World War II veterans share stories of battle

WOODSTOCK — Kenneth Frye, Bill Funkhouser and Fred Hepner came to Massanutten Military Academy on Tuesday with stories to tell of what it meant to survive some of America’s most harrowing battles of World War II.

Frye, 92, was in the Battle of the Bulge that began in December 1944. Funkhouser and Hepner fought in the bloody D-Day landing at Omaha Beach about six months earlier.

The sobering Veterans Day messages delivered in the academy classrooms cast their minds back to moments when they could easily have lost their lives. The D-Day landing took 2,499 American lives, according to newly revised figures from the U.S. National D-Day Memorial Foundation. The new figure is considerably higher than the previous death toll.

Another 19,500 Americans were killed in the desperate fighting during the one-month Battle of the Bulge, according to a Department of Defense publication.

“What I’m trying to convey, it’s just not a fun thing to do being in combat,” Frye told students after he had finished describing what it was like to wait out an artillery barrage in a snow- and water-filled foxhole.

“You could look in any direction and see somebody getting killed or wounded,” Funkhouser said of the scene on Omaha Beach.

Frye and Funkhouser are both Army veterans. Frye served in Company I of the 328th Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 26th Infantry Division. Funkhouser was with Company F of the 16th Infantry regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.

Frye, who began the Battle of the Bulge as a private first class, finished it as a platoon sergeant, an ascent through the ranks he attributes to the need to find replacements in a hurry for the many officers killed in action.

Hepner, 89, of St. Luke, was a coxswain whose responsibilities included steering landing craft that carried 25 to 30 soldiers.

Hepner continued to ferry men, supplies and ammunition after D-Day. A few days later, his landing craft landed high and dry on the beach where it and other vessels were bombed and strafed by German aircraft.

There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, Hepner said.

“Just a helmet was all I had,” Hepner added. “You couldn’t dig a hole on a ship. We just had to wait it out.”

Funkhouser said the Navy saved the landing at Omaha Beach by drawing warships into perilously shallow waters at low tide to get better shots at German gun emplacements that had U.S. soldiers pinned down on the sand.

The Germans had reputations as tenacious fighters, but Hepner said those at one gun emplacement in front of his landing craft apparently ran when the Americans began landing.

Most other American weren’t so lucky.

Hepner said he was haunted by the sight of the dead and wounded men when he came ashore at end of the day. The Americans had fought their way off the beach but paid a terrible price in doing so.

“That was sickening,” Hepner said. “I tell you, I will never forget what I saw.”

<em>Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or <a href=“mailto:jbeck@nvdaily.com”>jbeck@nvdaily.com</a></em>