LOS ANGELES (AP) — During the historic D-Day invasion of World War II, Walter D. Ehlers accomplished some of the most awe-inspiring acts of bravery imaginable, earning a Medal of Honor for knocking out two German machine-gun nests and saving countless Allied soldiers’ lives.
The 23-year-old staff sergeant charged through enemy gunfire to kill seven enemy soldiers, chase away several others, put a halt to mortar fire and carry a wounded comrade to safety, even after he been shot in the back.
Yet for years, Ehlers rarely talked about those accomplishments; not until word got around that it was his Medal of Honor heroics that were getting him invited to every presidential inauguration since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s.
Ehlers died Thursday at a Long Beach hospital of kidney failure, his wife, Dorothy, told The Associated Press on Monday. He was 92, and his passing leaves only seven surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipients.
“He never bragged about it at all,” his wife said of her husband’s wartime heroics, adding he simply told people who commented on his Medal of Honor, “I wear it for all those who didn’t come.” That included his older brother, Roland.
“He would always tell you his brother, who was killed on D-Day, was his hero,” she said.
The brothers had enlisted in the Army together in 1940 and had taken part in invasions of Africa and Italy before D-Day arrived on June 6, 1944. The day before, their military superiors said they were separating them to improve the odds that at least one would survive.
As the Allied boats arrived under heavy German fire, Ehlers, a staff sergeant, led his group of soldiers onto the sand. His brother, arriving on another boat, was killed.
“I got all 12 of my men off the beach without a casualty, which was the best thing I ever did in my life,” he once told the Orange County Register.
As the soldiers advanced, they came under heavy fire from first one and then another machine-gun nest. Ehlers single-handedly knocked out both, as well as chased away a group of German soldiers firing mortar rounds.
In all, he killed seven enemy soldiers and carried a badly wounded comrade to safety after being shot in the back himself.
“The intrepid leadership, indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness displayed by S/Sgt. Ehlers in the face of overwhelming enemy forces serve as an inspiration to others,” his Medal of Honor citation reads.
After the war, Ehlers returned briefly to Kansas, where he had grown up and where a street is named after him in the town of Manhattan. Soon afterward, he moved to California.
“He wanted to get into the movies,” his wife recalled Monday with a laugh. She added that he did earn one movie credit, playing West Point cadet Mike Shannon in the 1955 John Ford film “The Long Gray Line.”
“He always joked that he graduated from West Point because his character did.”
Instead, the Buena Park resident spent many years working for the Veterans Administration as a benefits counselor.
On the 50th anniversary of D-Day he returned to France, where he joined President Bill Clinton and others in commemorating the event.
In addition to his wife of 58 years, Ehlers is survived by daughters Cathy Metcalf and Tracy Kilpatrick; his son, Lt. Col. (ret.) Walter D. Ehlers Jr.; sisters Leona Porter, Marjorie Gustin and Gloria Salberg; 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Funeral services with full military honors will be March 8 at Riverside National Cemetery.