Eighteen-year-old Robert N. “Lefty” Lowenstein had been working for a couple of years for the old New York Central Railroad in the Black Rock yards as a clerk.
A pretty important job for a teenager, but his responsibilities would be raised to a much higher level with the Army in World War II.
“I was part of an Underwater Demolition Team, and we had trained in Fort Pierce, Fla., in 1943 with the Navy,” Lowenstein says.
A year later, he was part of the first wave in the historic Allied invasion at Normandy, arriving at about 6:20 a.m. June 6, 1944: D-Day.
Before the troops could storm Omaha Beach, which would become known as “Bloody Omaha” for the large number of casualties, an obstacle course had to be cleared so that landing craft could get close to the shore to discharge troops.
“The goal was to blow up these hedgehogs and steel fences that were stuck in the water like toothpicks,” Lowenstein says. “Some of them had Teller mines attached to the tops of them. When the tide was high, you couldn’t see them and the boats could hit them.”
But before the plan could be executed, the enemy unleashed a withering barrage of firepower.
“We had gotten out of the boats and were attaching explosives to the obstacles, and the Germans were firing everything they had, and it was like rain hitting the water,” Lowenstein recalls, explaining that if he wanted to live, he needed to get out of the water.
But it was much easier said than done.
“Ahead of me was another guy, and I said to myself, ‘If he gets onto the beach, I’m going to,’ ” he says. “I watched him run out of the water and onto the beach and drop. Then he got back up. He ended up 75 yards from the pillbox that was shooting an 88 mm cannon at us.
“After I saw him make it, I started running. And when I got to the beach, I laid on the sand while battleships were shelling the beach. I could see black smoke in the distance, and then a minute later, the shell passed over and sounded like a freight train and landed about 200 yards from us. The explosions were so powerful they almost lifted me off the ground.”
It was a bewildering and frightening experience. When he was finally able to take in his surroundings, he says, “I looked up and down the beach, and there were only three or four other guys who’d made it. I felt all alone.”
He also felt extremely fortunate to be alive.
“I was hit twice in the helmet, my gas mask was shot through, and my canteen was shot through,” he says. “When I went to clean my rifle, the stock was gone. My nose and ears were bleeding from the concussions of the blasts.”
Horror was everywhere.
Twenty feet away, he noticed a solider stand up, armed with a bazooka and taking aim at the pillbox.
“There was this big explosion, and when I looked back at him, the upper part of his body was gone,” Lowenstein says. “But the lower part was still standing, and then it fell over. I wished I was in big hole for cover.”
Yet despite the bloodbath, the desire to defeat the enemy was not diminished.
Lowenstein and his company commander managed to climb atop the living quarters’ portion of the pillbox.
“We were up in the open, and the Germans were still shooting from other locations,” he says. “… I threw a hand grenade to the captain, and he was lying next to a chimney pipe, and he dropped the grenade in and it landed in a potbellied stove below – and that really rattled those Germans.
“I spoke some German I had learned from my grandmother when I was kid. I shouted down for the Germans to come out with their hands up and 13 of them climbed up the steps from the pillbox. We told them to go to the beach. It was only a hundred feet away, and I don’t know what happened to them.”
At about 8:30 a.m., a Naval destroyer, the USS Frankford, resumed shelling the beach.
“They were the heroes of the beach,” Lowenstein says. “If they hadn’t started shelling, I don’t think we could have held the beach, and I don’t think I would be here today. The boat had a nickname, ‘The Hot Dog.’ ”
Thanks to “The Hot Dog,” the Underwater Demolition Teams were again able to resume removal of the obstacles, and troops were able to land on the beach.
A few days after the invasion, Lowenstein got a look at himself in the mirror, and his face was marked with tiny boils.
“I went into this house, and a woman gave me some water and I washed my face and started squeezing out little pieces of steel shrapnel,” he says.
It was a small price to pay compared with the one paid by many of his buddies in combat.
“Nineteen of our guys are buried in a cemetery over there, and the rest of the bodies were sent home,” Lowenstein says, unable to recall how many members of his company gave their lives on D-Day. “We lost so many.”
After the war, Lowenstein returned to the railroad and worked for almost 44 years before retiring more than three decades ago. A widower and father of four daughters, he says that one of the most memorable events in his retirement was a visit to Normandy.
“I went with two other guys about 15 years ago. We visited Omaha Beach and the cemetery above it. We found the graves of our buddies, because they had little American flags on them,” Lowenstein says. “On each of those graves, we placed a rose.”