By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
On June 6, 1944, U.S. Army Capt. Frank Humphrey Walk was 23 – three years out of LSU with a mechanical engineering degree – when battlefield chaos propelled him suddenly into a command position with the Engineer Special Brigade Group on Omaha Beach off the Normandy coast.
Walk’s superior officer, a colonel, had gone ashore in the first D-Day wave and suffered a mental breakdown in the midst of the German machine-gun and 88-mm fusillades pummeling the American infantrymen from the bluffs as they waded ashore Omaha Beach from the Higgins boats that Walk knew intimately from his tours in early 1943 of the assembly line near City Park in New Orleans.
“(The colonel) was shell-shocked,” Walk told WWII biographer Dr. Stephen Ambrose in 1991. “When I saw him, he was really just not at all in control of himself. He had gone completely berserk, as the saying goes.”
The commanding general, Gen. Bill Hoge, ordered the colonel evacuated and put Walk in charge of routing tanks, vehicles and supplies on the five-mile-wide beach, an inferno of human carnage that Walk never really felt comfortable talking about until he reached his 70s.
As the saying goes, maybe Walk had seen too much.
“It wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, after he first got interviewed by Ambrose, that he started talking about it for the first time,” said Frank (Woody) Walk, one of Walk’s five children who grew up in Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Uptown New Orleans. “He knew Omaha Beach. He called it ‘Bloody Omaha.’”
Now, 75 years have passed since D-Day. Walk died in 2011 at the age of 90 after having built one of the largest engineering, design and construction-management firms in the country, specializing in oil refineries, offshore oil platforms, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) and underground storage facilities for the Strategic Petroleum Oil Reserve.
Walk’s story is one among thousands – 175,000 men invaded the Normandy beaches and 20,000 died in the first 24 hours of D-Day – but it encapsulates how a life lived for others can resonate across generations.
Frank Walk’s father, Frank A. Walk, was a riverboat captain, and every summer, his son worked on the boat as a deck hand, cub pilot and apprentice engineer to earn money to pay for college. The riverboat captain regaled his son with stories of self-sufficiency and making do.
“On the river, there are no hardware stores, no repairmen to come along,” said Woody Walk. “If something breaks, you fix it and make your own parts. My grandfather would always say when he would see something being worked on, he’d go over and watch them.”
It was that small-boat experience that distinguished Walk in his quick ascension into a new initiative called the Engineer Amphibian Command. In late 1942, Walk was assigned to the Higgins boat factory in New Orleans to supervise and expedite the shipment of knockdown landing craft (LCVP/Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific.
The Pacific Theater needed thousands of LCVPs for island-to-island combat, but the fully assembled boats took up too much deck space to be easily transported. Walk’s job was to quickly train troops in boat assembly, which allowed the parts to be shipped in crates to Cairns, Australia, and then assembled in a factory.
Woody Walk said his father would walk with Higgins through the factory near the site of present-day Delgado Community College.
“He said Higgins had a lot of smart ideas, and whenever he thought of something about improving the assembly line, a guy who followed him around with a notepad would write it down,” Woody said.
While Higgins could be a hard-drinking bully and braggart, Frank Walk appreciated his patriotism.
“My dad said he was a patriot and did not gouge (the government),” Woody said. “He didn’t make a lot of money.”
On D-Day, in the fog of war, so many things went wrong. The German defenses on bluffs above Omaha Beach were supposed to have been neutralized by advance bombing, but each of the five exits leading from the sand to the high ground was covered by the Germans when the troops began wading ashore.
Walk’s LCVP was grounded on a sandbar, and the coxswain prematurely lowered the front ramp. The 6-foot-3 Walk, probably the tallest of his 30-member unit, found himself in water “up to my armpits.”
It was 0800.
“We immediately came under small arms fire, machine gun and rifle fire,” Walk told Ambrose in 1991. “One thing the Army spent a lot of time teaching you in training is how to dig fox holes. It’s a natural instinct when you’re under fire to dig a hole as fast and as quick as you can. And even if you have to do it with your fingernails, you’re going to get that hole dug.”
Then, the tide began rushing in behind the men who had managed to survive the initial onslaught.
“It was a question of staying in the fox hole and drowning or getting out and getting shot,” Walk recalled.
Walk and his men decided to slide and dig laterally and found some cover behind a dismantled tank. Of the 32 tanks targeted to land at Omaha, 24 were disabled, blown up or swamped.
Finally, late in the day, Walk and his fellow soldiers were able to advance to a knocked-out German pillbox, which had been firing 88mm shells in defending the E-1 Exit. That pill box, which still stands today, became the first command post for Gen. Hoge.
From there, bodies could be seen strewn across the beach. At one point on the beach, the brass huddled and thought about pulling out.
“That thought was really right on everybody’s mind,” Walk said. “You are scared to death, but you begin to have all these thoughts of despair, too. Is there really anything for me to look forward to?”
The other exits eventually were cleared by persistent naval gunfire, directed to the targets by onshore observers, and Walk began pointing trucks and troops to the safest routes.
“If we hadn’t had the directed naval gunfire, I don’t think any of us would be here today,” Walk said.
Raising a family
After the war, Walk married Connie Faust and used his keen sense of preparation and analysis to provide for his family. In 1959, he opened Walk, Haydel & Associates, displaying the same kind of detailed thinking that kept him alive on D-Day.
“My dad was always prepared for things,” Woody Walk said. “When we’d go on a trip, he had an extra hat for you or an extra pair of gloves. He was an Eagle Scout. He kept extra tools in his car. He kept emergency rations in the glove box. He loved insurance. He was always well-prepared.”
His love for the Catholic Church and his support for vocations to the priesthood and religious life led to his lifelong association with the Serra Club of New Orleans. He served for many years on the pastoral council of Holy Name of Jesus, led the radio rosary in his home and on Loyola’s campus and donated his and his company’s engineering expertise to the Little Sisters of the Poor when their Mary Joseph Residence developed foundation problems.
And then, in 1987, when Pope John Paul II came to New Orleans for his historic visit, Archbishop Philip Hannan, a WWII chaplain for the 82nd Airborne, chose Walk, a fellow soldier, to serve as events committee chairman of the papal visit.
That went far beyond Walk’s designing the altar for the outdoor Mass at UNO. On orders from the Secret Service, the altar was sheathed in plate steel to protect the pope in case of a terrorist attack. There were even protocols for a papal boat escape on Lake Pontchartrain – ironically, where the Higgins boats were once tested.
It wasn’t exactly Operation Overlord, but planning for the visit of the Lord’s servant may have been just as intense.
At the end of the pope’s nine-city tour, Secret Service officials told Archbishop Hannan that New Orleans proved to be the crown jewel for planning.
“Archbishop Hannan pointed to my dad and said, ‘He was the Generalissimo of it all. He was involved in D-Day, and I knew he could do it,’” Woody Walk said.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.