MILWAUKEE — In a way, Private 1st Class Helmer Panek was a D-Day veteran.
Panek died 70 years ago Monday, but not on a Normandy beach under a withering hail of gunfire and explosions. He died practicing for the invasion that turned the tide of the war against the Nazis.
The 20-year-old Milwaukee man was among more than 700 American sailors and soldiers killed during a large-scale rehearsal for the D-Day invasion dubbed Operation Tiger at Slapton Sands, England, when German boats fired torpedoes at them. Under orders from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the tragedy was hushed up and families of the fallen were initially only told their loved ones were missing in action.
Partly because of embarrassing mistakes made by allied commanders and mostly because Eisenhower worried the Germans would learn of the invasion, survivors were sworn to secrecy. The soldiers and sailors were supposed to be part of the landing forces at Utah Beach on June 6. Sadly, more men died in the Slapton Sands debacle than on Utah Beach.
"It was swept under the rug. Although a smoking gun doesn't exist, it looks clear it was made at the highest local authority — Eisenhower," said Craig Symonds, a historian, whose book "Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings" was recently published. "If the Germans knew how much they had damaged the invasion fleet and that it was an invasion fleet rehearsing for the upcoming D-Day, it would also have damaged allied morale."
Tom Mueller, an Oak Creek author of books on Wisconsin combat veterans, found six Wisconsin men killed in the D-Day dress rehearsal who were either buried at Cambridge American Cemetery in England or declared missing in action/buried at sea. It's quite possible more Wisconsinites were killed at Slapton Sands, but their bodies were returned to the United States for burial.
Checking a comprehensive database for overseas burials and MIAs, Mueller compiled a list of Wisconsin men killed April 28, 1944, taking part in Operation Tiger: Army Pvt. Jacob A. Bohl; Army Pfc. Stephen G. Holzberger; Navy Fireman 1st Class Herman R. Kortenhorn; Army Pfc. Helmer E. Panek; Army Staff Sgt. Richard F. Von Wald; and Army Pfc. Lawrence C. Zempel. All were from Milwaukee County except Kortenhorn, from Sheboygan, and Zempel, from Waupaca County.
"They're essentially D-Day veterans. They gave their lives for D-Day even though this was five or six weeks before the actual invasion," said Mueller, whose most recent book, "Duty, Honor, Country and Wisconsin," was published in November.
"It's a rehearsal, and while those are not done in perfect conditions, to learn the Germans interfered with it and then we had to cover it up for years, is very sad," said Mueller, whose maternal uncle was killed fighting in France in August 1944.
Slapton Sands is actually a gravel beach in the south of England, chosen for a training ground because it's similar to the Normandy beaches that would soon see tens of thousands of Allied troops storming ashore. On the morning of April 28, more than 100 troops were killed by friendly fire as they practiced landing on the beach.
Meanwhile, a convoy of eight large tank landing ships called LSTs was maneuvering through Lyme Bay when German E-boats discovered the group. E-boats were similar to the American PT boat, fast wooden attack boats armed with torpedoes and machine guns.
Though two British ships were assigned to protect the American LSTs, only one actually made it that day, a fact unknown to American troops because the landing crafts and British naval headquarters were using different radio frequencies. British ships had seen the German E-boats and told the commander of the one British corvette protecting the convoy, but he didn't let the LSTs know, assuming they already knew.
The German E-boats spotted the convoy traveling in a straight line and opened fire on the easy targets. LST 507 with Bohl, Panek, Von Wald and Zempel on board caught fire and was abandoned; LST 531 with Holzberger aboard sank quickly; and LST 280, whose crew included Kortenhorn, ignited but eventually limped to shore. Another LST was damaged by friendly fire.
Many troops put on their life belts incorrectly, and when they jumped into the water their heavy backpacks flipped them over, pushing their heads under water. Most drowned. A total of 749 were killed in the Lyme Bay attacks, including 441 soldiers.
Helmer Panek's parents were among the 749 families who received terrible telegrams at a time when pretty much every community in America had lost sons, brothers and husbands.
Doris Panek married Helmer's older brother Arthur who, while he was fighting in the Army's 95th Division in Europe, asked his little brother to look after Doris. Helmer Panek took Doris roller skating, to movies and out to eat. They became good friends and Doris was devastated to learn he was missing in action.
"It's a terrible thing. It's a relief to finally know what happened," said Doris Panek, after a reporter explained how Helmer died.
Doris Panek turns 92 on Tuesday, but her memories of Helmer Panek, whose nickname was Punty, are fresh despite the seven decades since his loss. Helmer was the youngest boy out of eight children and liked to roller skate. He competed in roller skating contests with his sister in Milwaukee.
"I don't know if it was the mother who got the message that Helmer went down in the ocean. I was never told whether he was found, where he is, anything like that," Doris Panek said.
Helmer Panek's body was never found — he is officially listed as missing in action or buried at sea.
Tony Kortenhorn, 65, of Sheboygan heard his father and grandfather talk about the death of his father's cousin, Herman Kortenhorn, 19. His father, Henry Kortenhorn Jr., was a tool and die maker at the Kohler Co. making shell casings during the war and had just been drafted when World War II ended.
"I heard through family stories when I was a kid that they found out about (Herman) after the invasion. They didn't want the Germans to know what they were doing," Tony Kortenhorn said.
The death toll was announced a few months later in 1944, but a full report of the tragedy was not released until 30 years later when military records were declassified. Last month a Massachusetts company sent an unmanned submarine to Lyme Bay to take the first high-definition sonar images of LST 507 and 531.
Ten of the men lost in the German E-boat attack were officers with detailed knowledge of the D-Day invasion. For a few days allied commanders feared that the men might have been taken prisoner by the Nazis, but eventually all 10 bodies were recovered. Many of the victims were never found.
"While it would be comforting to say we learned lessons — no, it was simply a great tragedy," said Symonds, who wrote an article on the Slapton Sands incident in the recent issue of World War II magazine.
"The long-term problem was three LSTs were lost. LSTs were the absolute bottleneck for the D-Day invasion, we barely had enough to carry out the operation. So the loss of three was devastating, almost as bad as the loss of all those lives."