Allentown vet who landed on Normandy honors those buried on the beach

Ian Bush
June 06, 2019 - 12:53 pm
Kenneth Happel's honors

Ian Bush/KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — At dawn on June 6, 1944, and throughout D-Day, more than 160,000 Allied troops stormed Nazi-occupied France. Normandy's Omaha Beach saw the heaviest losses suffered by American forces. But their sacrifice marked the beginning of the end of World War II.

Kenneth Happel's feet hit the sand at four in the afternoon, about 10 hours after the first ground troops invaded the coastline.

Kenneth Happel's honors
Ian Bush/KYW Newsradio
"The only activity on the shore was all the dead ones. They were taking the dog tags off and getting them put into white canvas bags," he remembered.

Hundreds of bodies were scattered along the bloody beach — including Happel's brother soldiers, many from his 29th Infantry Division.

"I couldn't wait to get off the beach."

Forty-two days of continuous combat followed, with Happel's battalion manning the big guns.

"These big cannons would all land at one time, like a rolling barrage."

Drafted into the Army in 1943, he turned 19 during the bitter Battle of Saint-Lô. The town took such a pounding, it earned the name "capital of ruins."

"Bombers used to come over in formation," he said. "When they dropped their bombs — boy, the Earth would really shake. It was pure hell."

War is a dehumanizing force. You'd probably forgive Pfc. Happel for ignoring a plea from a wounded German soldier, asking to bum a smoke. But that's not how his history is written.

"His left arm was gone, as were both his legs. So, I took the pack with maybe five or six cigarettes in it yet, and I laid it on his chest," Happel recalled. "And he said, 'danke, vielen danke' — 'thank you, thank you much.' 

Kenneth Happel's honors
Ian Bush/KYW Newsradio
"As I turned to walk away, he said 'eine minute' — 'one minute.' He had this pocket watch. He kept saying, 'nimm es, nimm es,' — 'take it, take it.' And I kept saying, 'nein, nein' — 'no, no.' 

"Finally, I went back and took the watch and I said, 'danke, vielen danke' — 'thank you, thank you much.' "

Happel, who lives in Upper Macungie Township — not far from where he grew up in Allentown — keeps the sterling silver treasure close by today.

But that day, in a hospital in Brest, France, both men recovered a piece of themselves thought lost to the grim reality of battle.

It's something he's reminded of every time he holds that pocket watch; every time someone takes a second out of their day to show their appreciation for veterans.

"People come up, shake my hand, say 'thank you for your service.' But the guys who deserve all the credit are the ones who are buried over there."