Before Lieutenant Elmer “Dutch” Vermeer was blowing up German bunkers in the D-Day invasion, he was splitting tree logs with explosives on the family farm in Pella.
Vermeer wrote in a letter to Ronald L. Lane, a Major and Director of Operations and Engineering in the U.S. Army, that he and one of his brothers had been given the chore of cutting up an old cottonwood tree that had been chopped down. The boys drilled holes in the tree, then inserted shotgun powder and a fuse into the holes. The explosion that ensued split the logs without having to raise an axe.
Years later, Vermeer, along with five other soldiers, successfully destroyed a German observation post by placing fused dynamite in the post. The resulting explosion killed three enemy soldiers and led to the capturing of eight German soldiers. Vermeer received the Silver Star for his gallantry during the D-Day invasion on June 7, 1944.
“Not bad for a birthday is it,” wrote Vermeer on a citation of the Silver Star sent from Normandy, France to his parents. “I’d rather spend the next one home though.”
Vermeer was born on June 7 on a farm near Pella in 1920. In the summer of 1941, he enlisted into the regular army and received basic training at the engineering base in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. In the spring of 1942, he attended Officers Candidate School at Fort Belvoir and received his commission as a Second Lieutenant.
After graduation, he was sent to the Second Infantry Division and was assigned to the Second Engineer Battalion, where he later became a platoon commander in B-company. In January 1944, after a few years in specialized training, Vermeer volunteered as an engineer officer to do demolitions for the Second Ranger Battalion.
Vermeer landed on Pointe du Hoc, France 75 years ago as a Demolition Officer in the Second Ranger Battalion after a difficult night at sea aboard the “Amsterdam.” He recalled his experience and the events that followed in the same letter to Major Lane.
“The battleships, cruisers and destroyers were all firing, and we could see the flashes from the shells as they hit the coast of France,” wrote Vermeer. “It was like no other 4th of July you or I have ever seen.”
The firing continued once Vermeer and the rest of E- and F-company landed on the short beach, killing at least 15 men before making it to the top of the cliff. The German machine gunner had about 300 yards of completely open field to fire on the Americans.
In addition to constant machine gun fire, the outfit was facing other major problems. Because of an error in navigation, the “Amsterdam” arrived at the beach later than expected, a number of supply boats and men were lost at sea, and not one radio brought in to direct fire from the Navy ships was working.
The only communication the outfit had was a small lamp Lieutenant James Eikner, the signal officer, brought with him from England; he had bought the lamp for his own personal collection. Eikner was able to relay their biggest obstacle, the German machine gun, to nearby Navy boats. One of the destroyers was visually able to see the machine gun and eventually blew it off the cliff.
“Expressing my feelings of that first day is difficult,” wrote Vermeer. “I think the first time I really felt fear was when the machine gun bullets hit the side of the boat, and I was again reminded of the cartridges hitting the deck when I was on the landing craft before the invasion. I again felt fear just before getting off the landing craft, but crossing the beach under fire from the machine gun didn’t seem to bother me.”
Before returning to Colonel James Earl Rudder’s command post after a fight at F-company’s command post, Vermeer and Gerald Eberle came across a fellow Ranger who had captured a German soldier from an underground pillbox, or sleeping quarters.
Vermeer, Eberle and the Ranger started to question him, but the German soldier was shot between the eyes by someone farther inland.
“I don’t know if it was a German or an American who shot him,” wrote Vermeer. “He was facing inland, we were facing the channel, and they nailed him right between the eyes while he was standing between us.”
Upon returning to the command post, Vermeer was told one of their men was able to get a radio to work in one of their gun emplacements. While two other men were trying to use the repaired radio, the American “Texas” battleship hit the gun emplacement after it was mistaken for being occupied by Germans.
“There wasn’t a blade of grass to be seen,” wrote Vermeer. “It was nothing but craters and shell holes, and it was difficult to recognize one point from another. The direct hit turned the men completely yellow. It was as though they had been stricken with jaundice.”
One of the men inside the gun emplacement, Captain Jonathan Harwood, died shortly after. His body was placed on a stretcher outside the command post, and the outfit saw his body until they were relieved on the third day.
“It was again another incident,” wrote Vermeer. “These things kept happening, and, at the time, we looked at it as part of what was going on.”
The original mission of the Rangers was to climb the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and destroy six casemates the Germans had built to house 155-millimeter guns. However, once Vermeer and his team got there, the Germans had only completed three, and one had been damaged by a bomb. The guns were nowhere to be found.
Later, the outfit was told that D-company had found the guns and ammunition in a farm field about four miles east of the original gun emplacement. Vermeer wrote that the guns would probably have been the most damaging thing that could have happened to the invasion force.
On June 7, the outfit held on to everything they could in the hope that the 29th Division, the Fifth Rangers and the remainder of the Second Rangers would arrive at Pointe du Hoc. Vermeer recalls the moment the clock turned 12 a.m. because it was his birthday.
“I felt that if I made it until midnight, I would survive the rest of the ordeal," he wrote. "It seemed like some of the fear left at that time.”
At about noon, Colonel Rudder requested Vermeer take a patrol to blow up the observation post at the tip of the Pointe.
Vermeer, Eberle and about five other men headed toward the tip of the Pointe with a 20-pound sack of C-2 explosives. The outfit went from shell hole to shell hole under constant enemy fire, finally maneuvering into position behind the observation post.
“We used a very short fuse, and I think the explosion probably lifted us right off the ground,” wrote Vermeer.
The observation post had eight rooms, one which had a large slit in the front. From this opening, the Germans could see the entire expanse of the channel, giving them the advantage of seeing everything going on out at sea.
Vermeer was relieved on June 8, two days after landing on Pointe du Hoc. Though it was hard to recall specific times, Vermeer tried to express how he felt during the battle: “Fear, however, never overrode our ability to do the job we had been trained to do, and the thought of letting down a buddy was something that never crossed our minds. We just couldn’t do that.”
Although Vermeer survived the invasion, the sounds and smells of the battlefield remained vivid in his mind.
“Yes, you can see the battlefield and hear the battlefield, but it’s the smell of death of the battlefield that really penetrates everything,” wrote Vermeer. “You smell is as soon as the shells explode and the bullets fly, long before the dead bodies of your comrades start to decompose. It is a smell you’ll never forget.”
After the war, Vermeer returned to Pella and married Jeanette “Jay” Lankelma in 1946. Together, they had five children: Tom, Richard, Bill, Jim and Ann. He served as a Republican for 10 years in the House of Representatives for Marion County. Later, he became an administrative assistant to former Iowa Governor Robert Ray and retired in 1980 at the age of 60.
His son, Jim Vermeer, remembers visiting Normandy in 1967 at the age of 12, stating that his father made several trips back to the war site throughout his lifetime. The family would often travel to Ranger Conventions across the country. This particular convention was at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and from there, the Vermeer’s took a tour of key locations the Rangers trained and fought during WWII in Europe.
Elmer Vermeer was present during Ronald Reagan’s 40th-anniversary visit to Pointe du Hoc in 1984 and shook hands with the former President. He died at the age of 68 on May 23, 1989.
Fifty years later, Jim Vermeer visited Normandy again with his wife in 2017.
“It always stunned me, and he was very lucky to make it through it all,” said Jim Vermeer regarding his father’s experience.
Jim Vermeer was given the middle name Earl after Colonel Rudder, whom Elmer Vermeer cited as one of the great leaders of World War II.