Remembering D-Day

Posted on 05 June 2014


 

June 6, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the planned invasion of the Normandy coast during World War II.  The assembly of American and Allied forces in preparation for the invasion had England bulging at the seams, and a long stretch of bad weather with little hope for improvement had stalled the invasion plans.  General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of American and Allied Forces, was anxiously awaiting a break in the weather.  With his troops ready to go, how long could he delay without the enemy detecting the plan?  Finally, his meteorologists informed that there would be a brief window in time during which the weather would break.  Without hesitation, he gave the order to “Go.”

 

The plan was to drop airborne troops behind enemy fortifications on the Normandy coast.  Their mission was to secure vital roads that could supply reinforcements to the German defenders along the Atlantic wall.  The group selected for this critical component of the plan was comprised of the American 82nd and 101st and the British 6th airborne divisions to be deployed in the predawn hours just before the amphibious invasion.

 

They say that the “best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and General Eisenhower’s plans were no exception.  The 101st airborne missed its drop zone with paratroopers scattered in low-lying marshland, and the 82nd airborne was accidentally dropped into the heavily-defended town of Saint Mare Inglese and sustained heavy casualties.

 

The amphibious landings were codenamed Operation Neptune.  The target 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beach.  The first two sectors would be landed upon by American forces; the latter three by British and Canadian troops.  The key to the invasion plans was the French city of Caen.  The responsibility for securing the city was delegated to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.  But, this would not happen on that fateful day.

 

Also, the Allied naval bombardment of Omaha Beach fell short of its mark, and the aerial bombardment missed its targets, leaving the amphibious forces at Omaha Beach staring down the barrels of German artillery and gunfire.  This was witnessed by General Omar Bradley standing on the bridge of the Battleship Augusta and, at one point, he seriously considered calling off the attack.  But, as fate would have it, a company of Rangers missed their zone, landed at Omaha Beach, and bolstered the attack.  At the end of a long day, the American and Allied forces managed to secure a beachhead on Fortress Europe.  And, within a year, they would defeat Hitler’s Germany on May 8, 1945.

 

On June 6, 1944, I was 17 years old and working at the Philadelphia Naval shipyard as an electrician’s helper when President Franklin D Roosevelt summoned the American people to prayer.  He knew that, at that moment, the American and Allied forces were storming the beaches of the Normandy coast and, in his prayer, he prepared the American people for the realities of war.  Four months later, on my 18th birthday, I received a notice to report for the draft, and by December, I was drafted into United States Army.  That Christmas would be the last that I celebrated at home for two years.

 

After induction, I was sent to the Camp Robinson, near Little Rock, Arkansas, for infantry basic training, and after completing 15 weeks of basic training, I returned home for a 10-day leave before reporting for overseas assignment at Fort Meade, Maryland.   When I arrived at Fort Meade, the War in Europe had ended, and all eyes focused on the Pacific Theater where the war was still raging.  Subsequently, I was sent to Camp Howze, Texas for 6 weeks of jungle training, and upon completion, was transported to the West Coast for participation in a prospective final invasion of Japan, codenamed Operation Downfall.

 

Early in August 1945, I boarded the troopship USS Extavia.  That evening, I, along with other soldiers embarking for Japan, sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and watched from the ship’s deck until its image disappeared from sight.   I wondered if I’d ever see these shores again.  Six days later, the ship’s Captain announced the Japanese surrender.  All on board the ship cheered, and our Navy gun crew fired a salute for the occasion.  We continued our journey to our next landfall, Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands.

 

After three days of loading on provisions, we sailed until we reached Ulithi atoll in the Carolina Islands.  We didn’t know it then, but this would have been the site for the gathering of ships for the final invasion of Japan, an Armada the size of which would dwarf the Normandy Armada.  We stayed there for a few days and then continued on a journey that would take us to the island of Leyte in the Philippine Islands and the 8th Army Replacement Center near the town of Tacloban.  With the ending of World War II, replacements were needed to replace men from other units that were going home.  Because of my electrical background, I was transferred from infantry to the 24th Signal Company of the 24th Infantry Division on the island of Mindanao.

 

In mid-September, we joined a giant task force to secure and occupy the islands of Japan.  Our ship dropped us off at a town named Matsuyama on the island of Shikoko on or about October 7, 1945, just day before my 19th birthday.  Shikoko would be our home for the next couple of months.  Early in 1946, the 24th Division moved to the main island of Honshu to replace his Majesty’s Royal Cameron Highlanders stationed at Okayama.  It was like a page out of a Rudyard Kipling novel with kilted Scotsman and bagpipes.  Before they departed, they put on a show that included a dance.  I guess it was the Highland fling.  After a few months, the 24th Division was ordered to move to the southernmost island of Kyushu.  Our company set up headquarters at the Kitagawa racetrack near the town of Kokura.  This would be our final destination in Japan until our replacements arrived.

 

All of these events, although occurring 70 years ago, are still fresh in my memory – as I am certain they are in the thoughts and memories of others who served our country during and in the aftermath of World War II.  The War in Europe, Pearl Harbor, the American entry into World War II, the Normandy Invasion, the German surrender, the deployments of the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the surrender of Japan all seem as if they recently occurred.  Clearly, they have left an indelible mark on me and others of my generation.  As I think back to America’s role and my own small contribution to the war effort, I am proud of my country and its leadership in saving large portions of the world from the threat of tyranny.  As much of today’s world cowers from threats including terrorism, a Russian bear seemingly intent on reassembling the old Soviet Union, a resurgent Iran, and China’s expanding economic and military power, America’s leadership is again needed to ensure the safety and security of those who wish to live in freedom.  One can only hope that we as a nation can summon the collective will and courage to meet today’s challenges, just as we did in the dark days leading up to D-Day, June 6th, 1944.





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