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On The Beach

On Omaha Beach, Burke resident Al Ungerleider kept a tight rein on his men, constantly reminding them to step where he stepped to avoid German land mines. In all the confusion on that day, June 6, 1944, one man in the 50-man company failed to step in Ungerleider's footprints and paid the ultimate price.

"You step where I step," Ungerleider said. "There was a single file behind me. This one guy didn't follow directions."

Before Ungerleider's company reached the wooded area beyond the beach, a mine exploded, killing two men.

Fellow Burke resident Robert Phillips was a medic in the Army that landed at Normandy a few weeks later, supporting the soldiers as they pushed across the countryside in France. As the artillery landed around them, he knew it was a matter of seconds before he went into action.

"When you hear artillery, you knew someone {wounded] would yell," Phillips said. Crawling out in the open area known as no man's land, Phillips was nervous. "You're up there where there was no cover," he said.

BOTH UNGERLEIDER and Phillips returned to Normandy in early June to be recognized by the French and visit the hallowed ground where they fought for their lives. The French government arranged for 100 D-Day veterans to come back for the 60th anniversary, and Ungerleider and Phillips were among the group. The veterans left on June 3. Some stayed for a few days, while others made a vacation out of it.

French officials awarded the veterans with the French Legion of Honor medal, the highest honor in France awarded to a non-French person.

"When I got down to the beach, I was looking for my own footsteps," Ungerleider said. "I looked back to where I know I landed, I looked back and said, 'Yeah, this was the place.'

"Saving our behinds and getting to the high ground, that's what we concentrated on," Ungerleider said.

At the D-Day memorial ceremony, veterans and relatives, came together to receive honors and recognize the event that was a turning point in Europe during World War II. Absent was the talk of modern day friction that sometimes plays a role between France and the United States. Politicians, celebrities and others with a link to the battle were on hand to honor those who came to liberate a continent.

"The French of Normandy are different from the rest of France. They're very grateful," Ungerleider said.

"We had a camaraderie," Phillips said of the veterans.

Ruth Ungerleider went along as well, and other members of the Ungerleider family flew in, including Dan Ungerleider, an alumnus of Lake Braddock Secondary School.

"Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, they shook everybody's hand," Ruth Ungerleider said.

AL UNGERLEIDER WAS DRAFTED by the U.S. Army in 1942 and shipped out to England with the 115th Infantry in January 1944. There he trained for the invasion, known as Operation Overlord.

"Every day was training, training, training," Ungerleider said, and then his superiors brought in the boats and started discussing the beaches. "It was getting close," he said.

On June 6, 1944, the 116th Infantry unit hit Omaha beach a few boats ahead of Ungerleider's boat. Ungerleider's company could see that the 116th was meeting a lot of resistance.

"Somebody said let's land up the coast a bit, and that saved my life," Ungerleider said.

Phillips graduated from high school on May 28, 1943, and was in the U.S. Army by June 17. He heard about the invasion while training to be a medic and flew over to Europe in July 1944. Both men were wounded, hospitalized and sent back into combat to join their units. Phillips was sent back to his unit on Dec. 15, 1944, the day the Battle of the Bulge began. He was in Bastogne, Belgium. Ungerleider was stationed with British forces north of Bastogne and didn't get involved in the battle.

"We had to hide in the daytime and travel by night," Phillips said.

Phillips remembers watching German soldiers smoking cigarettes as they watched him tend to a wounded man on the battlefield. Phillips wore a Red Cross symbol and wasn't supposed to get shot at in the rules of engagement, but that wasn't always adhered to.

"They were just taking a break, watching me," he said.

BOTH MEN made it through the war and fought in Korea a few years later. Though a great deal of documentary film footage exists of the D-Day invasion, which is widely considered as the biggest invasion ever, it wasn't hailed as a great feat at the time.

"Luck plays an awfully big part of it," Phillips said, remembering some of the movies made about the battle, including "The Longest Day" with John Wayne, and Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."

"I see some impossible things that didn't happen," Phillips said. The "sticky bomb" that Tom Hanks stuck onto a German tank was one Hollywood example Phillips didn't see over in France.

Both men have been to the D-Day memorial in Bedford, Va., as well as the World War II memorial on the Mall. Phillips is the author of "To Save Bastogne," a book published in 1996 about the 110th Infantry's efforts in the Ardennes forest near Bastogne. He is working on a second book as well.