Ernest Raab a photo with a message: “Thank you, Grandpa, for making this possible.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

 

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