It was the perfect Memorial Day message. The man sitting next to me whispered it in my ear.
Â Â Â "Don't forget about the guys who sacrificed their lives. They're the real heroes," said WWII veteran Harold Baumgarten, 81.
Â Â Â Dr. Baumgarten is the author of "Eyewitness on Omaha Beach" and "D-Day Survivor-An Autobiography." He lived through the bloody battles seen on the screen in films like "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Longest Day."
Â Â Â We were at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication graduation exercises on May 12, 2006. His granddaughter was receiving her BA, and my son, William, earned his MA in journalism.
Â Â Â "Steven Spielberg is a friend," the doctor said. "He told my story, what I experienced on the beach." Dr. Baumgarten appeared with Senator John McCain in an introduction to the television premiere of "Saving Private Ryan," on Nov 11, 2004.
Â Â Â He was born in the Big Apple in March, 1925. On June 6, 1944, he was assigned to the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. Nineteen years old, Baumgarten landed in front of the Vierville draw, at the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach, with B Company.Â
Â Â Â In a letter to a friend, Baumgarten wrote, "As we approached the beach, the bullets started hitting our LCA. The Company B boat on our left was hit by a shell and blew up. The splintered wood, metal, and body parts were raining down on us from about fifteen feet above. Our young British sailor wanted to drop the front ramp in the twenty-foot-deep water and motor away. Lieutenant Donaldson pulled out his Army Colt 45, pointed it at the frightened seaman, and bellowed, 'Take us all the way in."Â
Â Â Â "...The water was bright red, from the blood of some of those who had been in front of me. Lieutenant Donaldson was killed immediately, Clarius Riggs was machine gunned on the ramp, and then fell headfirst into the bloody water. I jumped into the neck-deep water (for my height) with my rifle above my head. On leaving the ramp a bullet creased the top of my helmet."Â
Â Â Â Dr. Baumgarten told CNN on the 50th anniversary of the landing, "We're going across the beach. Machine gun spray came from right to left from the bluff. I heard a loud thud on my right front and my rifle vibrated. I turned it over. There was a clean hole in its receiver, which is right in front of the trigger. My seven bullets in the magazine section saved my life, because there was another loud thud behind me on the left, and that soldier was gone.Â
Â Â Â "I looked over to my left, and staggering by me without his helmet was Sergeant Clarence Robison from my boat, a gaping hole in the left side of his forehead. His blonde hair was streaked with blood. He was out of it. Anyway, he staggered all the way behind me to the left, knelt down facing the wall, took out his rosary beads and started praying. Then a machine gun up on the bluff to our right cut him down.Â
Â Â Â "A shell went off in front of me. Now, I'm about 110 yards from the sea wall off in front of me when shrapnel caught me here, ripped this cheek off, ripped the roof of my mouth out. I had teeth and gums laying on my tongue."Â
Â Â Â Moments after a medic threw some bandages on him, he stumbled over his best friend's corpse. "I started to cry when I saw my buddy," he said.
Â Â Â "(Baumgarten) received four wounds â€“ all of them serious - as he worked his way up the bluffs at Omaha Beach and moved inland," says the National D-Day Museum. "He received his fifth wound while lying on a stretcher on the beach the following afternoon awaiting evacuation."Â
Â Â Â Twenty eight of the men in his thirty man boat team died that day. Only Dr. Baumgarten, and a man named Charles Conner, survived. "The 1st Battalion of the 116th Infantry was more or less sacrificed to achieve the landing," he told Time magazine. "It was a total sacrifice." Ninety of the men in his 120 man company died.
Â Â Â He went on to earn a B.A. from NYU, and an M.S. and M.D. from the University of Miami. He is a renowned speaker and internationally recognized historian, featured in 40 books on D-Day. World War II historian Steven Ambrose was a personal friend. "I spoke at his memorial," said Dr. Baumgarten. "His wife sent me a card just the other day."
Â Â Â The watch Mr. Baumgarten wore at D-Day is in a glass case on the third floor of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. His granddaughter and her folks live in New Orleans as well, where Hurricane Katrina wiped out two family cars, and the ground floor of their home.Â
Â Â Â He now lives in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. "I'm freezing to death here," he groused, on that unusually foggy LA day. He had on a Los Angeles Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team baseball cap. "I addressed them three years ago," he said. "They gave me the hat."
Â Â Â His granddaughter reached the podium, beaming in her cap and gown, a thin, dark-haired, pretty girl. Harold Baumgarten fished out a digital camera and took a photo, while his family swarmed around her.
Â Â Â For the survivors, life goes on. For those who fell in war, there is Memorial Day, instead of families and graduations, sons and granddaughters, warm days and cold ones.