Paul Wirth, 94, was 17 when he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day June 6, 1944. Stakes were high: Free France, then the rest of Europe from Nazi control. 

Wirth’s orders: Move up the hill toward German machine gunners firing on them from rocky cliffs.

For years, Wirth lived a quiet life in Louisville with his wife Lila and daughters. They are longtime members of Southeast Christian Church.

Few knew Wirth as an American hero—that he served as a sniper in World War II, survived five major battles to stop the Nazi war machine and once provided security detail for Sir Winston Churchill and Gen. George Patton.

Few knew—until now.

Seventy-five years after that D-Day landing, June 6, 2019, Wirth sat in a front row seat of honor at a ceremony in Normandy, honoring veterans who liberated France.

Cameras from news outlets around the world focused on Wirth as French President Emmanuel Macron gave him the Legion of Honor medal, the highest military honor in the country. Both Macron and President Donald Trump hugged him as they made their way through the line of veterans gathered to celebrate service and sacrifice at Normandy.

Dodging gunfire on the beach

Normandy was a long way from Wirth’s rural home in Hodgenville, Kentucky, where he became a marksman shooting marbles in the air and small game to feed his family. An officer who saw Wirth shoot commandeered him as a sniper for the 67th Tank Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division under Patton.

He had no idea for three days that he was in Normandy by mistake.

His unit was in England, preparing for the invasion when a sergeant called his name and told him to get in a landing boat. Wirth tried to explain that no one in his unit was in that boat, but he was told to get in anyway. Three days later, he learned that the sergeant called Paul Worth, not Paul Wirth. The rest of his unit did not reach Normandy until day five of the invasion.

Wirth’s boat reached Omaha Beach in the second wave early on the morning of June 6, 1944.

He tried to dodge machine gun and cannon crossfire as he landed in 6-foot waves. The beach was riddled with steel beach obstacles planted by the Nazis to prevent tanks and boats from coming ashore.

Afraid he’d drown under the weight of the 50-pound pack on his back, Wirth threw it off as he waded to shore carrying only his gun. He dodged arms and legs floating in water that ran red with blood.

“The water was full of dead soldiers,” Wirth said through tears. “I saw one soldier holding his intestines in his hands. I saw another guy who had been shot in the face begging, ‘Kill me. Kill me.’ The tide was coming in, so I grabbed him by his pack and dragged him through the sand so he wouldn’t drown. I wanted to stay with him, but I had to keep moving, so I wouldn’t be shot.”

Wirth kept running up the hill even after he felt a sting on his left leg. He later found a bullet hole in his leather leggings. A medic poured white antibacterial powder on the wound, wrapped it in a bandage and Wirth continued to fight.

He was one of 15 survivors from his boat. Thousands of soldiers died that day. Paul calls them the real heroes of Normandy.

Freezing at the Battle of the Bulge

Surviving D-Day was just the beginning of one big battle after another, including the Battle of the Bulge.

“When the Germans broke out in the Bulge, we were in Holland getting ready to go into Germany,” Wirth said. “They gave us 24 hours to go 100 miles to the Bulge in waist-deep snow. We drove our tanks through the night to make it. My job as a sniper was to shoot Germans off their tanks. They had run out of gas and wanted our gas supply.”

Hitler’s goal was to push the Americans back into the sea.

Wirth was stationed in the Ardennes Forest for more than a month in frigid temperatures without gloves, a change of clothing, hot food, a blanket or heavy coat. Many of the soldiers around him were sick.

After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Wirth’s unit was sent into Germany for the final push to take Berlin.

Along the way, he saw atrocities of the war in concentration camps where millions of Jews were killed. It made weary soldiers even more determined to stop the Nazis.

Wirth’s unit entered Berlin after Germany surrendered. Wirth saw Hitler’s bunker and the vast destruction of the city.

By December 1945, Wirth had enough points to go home with five battle stars. He signed up for another tour and was stationed at the Pentagon and Army War College where he worked in data processing for 10 months.

Framed medals and Wirth’s uniform decorate a wall in the basement of Wirth’s home. His tin mess kit sits on a shelf.

Wirth knows that God saved his life through some of the worst battles of World War II.

In France, strangers stopped to thank Wirth for his service. French citizens gave him gifts. He shook hands with dignitaries and other veterans.

“It was healing to be there,” Wirth said. “No one ever thanked us when we were there or when we came home.”