West Virginians on D-Day

Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail
June 6, 1999

Medal of Honor escapes Marion man's D-Day feat

By Greg Stone

He lies in a Marion County cemetery, hundreds of miles from Arlington.

Many of the men who worked with him in the Marion coal mines didn't even know he had fought in World War II. He was once even left out of a veterans' appreciation day at the mine.

"He never marched in parades or wore his medals or anything," recalls Marion County Commissioner Jim Sago, who as a kid knew him.

But pick up virtually any history book on the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France - 55 years ago today - and you'll find that Harrison Summers of Rivesville indeed fought. To say he simply fought, in fact, in what may be the 20th century's most pivotal military operation, rates as the height of understatement.

Summers performed one of the all- time remarkable war feats that day, single-handedly killing 31 Germans. With only a little help from two other squad members, the paratrooper either killed or forced to flee another 70 or so other German soldiers, who were holed up in a series of buildings near the Normandy coast.

In his book "The Victors - Eisenhower and his Boys: The Men of World War II," historian Stephen Ambrose succinctly sums up Summers' place - or unfortunate lack thereof - in history.

Summers was nominated, but not very vigorously, for the Medal of Honor by battalion commander Lt. Col. Patrick Cassidy, who later became a three-star general. The paperwork got lost.

After his death from lung cancer in 1983, Summers' fellow members of the 101st Airborne Division attempted unsuccessfully to posthumously award him the country's highest military honor.

Military officials seemed uninterested in dealing with such a long-ago case.

"Summers is a legend with American paratroopers nonetheless, the Sergeant York of World War II," Ambrose writes. "His story has too much John Wayne/Hollywood in it to be believed, except that more than 10 men saw and reported his exploits."

There are any number of reasons for Summers not receiving the medal. The two men willing to help Summers in that mad dash, Pvt. William Burt and Pvt. John Camien, were unavailable by 1983 to corroborate the events.

Burt was killed in Normandy. Camien survived the war but died before Summers.

Michigan author and former paratrooper George Koskimaki, who has written three books on World War II, points out that two other soldiers from Summers' 502nd regiment received the medal.

Perhaps the military brass were reluctant to bestow the same honor on a third member, he says.

Summers' 51-year-old son Richard, who works for the federal Department of Health and Human Services in Lorton, Va., wonders if his father's West Virginia heritage had anything to do with it.

"Yeah, it makes you think," he .said. "When you're from a poor state... "

The sheer weight of government bureaucracy never helps, Richard Summers said.

One thing's for sure: Harrison Summers possessed no interest in lobbying for the honor.

"He was just quiet," recalls his son. "He didn't really want to talk about it. That was in the past."

'It was all kind of crazy'

Staff Sgt. Roy Nickrent, the operations sergeant in Summers' battalion, provides some indication of the group's minds that day.

Nickrent and Summers had earlier walked through the town of Ste.-Mere-Eglise, where American paratroopers were hanging in trees, shot dead before they hit the ground.

"One of my best friends was hanging in a tree," said Nickrent, 79, a retired police officer in Saybrook, Ill. "He had been burned up by a flame thrower. Didn't even have a chance to get his chute off."

Sgt. Summers didn't hesitate, then, to storm the series of German artillery barracks at nearby St.-Martin-de-Varreville. These were massively thick stone houses which served as French residences before the Nazi occupation.

He stormed the first barracks, hoping his 15 men would follow suit.

None did.

Still, he kicked in the door and sprayed the place with his tommy gun, killing four soldiers and forcing others out the back door.

Inspired, Burt joined him in supplying cover fire, as a zigzagging Summers - avoiding fire - reached another house and killed six more Germans.

A captain offered to help Summers take the next house. Just then a bullet tore through him.

Another house, another six enemies killed. Summers turned the prisoners over to his men.

Why are you doing this? Camien asked Summers.

"I can't tell you," he replied.

"What about the others?" asked Camien.

"They don't seem to want to fight," Summers said, "and I can't make them So I've got to finish it."

"OK," said Camien. "I'm with you."

Summers and Camien moved from building to building, taking turns covering each other. Burt chipped in with his machine gun to kill more Germans.

With two buildings left, "Summers charged the first and kicked the door open," Ambrose writes, "to see the most improbable sight. Fifteen German artillerymen were seated at mess tables eating breakfast. Summers never paused; he shot them down at the tables."

Summers told Nickrent later that some of the Germans, inexplicably, kept right on eating when he kicked in the door.

Burt and Nickrent set the roof of the last building ablaze with tracer bullets and bazooka fire. Germans who sprinted out in the open field were easy targets.

"The field was just littered with the dead ones," Nickrent said.

"It's a pity to see it, but that's the way war was."

After five hours of combat, Summers needed a rest. How did he feel, someone asked.

"Not too good. It was all kind of crazy. I'm sure I'll never do anything like that again."

Nickrent liked and respected Summers.

"He was a coal miner and he didn't mind telling you that," he said. "He was a hard-working guy, an honest man. We were pretty close."

Nevertheless, Nickrent offers a simple assessment of Summers' heroism.

"He just lost his mind, lost his reasoning. He didn't care if he got killed or not, he was going to take some with him."

Proving the case

Accounts of these events also appear in L.S.A. Marshall's "Night Drop: The American Airborne Invasion of Normandy," and "Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of the 101st Airborne" by Leonard Rapport and Arthur Northwood.

Marshall worked as the Army's chief historian. After interviewing the paratroopers within weeks of the Normandy invasion, Marshall tore up Summers' Distinguished Service Cross and wrote the Medal of Honor nomination.

Still, the honor never came. Even Nickrent can't honestly say he saw Summers enter each house. His view was blocked by the corners of the houses themselves, he said.

An NBC crew flew Nickrent to Normandy years ago for a piece on Summers' inability to win the medal.

He disappointed them by not being able to verify Summers' bravery.

Allen Barham of Monroe, La., who served as a platoon leader in Summers' battalion, places much of the blame on Cassidy. He doesn't think Cassidy believed the men who gave statements that day.

"He wasn't one of my favorite people," Barham says of Cassidy. "As far as I'm concerned, I think Summers is as well-qualified as Alvin York."

'Good shoulders'

Summers did receive a battlefield commission to lieutenant and a Distinguished Service Cross. He also earned a Purple Heart for serious wounds suffered in Holland.

He came back to Marion County after the war and worked as a coal miner and later a mine inspector.

He earned a reputation as a steadying influence around mine disasters, according to a 1983 newspaper story.

Many people in Rivesville had no idea of Summers' military past.

"He was a gentle man," says Sago, who talked to him some in Rivesville.

"You'd never think speaking to him or observing his behavior that he was in such a violent situation."

Koskimaki got to know Summers at 101st Airborne reunions. Summers, in a rare moment of reflection, retraced the moves he made that day in 1944 for one of Koskimaki's books.

Summers wasn't a particularly large man, standing just under 6 feet tall. "But he had good shoulders on him," Koskimaki recalls.

Richard Summers knows a thing or two about war himself. He served a year as an infantryman in Vietnam and worked as a Washington, D.C., policeman.

He has seen enough carnage to avoid World War II movies such as "Saving Private Ryan," which follows a squad from Normandy inland.

"I don't like all the blood-and-guts stuff," he said. "I'm more into things happy."

Richard Summers remembers his dad fondly.

"He didn't take any stuff but, you know, he was very good to me. I wasn't always the best child... We had our disagreements."

It's still not too late to honor him, he says. President Clinton has awarded other soldiers the medal long after their service.

"It would be nice if they would award him the Medal of Honor, because he deserved it, plain and simple."

Military and Wartime