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    "Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach was a hero."

    --Lieutenant General Omar Bradley

    D-Day: First American Flag Planted on Normandy Beachhead with August 1944 Newspaper Documentation.




    Three days before the hammer falls upon this extraordinary symbol of American courage, the world will turn its attention to a fifty-mile stretch of French coastline to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of an event immortalized with the name "D-Day." On June 6, 1944, the largest seaborne invasion ever assembled came ashore at that location to determine, in the boldest expression of determination and military might, the fate of western civilization. The Allied foothold gained on Nazi-occupied France would ferry hundreds of thousands more into the fight, turning a tide that would flow to the doorstep of Hitler's Berlin bunker within a year's time. In the narrative of the United States as the planet's leading force for good, there is perhaps no point of evidence more compelling than the storming of the beaches of Normandy.

    The staggering vastness of the operation-160,000 troops transported by over 5,000 ships and 1,000 airplanes-mirrored the enormity of the stakes. "This operation is not being planned with any alternatives," General Dwight D. Eisenhower warned on the eve of the assault. "This operation is planned as a victory, and that's the way it's going to be. We're going down there, and we're throwing everything we have into it, and we're going to make it a success."

    Historians who have hypothesized a course of events that might have followed a D-Day in which the Allies were driven back into the sea present a chilling vision of unchecked Nazi conquest and genocide. It can be accurately stated that no single day in the past century has been more consequential.

    There would be a high toll to pay for entry to the French mainland, Eisenhower knew, and the United States intended to pay it. The Allied forces would suffer ten thousand casualties in the assault upon Normandy, two-thirds of them American. Twenty-five hundred United States soldiers sustained mortal wounds. Many of those fallen heroes now lie beneath perfect rows of crosses on the bluffs above the beaches where they died, the immaculate geometry of the cemetery, and the soothing lull of waves beyond, serving as stark contrast to the chaos and violence that populated their final moments.

    First Sergeant John E. Horvath was one of the lucky ones to survive D-Day, a bartender in his early thirties and recently married when he enlisted in April 1942 at Fort Hayes a couple miles from his house on East Fulton Street in Columbus, Ohio. By virtue of that home state, he'd join fellow Ohioans and the residents of Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia in the Fifth Corps of the Army, more commonly known as V Corps. We see that designation on the dog tags he was wearing as he stormed the beach, the number "1" indicating enlistment as opposed to conscription, and the second digit that fateful "5" that would set him on a collision course with the horrors of Omaha Beach.

    It was V Corps that was assigned that bloody task, and while all five beaches of the D-Day invasion were teeming with peril, it was Omaha that saw the worst of the carnage. At the other American sector, Utah, the casualties numbered 200. At Omaha, the count was ten times as high. Heavily-fortified, and occupying the high cliffs above, the German defenders had the sea-soaked Americans as fish in their barrel, and they turned that landscape below them into one of the most terrible in the history of warfare. The scene was captured in all of its savagery and gallantry in the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg's critically-acclaimed film "Saving Private Ryan."

    We are introduced to Sergeant Horvath and his historic flag in a period newspaper clipping entitled, "First Flag on Beachhead in Normandy Arrives Here as Souvenir of Battle." The article pictures Horvath's wife posing with the offered banner, and quotes a letter tucked into the package she had received only days earlier: "Take care of the flag. It's the first one which went up on the beachhead, two hours after the invasion started. I had to use my tent pole to raise it."

    The article is trimmed clean of newspaper names, but we suspect it is The Columbus Citizen-Journal. We can determine that the article dates to approximately August 23, 1944, as a United Press story printed on the back of the clipping reports a Pacific Theater bombing run on Halmahera that matches stories running in other newspapers on that date.

    Horvath is identified as an Army engineer in the article, and was most likely a member of the 121st Combat Engineer Battalion, attached to the 29th Infantry Division of V Corps. The Army engineers held a particularly crucial and challenging role in the Normandy invasion, tasked with neutralizing obstacles both natural and man-made to establish lanes for personnel and equipment to cross the beach. While Colonel George Taylor famously shouted to his combat soldiers on Omaha, "There are two kinds of people staying on this beach--the dead and those who are going to die!" the engineers' directive mandated sustained exposure to enemy fire as those combat soldiers scrambled for cover beneath the bluffs. The resulting casualties for Omaha engineers were staggering, calculated as high as forty percent, but it was this perilous role that left Horvath there on the blood-soaked sand to plant the flag when the first small section of Normandy beach was won.

    The battle-scarred banner measures approximately 32.5" x 43" with forty-eight embroidered stars. The fly is constructed of thirteen machine-stitched stripes and edged with machine-stitched gold fringe bearing some hand-sewn repair. The tubular hoist has been fitted with two ropes with loops affixed by leather tabs. The repairs are consistent with the article text: "Maybe the flag dragged as the engineer sergeant carried it ashore. Maybe it was torn down during the fighting. It looks as though it had been. Its surface is smeared and stained, its silk battalion fringe frayed." A repaired puncture at the second red stripe from the bottom appears to have been a bullet hole.

    The unique fringed-design of the flag is unconventional for battlefield use, and Horvath's mention of a tent pole serving as its staff tells us he had never imagined it might be used as such. This was the format typically utilized at military headquarters, and it may have been flown in that capacity as the first temporary structure on the beachhead was erected. But the flag's distinctive appearance allows for a definitive match to the newspaper image of Mrs. Horvath posing with it, and to a different photograph from the same shoot, also included. The lot also contains the aforementioned dog tags, Horvath's Purple Heart and Good Conduct medal, and various ribbons as follows: Presidential Unit Citation, WWII Victory, and a Purple Heart/Good Conduct/European Theater ribbon bearing four Bronze Stars and an Arrowhead Device.

    The bronze stars represent major engagements, one of them quite likely the Battle of the Bulge, where the V Corps likewise performed with great distinction. The Arrowhead Device is particularly intriguing, however, as it is issued only to participants in an amphibious assault, thus a direct commemoration of the D-Day landings. Finally, we have a photo of Horvath himself, bespectacled and slightly-built, an unlikely hero at the center of the greatest military operation in the history of warfare.

    Sergeant Horvath would return to Columbus after the war but struggled to reintegrate, battling depression and alcoholism, and almost certainly what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. A two-page typed history from the son of Horvath's nephew reports that Sergeant Horvath succumbed to a fatal stroke in either 1961 or 1962. The nephew was given the flag and other mementos of his uncle's valiant World War II service presented in this lot.

    Heritage Auctions made history three years ago when the flag removed from the staff of Howard Vander Beek's LCC-60, the radar boat that shepherded the first wave of the invasion to Utah Beach, commanded $514,000. Remarkably, the buyer was not an American, but rather a Dutch national who called it, "a symbol of our freedom. And with 'our freedom' I mean that of Europe in particular."

    Of course, a flag is a symbol by its very nature, and battle flags have long occupied the top pricing strata of militaria for their unique ability to bridge that gap between the combat itself and the principles that led those who fought and died beneath them to war. This remarkable star-spangled banner, symbolizing the claiming of Omaha Beach, and our nation's noblest standards of freedom and democracy, stands as one of the most significant battle flags ever presented to the collecting community.




    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    June, 2019
    9th Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 17
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
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