‘It’s only been in the last 15 years that he has talked about it’; 99-year-old veteran recalls D-Day experiences
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Clayton Vogler wasn’t among the more than 150,000 U.S., British and Canadian soldiers who stormed the Nazi-occupied beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944; he landed 16 days later as a replacement.
On D-Day, Vogler, who turns 100 in September, was in England going through last-minute training in a gas chamber. The 24-year-old draftee had been inducted into the U.S. Army a year earlier, in September of 1943, and hadn’t been overseas a month when the largest amphibious invasion in world history began.
“They were shipping soldiers hand over fist. All the units were ready for D-Day. I would be a replacement for a guy who would get killed. Every day they came with a truck and called out some numbers. If your number was called, you were headed somewhere. I waited and waited with a smile on my face,” Vogler said.
His number was finally called, and he arrived at Omaha Beach, a code name for a section of the Normandy coast, on June 22, 1944.
Now, 75 years later, he remembers that day while sitting in his apartment at Brandon Woods at Alvamar, in Lawrence, with his son Bill Vogler, pastor of Lawrence’s Grace Church.
World War II was a brief chapter in Vogler’s very full life, and some details have slipped from his memory. What he does remember from the landing at Normandy was climbing down a rope ladder over the side of a ship with all his equipment on his back, including such essentials as his helmet, his rifle and a small shovel. It was just over two weeks after the invasion began. He remembers the beach was strewn with wreckage from the fight against the Germans.
Though he can’t recall seeing any fallen soldiers, he remembers the barrage balloons with trailing cables that floated in the sky above the ships to keep German aircraft from strafing the soldiers.
“We landed with no trouble. We got up to the top of a hill, and that’s where we spent the first night,” he said. He used his shovel to dig a foxhole for a bed.
“They would fly over and unload from machine guns and get a whole mess of soldiers so you needed a pretty good hole,” Vogler said.
Like so many of the soldiers, Vogler identified himself by writing his hometown, Ellwood City, Pa., on the back of his field jacket. After he got his assignment as a radio operator, a man tapped him on the shoulder and excitedly told him he was from New Castle, Pa., a neighboring town. The soldier, who must have been high ranking, put in a good word. Vogler was given a safer spot as one of three radio operators following the troops. Vogler credits the man with saving his life, by keeping him far from the front of the line.
“I often wondered why there were three guys who operated this one particular radio,” Vogler said. He never asked the other two men what happened to the soldier he was replacing.
“I was too afraid to ask,” he said. “We went through the rest of the war, us three guys operating that radio, always behind the troops.”
Vogler came from a close-knit family. He worked for U.S. Steel before he was drafted. His wife, Margaret, and his 7-month-old daughter, Janet, followed him to Macon, Ga., for his 16-week basic Army training at Camp Wheeler.
“Margaret wasn’t going to let me go alone. She got a job at a five-and-dime, and I saw her on weekends,” he said.
photo by: Contributed photo
At Camp Wheeler, Vogler was among the recruits who received training to replace combat casualties. During World War II, soldiers killed and wounded in combat units were replaced on an individual basis, said Adrian Lewis, a professor of military history at the University of Kansas.
“In Desert Storm and Iraq, they rotated entire units; however, in World War II if one person got killed, they replaced that person. It’s not the best way to create a cohesive unit,” said Lewis, the author of several military history books, including “Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory.”
By the time troops were fighting the Battle of the Bulge, in December of 1944, they had run out of replacements and brought in the segregated black army to serve, said Lewis, who spoke by phone with the Journal-World. His father, John A. Lewis, 95, served in the segregated army and also arrived in Normandy on June 22. He was an engineer who worked clearing mines and obstacles for the troops to advance.
For the rest of the war, Vogler operated the radio moving through France, Belgium, Holland and finally into Germany, where the allied forces declared victory on May 8, 1945.
Along the way, they spent a lot of nights in foxholes, but there were times when he found a bed in an abandoned house. At one house, he found a camera with film. He took it with him and began snapping pictures.
photo by: Contributed photo
Getting on with life
After Vogler returned home to the U.S. the plan was to be retrained and be sent to the South Pacific to fight against the Japanese. Halfway across the Atlantic, he learned that the Japanese had surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945. He was discharged from the Army on Oct. 11, 1945.
“That was my career,” he said.
photo by: Contributed photo
Once he was home, he made a scrapbook out of wood from an old orange crate. He placed the small black-and-white photos he had taken with the found camera in the book. Images included him sitting in a military jeep, holding a child and standing by a bombed-out building. He placed his discharge papers in the book along with a United Service Organizations autograph from Dinah Shore and some French Francs. He put the book on a shelf, where it remained unopened for decades.
He was happy to be home with his family and to return to civilian life. He and Margaret had three more kids.
Bill Vogler said his dad never spoke about his war experiences.
“It’s only been in the last 15 years that he has talked about it,” he said.
Vogler, who had several different careers in his lifetime, moved to Lawrence from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., five years ago to be closer to his son and his family.
He says he has been blessed throughout life, including during the war.
“I was happy to be a replacement until I had to replace someone,” he said.