For Howard Croner and Ed Kroenke of Estherville, D-Day began in the air - Croner in a B-17, bombing German rail lines in Normandy, Kroenke floating onto French soil on a glider into a knee-deep swamp.
Both told their stories Friday.
For Croner, June 6, 1944 started early - at 3 a.m. As flight engineer, he checked the plane before loading, preflighting the engines and checking the mags.
Howard Croner and Ed Kroenke Friday talked about D-Day — an event that happened 70 years before to the day.
Photo by Michael Tidemann
And then it was a hop and a skip over the gray, tossing English Channel while below was the greatest amphibious invasion in history.
"We were the first flight in," said Croner. "To tell you the truth, it was the easiest mission I?ever had. No flak, no 40-below zero."
Ed and the rest of his 12-man squad were towed over French soil in a glider by a C-47.
"We lit in water hip deep," said Kroenke. "It busted the glider all to hell but we all made it out."
Kroenke figured they were four or five miles from the beachhead. Their mission was to back up the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment which would defend the eastern end of the La Fiere bridgehead against the German 91st Division and the 100th Panzer Replacement Battalion. On D+2, elements of the 507th and 325th relieved the 505th at La Fiere and spearheaded a frontal assault across the Merderet River on D+3.
Kroenke's flight in was not without incident. The BAR in a soldier's hands next to him went off, ripping a gash in their glider so Kroenke had to stand up and hold together the thin, splintered plywood. That was their first scare. The next would be when they met up with the Germans the next day. When Ed saw his first German soldier, he froze.
"I just couldn't see them. But after that it changed pretty good," Ed said.
Sometime after the war when one school kid asked Howard if he'd ever shot anyone during the war, he reacted incredulously.
"I saw one plane blow up I was shooting at," he recollected. "Another the wing fell off. I don't know if the pilot got out."
The Germans took their toll too.
Howard remembers flak hitting his navigator in the temple, killing him instantly. Shrapnel tore his waist gunner's hand off and Croner got out the morphine which was froze so he had to put it in his mouth to thaw it out.
Croner remembers their flight crew coming back two or three times to an empty barracks - all the rest of the crews in their squadron were lost. He said his bomb squadron lost more men than the rest of the bomb group put together.
Kroenke made it through the Normandy invasion only to take part in a drop with the 82nd Airborne into Belgium where snipers sent a bullet through the helmet of the lieutenant to his right. He was the lucky one. Kroenke took a bullet to the head that permanently blinded him in his left eye and the sergent to his left took a round in the head.
"He said 'I'm shot in the head,'" Kroenke recalls.
"'No you're not,' someone said."
"'I am too,' he said and that was the last words he said."
A couple hours after Kroenke had been shot, a ceasefire was called between the Americans and Germans so they could remove their dead and wounded. Kroenke remembers two Germans on one side of him and one on the other, showing him pictures of their wives and children.
"They considered the Americans as friends but they didn't like the Russians and English," said Kroenke.
After the ceasefire, they were shooting at each other again.
"You better shoot before they do," Kroenke said.
Croner said the real impact of the Normandy invasion was apparent when the Germans started moving their airfields further inland.
For Kroenke, it was when Lt. Gen. James Gavin said after their successful Holland invasion, "Now we've got them whipped here." They were then supposed to go the South Pacific.
That was when something called the Battle of the Bulge intervened.
Kroenke made it all the way through four and a half months of the Battle of the Bulge as platoon sergeant and squad leader only to freeze his feet in the foxhole during the minus-20 weather. Feet black and blue with pus running from his toenails, he was sent to a Paris hospital for a week then to England for a month. That was the end of his combat duty. He remained in Germany with the Allied occupation forces until March 1946.
He was the only man in his squad who had made it through the war. A bare dozen in a company of 155 had survived.
Seventy years, so long ago yet so fresh in their memories. Croner and Kroenke saw June 6, 2014 as another day to remember the war.
Croner, 90, climbed into his van. "This is about as far as I drive anymore," he said, just having renewed his driver's license for another two years as Kroenke, 89, climbed on his bicycle and pedaled away.