Leo Scheer was surprised to still be alive.
It was June 6, 1944 — D-Day — and he was pinned down under German fire on Omaha Beach. He dug in deep into the French sand of Normandy with German bullets flying past. He hunkered down into his newly-dug hole. As a Navy medic, Scheer did his duty and helped those that he could, but he could not ignore the soldiers falling all around him. Finally able to get off the beach three days later, he found a quiet spot and his mind began to recall what he had endured.
Dodging death many times, Scheer had come through relatively unscathed. He had prepared himself to be killed, and started to feel guilty when he hadn’t been. Why had he survived when others around him had not?
Leo Scheer was born in 1924, the son of a bricklayer. He was attending Huntington Catholic High School when a neighbor who was a sailor home on leave told him about life in the Navy. Scheer was looking to do something different. He liked the Navy uniform, and his brother was in the Naval Construction Battalion, known as the Seabees. Soon after graduating high school in 1942, Scheer enlisted in the Navy.
Following boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois, Scheer was assigned to the hospital corps. He ended up with the 7th Beach Battalion in Virginia, where he trained throughout 1943 for amphibious landings before shipping out to England.
D-Day was originally planned for June 5, 1944, and Scheer packed his medical gear before boarding a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) with 150 other men. Scheer’s unit crowded into the front, with a unit of Army engineers in the back. Bad weather caused the invasion to be delayed one day; the two units in the landing craft switched positions to keep the anxious soldiers occupied, with Scheer’s unit moving to the back.
As they approached the Normandy coast, Scheer’s craft struck two mines and the front of the ship exploded, killing dozens of men in the place where Scheer had been just a day earlier. With the craft on fire, the only way off was over the side and into the water. Scheer left his medical bag behind, but was still wearing three layers of clothes — his combat boots, a life vest, and a helmet. He lost all of his gear as he swam the 100 yards to shore.
While struggling to get to the beach, bullets were smashing the surface of the water inches from him. At one point, he saw a line of fire coming right at him, only to stop a few feet away. Scheer would always wonder what made the German gunner quit firing at that moment.
Once on the beach, Scheer went about his duties as a medic. Although his medical bag had been abandoned aboard the burning landing craft, each soldier carried a belt pouch containing bandages, morphine, and antibiotic sulfa powder. Scheer gathered as many supplies as he could from the medical belts of dead soldiers and began working on the wounds of those who were still alive. At first, Scheer prayed that he would not be killed, but as he looked out upon the English Channel and saw the bodies strewn across the beach, he began to pray that when his inevitable time came that his death would be quick.
Scheer spent all of D-Day and the next on Omaha Beach. By the third day, U.S. forces had secured the beach, and the wounded were evacuated. It was at that point he finally had a moment to contemplate what he had just endured. At just 20 years old, Scheer had been prepared to die, but had survived. For the rest of his life, Scheer was convinced that he had been watched over by a guardian angel.
Ten days after D-Day, Scheer was on his way back to England. He eventually returned to the United States, then was sent to the Pacific Theater aboard the USS Lander in December 1944. World War II ended in September 1945, and Scheer spent the rest of the year on the ship before being discharged in early 1946.
He returned to Huntington and joined his family’s brick and stone contracting business. While going to school in Chicago, Scheer met Dagmar “Daggie” Carlson; they married in 1948. Scheer ran the family contracting business until his retirement in 1986. Erie Stone pulled him out of retirement to spearhead a number of projects before he fully retired 10 years later. Many Huntington buildings showcase his brickwork.
Scheer kept in touch with many of those he served with, attending reunions and taking part in honor flights. He donated memorabilia of his service to the Huntington County Historical Museum, and was a charter member of the D-Day Museum (since renamed the National World War II Museum) in New Orleans. His web belt, containing six bandages – five of which he had taken from dead soldiers on Omaha Beach, remains on display at the National World War II Museum.
Scheer, who had expected to die at Normandy when he was just 20 years old, lived to the age of 95 before passing away in 2019.