At 91 years old, Jay Wingate has probably seen and done more than most people could do if they had 300 years.
He’s been a businessman, engineer, a Rehoboth Beach commissioner, three-term state representative and World War II veteran. It's his military service that will be prominently featured this summer at the Rehoboth Beach Museum’s exhibit, ‘World War II: Rehoboth Beach.”
The exhibit, which opens Saturday, May 26, and runs through March 2013, will show how the war affected Rehoboth. Wingate was asked to share his stories, photographs, food-stamp books and other items dating from his two-year service with the combat engineers.
With a brief period in between for training, Wingate went from studying engineering at University of Delaware to England, where he helped prepare for the Allied invasion of Normandy in France on June 6, 1944.
"We spent about four months in England prior to the invasion, getting ready for the invasion," he said. "We were scheduled to be in the first go-round, but we had an unfortunate experience during training in England. We had a mine explosion. Wiped my platoon out. Killed 29 men and injured eight or nine others. That set us back."
Wingate hit Utah Beach on the shores of Normandy June 7, a day after the initial wave. Attached to the 4th Infantry Division, Wingate's troop ship was sunk before they got to the beaches. To his knowledge, Wingate said this was the only troop ship lost during the entire Normandy operation.
"I wasn't on that ship, but I saw it hit the mine and explode. We were on other boats with our heavy equipment. I turned to my buddy, and I said, 'I'll bet you, the way things have happened to us, I'll just bet you our men were on that ship,'"
Wingate said the troops were taken aboard a British destroyer and taken ashore, minus their rifles and equipment. He said they picked up the gear of the dead and wounded and continued on.
After he arrived on Utah Beach, it would take nearly two more months for the Allies to clear the Germans out of nearby Cherbourg to establish the supply line from the beach.
Wingate said the combat engineers were trying to get off the beach so they could clear the roadways of mines and start their work building roads and bridges.
Although he survived the mishaps his unit suffered before the invasion, Wingate was twice wounded in the war. The first time was at the Battle of Mortain in France, when he was hit in the right leg.
"There was a town there where we had 137 Americans surrounded by the Germans. The Germans were trying to cut us off the peninsula in the counterattack. But we beat them back," Wingate said.
"We were trying to build a road up to them where there wasn't a road. Minor wound there," he said.
Building bridges to victory
Wingate and the engineers paved the way for the Allies to make their way to Paris. One of the more interesting projects he worked on was a bridge in the commune of Melun, 28 miles from Paris. Situated on an island in the middle of the Seine River, the town is linked by bridges.
Earlier in the war, Wingate said, the French, retreating from the rapidly advancing Germans, had blown up the original bridges. As the French told the story to Wingate, it took the Germans three months to build one bridge from the island to the shore.
"When we got there, we built four bridges from the shore to the island, two from the shore to the island and two from the island to the far shore. Military bridges are one-way bridges. We built all four of them in five days," he said.
One of the four bridges was nicknamed "The Dinah Shore Bridge."
"Dinah Shore came and sang to us. It was the only time we ever had something like that happen during the whole war," Wingate said. "We just stopped work for about an hour. Right in the middle of a war, I can't imagine to think back on it. So we named the bridge 'The Dinah Shore Bridge.'"
Wingate helped bridge almost all the major rivers in Western Europe: the Seine, a 1,200-foot bridge over the Rhine and the Ruhr. Alas, none of the bridges Wingate worked on survive today; the bridges were meant only for military use. Once the engineers left and the troops had passed, later units and eventually civilians would come in to maintain them.
Because his unit was always ahead of the main combat troops, Wingate was part of the first American wave of troops to arrive in Berlin. The Russians, who had swept through Eastern Europe, had already conquered the city, which had also been under aerial bombardment for years.
"We had to wait for them to move out," Wingate said of the Russians. He said one section of Berlin had not been bombed, strategically, so it could serve as a base of operations when the Allies moved in.
"The city itself, other than the little area where we were, it was just total, total waste and horrible, horrible smells. Of death, you know. You drive in a Jeep down the street holding your breath," Wingate said.
His unit was given an interesting assignment: rehabilitate the shot-up remains of a federal court building. It was not just any federal court building, but the infamous Nazi "kangaroo court," where the show trials of the "Operation Valkyrie" conspirators - who had tried to kill Adolf Hitler July 20, 1944 - were held.
The Allies wanted to use the building as a command center to help govern conquered Germany. The engineers used civilians to help, including women to clean and masons for brickwork. It would be Wingate's last major task: he came home in November 1945.
Upon coming home, Wingate said, "I just sort of took it easy for a couple of months. I sort of needed a vacation."
He married his college girlfriend, Frances, and took a job with DuPont, but it didn't last long because it would have taken him away from Rehoboth – and Wingate did not want to leave. After his short stint at DuPont, Wingate worked in the retail business before founding his own surveying company, Wingate and Eschenbach, in 1955 with friend Sam Eschenbach. The company today is under the ownership of Wingate’s sons, Doug and Brad.
Prewar Rehoboth was of course very different than today’s year-round tourist attraction. Wingate said while a lot of people came for the summer, the locals all knew who they were, and when the visitors left, they left until the next year.
When World War II broke out, it didn’t take long to affect Rehoboth. In addition to food rationing, there was also the threat of a German submarine attack, Wingate said. Locals would black-out all the lights so the town wouldn’t be visible from the sea, and women would often be out spotting for airplanes, he said.
Jay and Frances met on a blind date in Dewey Beach and have been married for 67 years, with five children and six grandchildren. Frances is originally from Massachusetts; her family came to Seaford during the Depression to work for DuPont.
“I had a friend who had a cottage in Dewey Beach. I had been back to Massachusetts to visit. A bunch of girls had dates, and I didn’t have one, so they rounded Jay up,” she said.
Wingate also had a political career that saw him serve on the Cape Henlopen School Board, as a Rehoboth Beach commissioner and finally, as a state representative from 1982-88.
Of his time in the General Assembly, Wingate said, “I hated campaigning. I thoroughly enjoyed the actual workings up in Dover. I didn’t like the political part of it, the small stuff you had to do.”
Wingate had never really pondered why he has enjoyed living in Rehoboth, just that he has. “I guess I always assumed everybody more or less felt that way about their hometown,” he said.