Huntington resident donates WWII artifacts, memories to museum

Huntington resident Leo Scheer, who served as a Navy medic on Omaha Beach, has donated D-Day mementoes to the Huntington County Historical Museum.
Huntington resident Leo Scheer, who served as a Navy medic on Omaha Beach, has donated D-Day mementoes to the Huntington County Historical Museum. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

The mighty forces of many countries lined up off the coast of France, waiting for the break in the weather that would allow them to storm the coast of France and release Europe from Hitler's grip.

Once the men reached shore, they'd be dead serious about their task - or just dead.

While they waited, though, they were a bunch of bored young men.

One of those young men was Leo Scheer, a Navy medic just a couple of years out of Huntington Catholic High School, packed like a sardine in an American ship destined for a piece of ground code named Omaha Beach.

"When I first went aboard, they had the Navy in the forward hold and the Army guys in the aft hold," Scheer remembers. "Just for something to do, they decided to move the Navy guys back and the Army guys up."

The move, aboard a ship Scheer says was "just packed with people," occupied the young men for a while and left Scheer, formerly in the front section of the ship, with a seat in the back.

Then the ship hit a mine.

"Most of those guys in the front of the ship were killed right away," Scheer says.

He thanked his guardian angel. And he went on to serve as a guardian angel for the men who stormed that beach.

He eventually came home to Huntington with memories - "You try to drown out the bad memories and stay with the good ones, as best you can," he says - and mementoes from the nightmare that was June 6, 1944 - D-Day.

As he prepares for a move from his small apartment to The Heritage of Huntington, Scheer has gathered up those mementoes for a display at the Huntington County Historical Museum. They'll be on display at the museum throughout November.

Scheer, who grew up in Huntington, served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945, then operated his own contracting business until retiring (he thought) in 1986. After retirement, though, Erie Stone - where Scheer had done a number of projects - talked him into spearheading several more projects for the company. He retired for good in the mid-1990s.

He's kept in touch, though, with the men he served with in 1944, attending reunions - "I just got too old to make the last one or two," he says - and staying in touch with several of the men through the computer.

"I made friendships there that have endured," he says.

He had no idea what he was in for on that fall day in 1942, just a couple of months after his high school graduation, when he enlisted in the Navy - beginning with being drafted into the hospital corps just after finishing boot camp.

"That didn't suit me at all," Scheer says. "I wanted out, but they said no."

He trained in Illinois and in Florida and was eventually sent to Norfolk, VA, to become part of the 7th Naval Beach Battalion, where he was a Navy man in an Army unit. They trained, and they trained and they trained, he says.

"We knew we were what they called amphibious forces, and that we would work on invasions from water to land," Scheer says. "My unit got sent to England in early 1944, and we trained again. We knew by that time we were being trained for an invasion.

"We were sent to Omaha Beach, which turned out to be the bloodiest beach of the whole invasion."

Before it was over, half the men in his unit would be dead.

The landing craft carrying his unit hit a mine under its front hold, where the Army guys had moved during that giant game of musical chairs. It hit another mine off to the side, destroying a ramp designed to get the men off the ship.

With no ramp, they still had to get off.

"You had to jump in the water and swim," Scheer says.

As instructed, he left his clothing and his medical pack aboard the ship and jumped. Wearing three layers of clothing, combat boots, a life vest and his helmet - which he lost - he dodged enemy fire as he swam what may have been "the length of a football field" to the French shore.

"I suppose that everyone prays when he is in combat," Scheer wrote on a D-Day Web site. "I first prayed that I would not get killed, then after a while I prayed that it would be quick when it happened. When I looked out to the channel, there were ships of every description for as far as you could see. There was a row of poor guys who did not make it all along the high water mark along the beach. The sky was practically clouded over from bombers contrails flying from England to France - and it was a clear day."

As a medic, Scheer's job was to stay on the beach. The Army soldiers had the unenviable task of climbing over the seawall to face the enemy.

"The Army people - boy, that was some brave group," Scheer says. "The general said, ‘When you hear the whistle blow, go over the wall. If we stay here, they'll kill us slowly; if we go over, we've got a chance.'"
Scheer backed up against the wall, made a step with his hands, and let the soldiers climb over his body to the other side of the wall.

Then he began tending to the wounded. He had no medical bag, but every military man was required to carry his own bandage. And there was a plentiful supply of dead soldiers who no longer had need of those bandages.

"We soon learned, ‘Here's a dead guy; take his bandage, and his water if you need it,'" Scheer says. "We patched up one guy, I think we used 14 or 15 bandages, all taken off dead guys.

"You don't like to discuss losing guys, but you did," he says. "You're under fire while all this is going on, too. They're shooting at you.

"When you're in a battle, all you know is where you're at. You don't know the grand scheme of things. A guy could be killed 1 foot from you, and you wouldn't know it.

"It went on that way all of D-Day and most of the second day. By the end of the third day, our troops had pushed inland. On the evening of the third day, we could evacuate the wounded."

Most of the forces were inland by that time, leaving the medics and the wounded on the beach. Several landing ships had been blown up, blocking the entry to a point where only small boats could make it through.

"We were just a little dinky outfit," Scheer says of the men left on the beach. "We had to scrounge for food, beg off trucks. We dug a hole in the ground and made a bunker, and that's where we slept. Eight or 10 days after we landed, they started setting up hospitals behind the lines."

The invasion was over.

"Our duty was done," Scheer says.

Scheer went to England, then back to the United States as his ship transported German prisoners of war. He was quarantined in Boston, then sent to New York - where he was given 30 days leave and instructed to report to an amphibious training base in Oceanside, CA, at the end of those 30 days.

By December of 1944, Scheer was on a new ship on its way to evacuate Marines who had fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Scheer never saw land that time - he was in isolation with a case of the mumps - but the ship, which was carrying a lung specialist, brought back 16 Marines suffering from lung wounds. The ship carried out several missions in the Pasific Theatre, transporting U.S. soldiers and prisoners of war, and was on its way to the Philippines when the United States hit Japan with two atomic bombs. Scheer's ship continued to transport troops until Christmastime 1945.

By that time, Scheer had spent enough time overseas to qualify to be sent home.

"That was the end of my World War II experience," he says.

Over the years, Scheer has done his part to make sure the Navy's role on Omaha Beach is remembered.

He sent a belt, with six bandages clipped to it, to a D-Day museum in New Orleans. "One of them was mine," Scheer says of the bandages. "Five of those bandages came off of dead people."

To the museum in Huntington, he offered most of what was left - "Clothes, helmets, gas masks, bayonets, a uniform, bedding, invasion money; just a lot of things like that.

"I said, ‘take what you want and use what you want.' I'm glad it can be worthwhile to somebody."