On Now The 66th Anniversary of D-Day – Thanks to My Personal Hero

This post was first published last year and I am pleased to be able to report that Uncle Gil continues to be well…

Tomorrow marks the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

My wife’s 85-year-old uncle, Gilbert Wilhelm, then a diminutive 19-year-old kid from Cincinnati, landed on Omaha Beach with company F of the 102nd Cavalry Recon, in a tank like the one below, sometime around 11:30 AM that day.  They were supposed to have landed 5 hours earlier but did not, thank God. Remember the tanks in Private Ryan? The first wave of tanks had to leave their LST’s too soon and most sank to the bottom of the ocean. By the time Gil finally landed they drove right onto the beach from the raft that took them in.

My kids say that “Uncle Gil won WWII” which is technically true (he did have a little help from millions of others) and for all of us to be able to hear the history of that day first hand is the historical equivalent of being alive in 1928 and having a Civil War veteran tell you about the battle of Gettysburg.

The 102nd Cavalry Recon was in the vanguard of the allied advance from the time it landed on June 6th until shortly before VE Day in 1945. Starting with the deadly hedgerows of France, they were the first unit into Paris, fought in the Battle of Bulge and crossed the Rhine into the heart of Germany.  Think “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” combined and that is what Gil and his comrades experienced.

The Stuart M-5 tank you see to the left may look menacing but it was not, certainly in comparison to the German armor. It was lightly armored, with a small gun and as Gil tells it if they ever saw a German tank they turned tail and ran as they were not a match. Mostly they probed enemy lines on recon, supported infantry and screened the flanks of troop movements.

In fact on July 31, 1944 as part of the battle of St Lo and the “Breakout” Gil’s first tank was destroyed and he escaped unharmed.

“Before the enemy retreated in disorder down the reverse slope of the hill, three tanks and various other vehicles were destroyed beyond repair and several tanks, armored cars , half tracks and 1/4 ton trucks were immobilized by the terrain, mines or enemy fire. 33 casualties were sustained in the battle and the vehicular losses necessitated an almost complete re-equipment for some of the platoons.”

From the official Unit history

Several weeks later the replacement tank was hit by a dreaded German 88 shell that went clear through the tank and its engine and causing it to erupt in flames. Gil scrambled to safety and the went back to get one of the drivers out of the burning tank. He dragged him out while under enemy machine gun fire from 50 yards away and tried to drag him to safety.  The young driver, a replacement who had been in this tank only a week or two, was killed. For this selfless act of  heroism Gilbert Wilhelm was awarded the Silver Star.

Until the 50th anniversary of D-Day Gil, like most veterans,  did not talk about his experiences at all. For the past 15 years, since I started dating my now wife, Gil has shared his experiences with me mostly because I simply asked him questions. We will generally have a glass of wine or two, often from the stash he and his friends make, and simply talk about things and I’ll keep asking questions. Every time we chat something new will be remembered or put in context. The more I learn the more I am simply amazed by what Gil and his generation did.

He was a typical teenage boy from Cincinnati who had never been anywhere before, just like millions of others. He was trained, went to war, did his duty and more and returned home to start a family and live a normal life. Kids, grandkids, boy scouts, camping, family, unbelievable woodworking skills and lots of hiking and activity.

Today he is thankfully in wonderful health and  is more active than most people we all know.

But tomorrow around 5:30 AM and all morning spend a minute reflecting on what Gil and millions of others did for us and the world 65 years ago. Nearly 8000 men died that first day alone in securing the beachhead that led to Hitler’s ultimate defeat.

Be sure to thank your family “heroes” and any other person that served in WWII or any other of our wars, including our current ones.

Gil, thank you for “winning WWII” as the kids put it and for being such a special person, wonderful brother, father, grandfather, uncle, great-uncle and friend. For who you are and all these things combined you are my personal hero.

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