Delray vet recalls D-Day: ‘Whole beach was covered with dead people’

Updated June 06, 2017
Veterans (from left to right) James Dougherty (age 100), John Brindisi (age 92), and Ev Bergquist (age 96) pose for a portrait on the anniversary of the World War II D-Day invasion of Normandy, France on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s been 73 years since he landed on Utah Beach the day after D-Day and John Brindisi can still hear the “click clicks.”

Two clicks from an unidentifiable soldier meant friendly. If not? Fire.

READ: D-Day remembered, as veterans of fateful event dwindle

The 92-year-old remembers his disorientation and reliance on the military police to know what to do next.

The images of soldiers’ bodies he rescued in France that June in 1944 are still in his mind.

“It was very difficult,” he said.

But he also has memorable images of the train that took him home after he served.

PHOTOS: Honor Flight takes local D-Day veterans to National Memorial

“All of a sudden somebody started to call my name. I didn’t know who it was. I finally saw some guy, he told me ‘It’s your aunt. She came to meet you at the train,’” Brindisi recalled. “That was great.”

Brindisi is one of three men living at Abbey Delray off Linton Boulevard who served in the U.S. Army in World War II and survived. James Dougherty, 100, landed on Omaha Beach the evening of D-Day, and Evert Bergquist, 96, landed on Utah Beach a couple of days later.

READ: The Forgotten 14 — In 1943, these airmen lost their lives in horrific crash in West Palm

Six months later, all three fought in the Battle of the Bulge, which took place from Dec. 6, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. Many consider it the U.S. Army’s greatest land battle.

The three were to be honored at an annual ceremony in Boynton Beach at Veterans Memorial Park on Tuesday, the day that marks the anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy during World War II.

Rain, however, forced cancellation of Tuesday’s ceremony, which was planned by Tom Kaiser, the head of the Boynton veterans group. Kaiser also lives in Abbey Delray, and is a World War II Navy veteran.

When Dougherty landed on the beach, he was in charge of four linemen responsible for laying telephone lines for communication.

“The whole beach was covered with people dead and I had to crawl over them to get out of there,” he said. “I remember laying over one guy and he hadn’t shaved yet. He was about 16 years old. I remember that clearly because I was laying on top of him.”

Dougherty said he and the soldiers dug holes for themselves to hide in and lay there until it was safe to move.

“When you got into combat and bullets were flying around you did what you had to do,” he said.

Bergquist remembers worrying about whether the vehicle he was in was waterproofed successfully before being let into the water to get to the beach.

“That was quite an experiment. We spent days and hours waterproofing,” he said.

Once at the beach, there were mounds of dirt the German soldiers used to hide behind.

“At the beginning, it was a real problem. But eventually, we put bulldozer blades on the tanks,” he said.

Then their biggest job was “sending German prisoners back to the lines” after they surrendered. The largest seaborne invasion in history, it began the liberation of German-occupied Europe from the Nazis.

He talks most about the support he and the soldiers received back then.

“The way I look at World War II is that it was a total effort of 12 million soldiers and 120 million people all working their tails off. Kids collecting stuff and people working in factories who have never worked in factories in their life before doing stuff. It couldn’t have happened if that wasn’t the case,” he said.

Bergquist, who was born in Sweden and became a citizen less than one year before D-Day, wants the soldiers today to be proud of what they are doing, and to do their best.

As for these D-Day soldiers?

“You can tell them there’s three veterans who are still doing OK,” Bergquist said.

He continued:

“I was never interested in having the general public know anything about me and my war. I never talked about it,” he said. “I’m here now and like these fellas, I went on and had a great life after the war. I raised a wonderful family. I got a great education, did great in my job and the 73 years have flown by and I’ve had a wonderful 73 years.”

Dougherty looked at Bergquist and added, “We all did.”