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Hagerstown man says, 'I can still smell D-Day'

Arthur Staymates is one of three men in his platoon who survived the ordeal

June 05, 2012|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • Arthur Staymates discusses the D- Day invasion while looking through photos at his Hagerstown home.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

German machine-gun fire hammered on the door of Arthur Staymates’ landing craft as it approached Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Now a gray-haired octogenarian, Staymates said that the American soldiers believed they would be cut to pieces if they didn’t get out before the steel door crashed open.

“A whole bunch of us went over the side,” Staymates said during a recent interview at his Hagerstown home. “That saved my life.”

Weighed down by ammunition, weapons and supplies, the men plunged into about 8 feet of salt water, hitting the bottom of the English Channel. Staymates said some of the men struggled to the surface.

Others weren’t so lucky.

“I never thought I was going to get out of there,” he said. “You kept trying to get up somehow and get a couple of seconds of air. There was a lot of blood in the water. Some of the guys didn’t make it. They never got back up.”

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The day before, on June 5, Staymates was among 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops who departed aboard ships from ports in southern England to the shores of Nazi-occupied France.

As part of the 1st Infantry Division, Sgt. Staymates was just hours away from landing in the teeth of the German defenses.

Staymates said he and many of the other men never saw combat until D-Day. Before then, they amassed countless hours of training in England, learning how to descend rope ladders into small landing craft.

He said the mood among the green soldiers was “jovial.” But that wasn’t the case with the division’s veterans, who had seen action earlier against the Germans during Allied campaigns in North Africa and Sicily.

“They were edgy,” he said. “They knew what we were getting into.”

Shortly after midnight, Staymates’ unit went over the sides of the ship into the landing craft below.

“As far as you could see, there were ships. There were ships everywhere,” he said.

The Americans quickly were pinned down after they hit the beach at 6:30 a.m., Staymates said. The yellow sand and the water were strewn with the bodies of the dead and wounded.

He said of the 12 men in his squad, half were lost.

“They were just killing us by the dozens,” Staymates said. “The boys that drowned or were killed getting off the (landing craft), their bodies were washing on shore. You wanted to pick them up and take them where it was dry .... But you really couldn’t go back and get them.”

American commanders, realizing that the invasion was in jeopardy, sent warships closer to the coast to shell the German positions. Staymates said officers encouraged the men to drive forward, shouting they could either die on the beach or move inland.

Around midnight, Staymates’ unit reached the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. After hours of fighting, they finally shared the same footing as the Germans and started to push into France.

Staymates said he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and wounded twice after D-Day, the first time on his right side by German artillery during the Battle of the Bulge, and by mortar fire several months later.

Both times, he was taken off the front lines to recover in hospitals. He said the respites gave him a chance to sleep on clean sheets and eat hot meals.

“Then they say you have to go back up,” he said. “That’s a long, long trip. You don’t want to go up, but you have to. The other guys expect you.”

War criminals

Staymates was promoted to lieutenant and stationed in Nuremberg after the war. He said he was the commander of a detachment that guarded high-ranking Nazis who were being tried for war crimes.

Those prisoners included Martin Bormann, Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Julius Streicher.

For entertainment, some of the American guards tied hangman’s nooses with string, then held them in front of a light that cast a shadow in the prisoners’ cells, he said.

Staymates said Goering often refused to clean his cell because he deemed the chore beneath him.

“He clicked his heels and said, ‘Field marshals don’t clean cells,’” Staymates said.

He said Goering was denied food until he finally relented.

Although arrogant, Goering was a highly intelligent man, Staymates said. Roughly six hours before he was to be hanged, Goering stuck a cyanide capsule in his mouth and committed suicide.

The guard watching Goering told Staymates that the prisoner  acted like he was stretching, then passed a hand over his mouth and started “gurgling.”

Allied officials launched an investigation to determine how Goering smuggled the capsule into his cell but never reached a conclusion.

Staymates said he believed Goering might have kept the capsule in a notch that investigators found carved in the bottom of the toilet seat in his cell. He said it was one of the few places that the guards never checked.

“It could have been in there for days or weeks,” he said.

Coming home

Staymates met his wife, Maria, in Germany.

After the war, they returned to his hometown in Pennsylvania and relocated in 1962 to Hagerstown, where Staymates operated a financial advising firm at 100 W. Washington St.

He and Maria raised two sons and two daughters. 

Of the 42 men in his platoon who landed on D-Day, Staymates is one of three survivors. He said he still has a hard time talking about seeing his friends killed in action so long ago.

“I can still smell D-Day,” he said. “It smells like fresh blood in the water and sun .... But today, I’m happy. I’m still alive. I had a wonderful life.”

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