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D-DAY REMEMBERED | 'Turning point' in World War II: Johnstown region gave much to Normandy invasion, 75 years ago

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Herman Teeter came from Conemaugh.

Alexander Barber and John Hoover called Johnstown and Cresson home.

They and 73,000 other young men – from small towns and major metro areas across the United States – participated in the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, one of the most important military actions in history.

All three of them later gained membership in the Cambria County Military Hall of Fame for their actions on D-Day, which took place 75 years ago Thursday.

Teeter directed the evacuation of the wounded after their landing craft struck a mine, earning a Navy Cross. Hoover served as a photographic reconnaissance pilot. Barber exposed himself to direct fire when providing aid to the wounded.

Hoover and Barber received the Distinguished Service Cross.

At least four other individuals with local ties – Philip Berdine (Windber), Lloyd Mort (Somerset), William Maggs (Hooversville) and John Clayton Mastovich (Franklin) participated in D-Day, according to information culled from The Tribune-Democrat's archives.

“Cambria County has a history of having so many men and women who served in our armed forces,” said Ed Wojnarowski, a Veteran Community Initiatives board member. “To have that many (at D-Day), that's really something. This always has been – and I think will always be – a patriotic county.”

'Defeat of the Nazis'

Other local residents were stationed across the globe when D-Day occurred.

Harry Muncert, who then lived in Conemaugh, was serving in the Navy aboard a rescue tug in the Caribbean.

“We were disappointed that we weren't a part of it," said Muncert, now a 94-year-old Westmont resident. “That's for sure. But we were glad the thing was starting the defeat of the Nazis, the Axis. We were hoping that things would go successfully. But, like I said, we were disappointed that we weren't a part of it.”

Muncert tried to join the military right after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but he was too young.

Later, in 1943, Muncert enlisted, following the tradition of his father who served in the Navy during World War I. “I would have ended up there – war or no war – probably,” Muncert said.

'Thinking about surviving'

Walter “Wally” Hurd, a Punxsutawney resident, is believed to be the D-Day participant who – at this time – lives closest to Johnstown.

Hurd, then a 19-year-old member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, parachuted behind enemy lines into the small French town of Sainte-Mère-Église.

He remembers darkness, rain and being unsure about his specific assignment.

“I wasn't thinking too much about the war,” Hurd said during a recent interview at Punxsutawney's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2076. “I was thinking about surviving, getting out of somebody's way.”

When asked about participating in one of the most significant events of the 20th Century and the nation's history, Hurd downplayed his contribution.

“I got sent there," he said. "I was just trying to protect myself and my buddies, if I could. I was not thinking about being a hero or anything like that.”

Hurd said he will attend D-Day 75th anniversary ceremonies in France. He was interviewed by a French reporter recently.

“As this guy spoke, you could see some tears welling up in his eyes. … It just impressed me,” said Robert Lott, the Punxsutawney post's senior vice-commander, who is accompanying his friend on the trip. “That's the way they sort of left us to believe that everybody is going to be looking at Wally and those surviving World War II veterans that they're the ones that went in there – Wally won't come out and take much credit for it – but they were part of the team that won their freedom for them.”

The itinerary included a plan for Hurd, now 94, to receive the French Legion of Honor, the nation's highest order of merit, which was established by Napoleon Bonaparte.

“It don't mean too much to me,” Hurd said. “They're always giving us awards when we go over there.”

'Beginning of the end'

A wave of more than 156,000 Allied troops, 6,000 ships and landing crafts, 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes attacked the Normandy coast on beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – the largest seaborne military invasion in the history of mankind.

The attack's success or failure would likely determine the outcome of the war in Europe.

“It was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe,” said local military historian Marty Kuhar. “I think that's the most important thing. You had to have a major beginning. And it was the turning point. From then on, we were on the offensive. Up to that point, we were on the defensive in the European war.”

The Allies gained a foothold and started a march toward Germany that ended with Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945, which greatly impacted the future of the continent and the world.

“The way we live our lives, the day-to-day things that affect the world today, still stem from that landing on Normandy beachheads on June 6, '44,” Kuhar said.

'Lest we forget ...'

No official count of living D-Day participants exists.

The best estimate is a few thousands.

Only about 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II are still alive. With veterans in their 90s, the number is expected to significantly decrease in the next decade.

“To me, it means that we have less and less time remaining to recognize our living World War II veterans,” Veteran Community Initiatives Director Tom Caulfield said. “That should be an ongoing part of our fabric, our culture, lest we forget the sacrifices that were made by our World War II guys.”

With fewer and fewer veterans alive to give firsthand accounts, schools use videos, books and presentations to educate students about the conflict, according to Kerry Pfeil, a social studies teacher at Greater Johnstown Senior High School.

When discussing plans for this year's D-Day lessons in his class, Pfeil said, “We're going to take a look at those first soldiers who came upon the beaches at Omaha and Normandy. And we're going to also take a look at how undercover the operation was and the deception used by the Allies against the Germans and kind of compare that to today's society. Will we ever seen an invasion like that again with the modern technologies that we have in the military and in the world today?”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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