By Barbara A. O’Reilly
JACKSON – As the third wave of the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Paratroopers jumped onto St. Eglise, Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Sgt. Arthur Stern, age 19, was right in the thick of it.
It had poured rain for three days preceding D-Day; the ocean was rough and the land, a sea of mud. Nevertheless, the Allied assault on German-occupied Europe continued.
Sgt. Stern and his men dropped amid gunfire and bomb blasts into a tangle of bodies, shooting and mud. A huge German M-18 mortar fell about 10 feet away from Sgt. Stern, partially embedding itself in the muck.
“I’m a goner,” he thought.
The men of D-Day were prepared to die. They knew it was a chance they were taking to stop Hitler’s military advances and ethnic cleansing. They jumped, flew planes, and landed boats on shore and fought – anyway.
As the smoke and debris cleared after the massive blast, Sgt. Stern recalled, “The mud helped save my life.”
Sgt. Stern lost most of his hearing from the detonation but, miraculously, otherwise escaped bodily injury.
The death toll from the Allied assault on Normandy was severe. Of the more than 160,000 Allied Forces who landed over the 50-mile stretch of Nazi heavily fortified beach and shore-line on D-Day, more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, according to the Army’s website. The Americans suffered 2,499 deaths, the largest number of Allies’ casualties.
In addition to troops, 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft participated in the Allied invasion. The site said, “After a week of fighting in Normandy, Victory there started the long, slow slog across Europe for the Allies.”
Laying there on the beach after narrowly escaping death, Sgt. Stern—a Brooklyn, NY native, and one of five sons—promised to “live every day of my life as fully as possible.”
Now living quietly at Bartley Health Care in Jackson, Stern celebrated his 93rd birthday on Sept. 9, with his second wife, Eve, and his daughter, Rona Ely of Marlboro. Naturally, he wore his constant 82nd Airborne Cap, commemorating his Army days. Every year he looks forward to Veterans Day, commemorated this year on Monday, Nov. 12.
According to his daughter, Mrs. Ely, and in a phone conversation with his son, Paul, in Utica, NY, they each said their Dad, Arthur Stern, always kept his D-Day promise and was a great dad and family man, as well as a successful small business entrepreneur.
On his birthday, “Happy Birthday” was sung by Guy and Grace Ludlow of Jackson, with some residents of Bartley Healthcare where the Sterns reside. The Ludlows—both from military families—have their own singing and multi-instrumental musical duo, “Wild Rose Band.” They performed for other Bartley residents for Grandparents Day, and then visited the Sterns, when they learned about his birthday.
Ely said her dad now suffers from dementia. “Up to three years ago he was very alert, independent and still driving. Then he started to fail by becoming more forgetful and starting to fall. We were all shocked and saddened because it was such a change for him.”
He still has a twinkle in his eye when someone speaks to him directly. His son, Paul, a nursing home administrator in Syracuse, NY, said, “He loved life and had an unbelievable one.”
Shortly after the war, Arthur married their mother, Esther, and the couple had four children: Sharon Preis of Brooklyn, Mark in Colorado, Rona Ely and Paul. Then there were 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandkids, with two more on the way, Ely said. Sadly, Esther died in 1982 at the age of 53 from cancer, Ely explained. Her dad and the rest of the family were devasted, she said. The four siblings were in their teens and 20s.
Throughout his career, Arthur operated a string of small businesses successfully, including a three-year stint in Florida, and even after his retirement to Atlantic City. At one time, he started and operated three profitable restaurants, all-Italian themed, Paul said. They were The Spot, a popular place in Seagate, NY, a part of Brooklyn; Rivera Club Café in a gated community, also in Seagate; and Pizza Delight on Staten Island.
During the three years in Florida, Arthur first became a chef, then opened a deli near the Polo Hotel on Miami Beach Blvd., Paul said. Then it was back to Brooklyn to be near extended family. Paul followed in his dad’s restaurateur footsteps, he explained, by opening his own café in Clinton, NY, in 2007.
Arthur is often visited by his friend, another veteran, Victor Guido of Gloucester, NJ. They met at a veterans event about 15 years ago. Arthur was a long-time member of Jewish Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vineland, when he lived in South Jersey, Mr. Guido said.
Paul said his Dad was generous, fun, and often took the family on cruises and to famous NYC restaurants and Broadway shows, once in limos. “We’re looking forward to celebrating a lot more birthdays and Veterans Days,” said Paul.