D.M. Giangreco: What Happened on D-Day

Roundup: Talking About History

D.M. Giangreco and Kathryn Moore, in the Kansas City Star (June 6, 2004):

The storm had been building for more than two years. Some 3,600,000 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen had assembled in England for the sole purpose of destroying the Nazi tyranny of Adolf Hitler which had engulfed nearly all Europe. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, described the force as “a great human spring, coiled for the moment when its energy would be released and it would vault the English Channel.” Defending Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” were 850,000 German troops including nine of the dreaded panzer (armored) divisions.

Sixty years ago today, 170,000 men penetrated the German defenses at Normandy, France, in the greatest amphibious invasion ever mounted: D-D AY , June 6, 1944. War and the inexorable passage of time has taken many of them from us, but the survivors remember well the fear and exhilaration, terror and even humor of the day that sealed the fate of Nazi Germany.

Throughout the ports, staging areas and airfields of Britain, the men pondered what awaited them. Staff Sergeant Charles Klein was thankful that his 5th Ranger Battalion “had a good chaplain,” and still recalls the spiritual message he gave before the Rangers disembarked: “Tomorrow is a big day. We’re going to engage the enemy this time and all the games are over. And all your praying will be over too. Tomorrow, I do all the praying. If I catch anybody kneeling down on the beach and praying within reach of my foot, he’s going to get a boot from me.”

The main Allied force was to approach the coast at night during a break in the seasonally bad weather, then launch a dawn attack. Paratroopers in transport aircraft streaming over the invasion fleet to make the initial assault found that “the full moon lit up everything,” said Sergeant Tom McCarthy from the 82nd Airborne Division. “As we flew over, I looked down and I saw the armada in the Channel. There were ships and ships and ships. You thought about how big it was, and reality began to sink in. As the mainland began to show up, it appeared like a dark spot against the horizon.”

“The unfortunate thing was that full moon,” maintained McCarthy. “When we jumped, it was like daylight. I said some Hail Mary’s, some SOBs, some more Hail Mary’s and hoped that ground showed up pretty soon. I looked right down at two guys banging away at me and one of them put a crease across my left temple. I don’t know whether he scared me or made me mad, but I knew I was all right. I got out of the chute, moved into the high grass just in time. They came searching for me, and I let them search. When they got about 10 feet away, I fed them a grenade.”

Paratroopers and Germans frequently bumped into each other in the dark, and survival often depended on who got off the first shot. A small group from the 101st Airborne Division was walking a country road when something caught Private Bill True’s eye: “I glanced out into the field and a German soldier was just aiming his pistol at one of the guys up the line. That was the first time I had a really clear picture of what I was shooting at. There was the enemy. Thinking about it later, I was impressed with how good my training had been because it was the most automatic thing to bring my rifle to my shoulder --- taking the safety off as I brought it up --- and squeezing the trigger as calmly as on a firing range.”

After a sharp fire fight, Corporal Wally Parr of the British 6th Airborne Division ran into, not more Germans, but frightened French civilians. “We started to go past a house when we heard a noise,” said Parr. “We walked over, looked and found a woman with two children.. We said, ‘Go inside. Go inside. Liberation.’ The mother never said a word but just stared up at me.” Parr feared that a grenade could be flung into their midst at any moment. “I was shouting ‘Liberation. Go inside. Allez. Allez.’ Then I reached in my pocket, and the older of the two children took a bar of chocolate.” ...

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