Dr. Harold “Hal” Baumgarten, who was wounded several times in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and in recent years often spoke about his experiences at New Orleans’ World War II Museum, died Sunday at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. He was 91.
Baumgarten’s Omaha Beach ordeal, told in recordings made for historian Stephen Ambrose, inspired the intense combat scenes that open Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Baumgarten himself wrote two books about the invasion and is quoted in many others on the subject.
In 2000, he was the featured veteran speaker at the opening ceremonies of the National D-Day Museum, now the National WWII Museum. The wristwatch he wore ashore on June 6, 1944, has been on display at the museum ever since.
Museum President and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller called Baumgarten “one of the treasures of the National World War II Museum, going back to the days of our founding.”
Baumgarten spoke at many museum conferences and accompanied museum tours of Normandy. D-Day “changed Hal forever, and he helped to give our museum life and greater purpose,” Mueller said.
Born in New York, Baumgarten entered New York University at age 16 and joined the ROTC. At 17, he tried to enlist as a pilot after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 but was turned down. He was drafted in 1943.
Baumgarten recalled crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland. From there, he wound up in southern England as part of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division.
Until two weeks before the invasion, Baumgarten was part of the 116th’s Company A, so he knew many of the 19 men from Bedford, Virginia, who died in the first wave assaulting Omaha Beach. Their story was recounted in “The Bedford Boys” by Alex Kershaw, who interviewed Baumgarten extensively while researching the book.
Baumgarten was transferred to Company B for the beach assault, but his group didn’t fare any better. Only two or three of the 30 men on Baumgarten’s landing craft survived the beach assault.
“He told me the water looked like someone took a red paint brush and painted the water,” his wife, Rita, said.
Baumgarten opted not to wear the heavy field jacket the other soldiers were wearing, fearing it would weigh him down and cause him to drown, which is what happened to many in the invasion force. He chose a lighter jacket and drew a Star of David on it, ignoring warnings that it could make him a top target for the Germans, Rita Baumgarten said.
He was wounded three times on D-Day and twice more the next day. He underwent 23 surgeries.
Like many returning World War II veterans, Baumgarten did not talk much about his combat experiences. A 1988 trip to Normandy changed that, however. On the flight over, full of other “29ers,” as the division veterans are called, he found Cecil Breeden, a medic who cared for him on Omaha Beach.
It was their first meeting since those eventful days in France.
“They both hugged, cried and said, ‘I thought you were dead,’ ” Rita Baumgarten said.
He ran into relatives of soldiers he’d known who died in the invasion, and at the French cemetery where Americans are buried, he saw the names of many comrades from Company A.
“He really, really cried like a baby,” his wife said.
It was also on that trip that he met Ambrose, the University of New Orleans historian who had written a biography of Dwight Eisenhower and by that time was focusing on D-Day.
According to Rita Baumgarten, as her husband and Ambrose looked out at the graves of the soldiers, the historian told him, “Just look at these names; you’ve got to talk about it. Because who is going to tell about these boys? No one will know. It’s your job. That’s why God spared you: to talk about it.”
Even before that, Baumgarten felt God had spared him at Normandy to do greater things and that he should devote his life to giving back, first as a teacher and later as a doctor.
He earned a bachelor's degree from NYU and a master's from the University of Miami and taught high school biology, chemistry and physics. When the University of Miami opened a medical school, he applied and was accepted.
As a young doctor, his office was in a poor section of Jacksonville, and Baumgarten accepted whatever his patients could give him as payment, including produce, figs, pecans, cakes and casseroles.
Baumgarten wrote two books about his experiences, “Eyewitness on Omaha Beach” and “D-Day Survivor.”
His first book was rushed to meet a deadline for the 50th anniversary of the invasion in 1994, and he felt the need to do a better job.
“He wanted to write a new edition to add more,” said his daughter, Karen Baumgarten Sher, a New Orleans attorney.
Tom Hanks, the star of “Saving Private Ryan,” spoke after Baumgarten at the opening of the D-Day Museum. He called Baumgarten a tough act to follow. “He’s the real thing and I’m the actor,” Hanks said.
Rita Baumgarten called her husband an outstanding person.
“No bride had a honeymoon like me,” she said. The newlyweds drove to Arlington, Virginia, so he could take pictures of the grave of a soldier who died at Normandy. The fallen veteran’s mother was an invalid, and she had told Baumgarten, “I’m never going to get to see my son’s grave.” They took the trip as their honeymoon so he could take the photo.
Rita Baumgarten said her husband wanted “TAPS” inscribed on his own gravestone “because it stood for the story of his life: teacher, author, physician, soldier.”
This week, several newspapers in France have memorialized Baumgarten in news stories. That country had honored him with the Croix de Guerre medal and named him a knight of the French Legion of Honor.
From his own country, Baumgarten received the Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars and other medals.
He has been featured on Dutch, Australian, German and French TV and in many U.S. television documentaries.
In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Hal Baumgarten; two daughters, Karen Sher and Bonnie Friedman; a sister, Beatrice Yates; and six grandchildren.
Services were held in Jacksonville.