Back on June 6, 1994, I was privileged to be invited to speak at the 50th anniversary of D-Day celebration at the National Cemetery, Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. Today's column is an edited copy of that address.
If December 7, 1941, was the day that would live in infamy then June 6, 1944, was the day that would live in infinity. On this date fifty years ago the invasion of France by Allied Forces began under the code name, "Operation Overlord." A phalanx of ships totaling more than 5,000--of more than 100 different varieties--and 2,300 transport planes carried more than 300,000 men into the greatest military invasion in the history of the world. By July 4, nearly one million soldiers had landed. They were met by 30 infantry divisions and 10 tank divisions of Hitler's best. At stake was the fate of the war in Europe and the fate of freedom for the world. It was the German Field Marshal, Erwin Rommel, who predicted that, "For the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day." How right he was. By the end of those twenty-four hours over 2,500 allied soldiers and sailors had slipped into eternity. No one knows exactly how many Germans did the same. But the end of that day also brought a great victory for the Allied forces and the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
The Pathfinders and Paratroopers arrived first. It was Brigadier General James "Jumpin' Jim" Gavin who warned his troops, "When you land in Normandy, you will have only one friend: God." So, in the pre-dawn darkness of June 6, 20,000 Paratroopers descended into occupied France. Eisenhower was more worried about the airborne operation than any other part of the invasion. His fears were warranted. Of the 120 Pathfinders only 38 landed on their targets. It is believed that Private Leonard Devorchak was the first American killed on D-Day. Some of the Paratroopers fell into swollen swamps, others into the channel itself, and with heavily weighted equipment on their backs, drowned--some in less than two feet of water. Some were carried by brisk winds into the occupied town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
As fate would have it, a villa had caught fire in the town square and about 100 inhabitants were busy passing buckets trying to put out the fire. Some of our brave Paratroopers screamed as they landed in the middle of that blazing inferno. Others were machine-gunned to death as they descended into the heavily armed village. Our men were strewn and scattered over miles of enemy territory, enlisted men without officers and officers with no men to lead. Numbered in the latter group was Major General Maxwell Taylor. He found himself with a plethora of officers, but only three enlisted men. He told them, "Never have so few been commanded by so many." But if confusion and disarray prevailed among our Paratroopers, it was even more in evidence among the German defenders. They still had no idea that the invasion had begun.
As dawn broke, the Allied armada descended upon the beaches of Normandy. The names of those beaches have been immortalized in our minds: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. Under the command of General Montgomery, the British 2nd Army attacked Sword, Juno and Gold, while the U.S. First Army stormed Utah and Omaha. The resolve of the infantry soldiers was unmistakable. On the H.M.S. Empire Anvil, Corporal Michael Kurtz said to his squad, "As soon as we're spotted we'll catch enemy fire. If you make it, okay. If you don't, it's a good place to die. Now let's go."
One free Frenchman numbered among that gallant group said, "We shall die on the sands of our dear France, but we will not turn back." Such was the commitment and dedication of those brave men.
So, with heavy artillery from innumerable Naval guns and the strafing by formation after formation of Air Force and Navy planes, some 12,000 sorties in all, the invasion began. Perhaps it was the worst at Omaha Beach. "Bloody Omaha," they called it. And indeed it was. General Omar Bradley was concerned about Omaha Beach. He knew his First Infantry Division was attacking some of the most battle-proven of all of Germany's divisions, the tough 352nd. And, like Eisenhower's concern for the paratroopers, Bradley's fears for his beloved First Infantry were also justified. Landing craft were blown apart as they came in. German mortar and machine gun fire were omnipresent. Misfortune piled upon misfortune for those on Omaha. Many soldiers landed in the wrong sectors. Demolition engineers, who were supposed to blow paths through the beach obstacles, were egregiously behind schedule. As a result, demolition teams were running into invading infantrymen. Many assault troops were taking shelter behind the very obstacles the engineers were trying to blow up.
During those initial moments, it was as if time stood still and Armageddon had begun. Bodies and parts of bodies were floating on the water, and, yes, flying through the air. Every wave of the sea regurgitated more bodies, more blood, more ruined equipment. The young medics' accounts of this awesome spectacle are incredible. Sergeant Alfred Eigenberg told of seeing a soldier whose leg was "laid open from the knee to the pelvis as neatly as though a surgeon had done it with a scalpel." The wound was so deep that Eigenberg could see the femoral artery pulsing. The young medic did the only thing he knew to do. He folded the nearly sliced halves of the man's leg together and carefully closed the wound with safety pins.
Over at Utah Beach it was a different story. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the 57 year old son of the former President, and the only general to land with first-wave troops, studied to determine why his forces had met with so little resistance. He quickly figured it out. They had landed in the wrong place. 30,000 troops and 3,500 vehicles were right behind him. If a decision was not made immediately, a major defeat was imminent. Roosevelt turned to his battalion commanders and said, "We will start the war from right here." He subsequently took his Fourth Infantry Division and drove inland taking out German positions wherever they found them.
Now, on the beaches of Sword, Juno, and Gold, the British and Canadians were landing. By and large, these troops encountered less resistance than did the Americans on Omaha. They would make D-Day's greatest advances, but they failed to capture their principal objective: the city of Caen. There they encountered the plucky 21st Panzer Division who held on to the town for the next five weeks.
By mid-morning, it was obvious that the Allies would succeed. By nightfall, there were 150,000 allied troops ashore and thousands more on their way. The Nazis were doomed to defeat. Germany surrendered less than a year later.
In all historical incidents, especially those of major significance, there are stories behind the stories. Perhaps nowhere is this more in evidence than in the stories of great battles.
In that dastardly winter of 1775, when General George Washington's troops were starving and freezing, it looked as if our valiant struggle for independence was about to crumble. Washington's response was to cross the Delaware River and attack a far superior, fresher, better equipped, better fed, better conditioned enemy. But, we know the rest of the story, don't we?
What you may not recall was when Washington's troops began crossing the Delaware, the adversarial guards sent a word of warning to the Hessian general that an attack had begun. Had the commander responded to that message, Washington would certainly have been defeated. But the general was in the middle of a huge victory party. So, after being handed the warning, he simply wadded it up and put the message in his pocket without even reading it.
It is very interesting that June 6 is not only the date of D-Day; it is also the birthday of Mrs. Erwin Rommel. As such, the great commander had left Normandy to return to Germany to be with his wife. He was sure the weather was too inclement for an attack. Rommel left Normandy on June 4. On June 5, Allied Chief Meteorologist, Captain J.M. Stagg, of the Royal Air Force, told General Eisenhower that there would be twenty-four hours of relief in the weather. Just twenty-four hours. Eisenhower deliberated his decision for about five minutes. Slowly he said, "I am quite positive we must give the order. I don't like it, but there it is. I don't see how we can do anything else."
What did Washington and Eisenhower have in common? Did Washington know that the enemy commander would discard the warning of his attack? Did Eisenhower know Rommel would be gone from the battlefront? What caused that twenty-four hour clearing in the weather the same day Rommel was home for his wife's birthday? What is the thread that binds so much of our country's history together?
When our troops crossed the Delaware River, we were fighting for liberty. And when our forces landed on the Normandy coast, we were fighting for freedom: freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to elect our representatives, and freedom to protect and provide for our families.
America was birthed and sustained under the banner of freedom. Accordingly, this nation has enjoyed the peculiar protection and blessing of Almighty God. The Scripture puts it this way, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." Turn it around and it says, "Where liberty is, there is the Spirit of the Lord."
In our National Anthem, the inspired pen of Francis Scott Key asks the question, "Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Thanks to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen of D-Day, yes, Old Glory still waves.
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