By Phil Brown, Commentary
Sixty-four years ago Friday, the largest amphibious military invasion in the history of the world got under way in the English Channel off the coast of France. An Allied armada made up of 700 warships and 2,700 support ships, with 2,500 landing craft, closed in on five landing areas along the Normandy coastline.
American units landed on Utah and Omaha beaches, with British and Canadian units going in on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. In the first six days of the invasion, the Allies landed 326,000 men, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of supplies on the beaches.
There were a number of Enid and northwest Oklahomans who were participants in this historic event that signaled the last act in Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror on the European continent. The cost in lost and dismembered lives was awful. Area men who made the later landings remember the bodies of American soldiers stacked on the beaches like cordwood.
A number of soldiers, sailors and airmen from Enid and the surrounding area participated in the historic landings. Some of them gave their lives, and others survived the fighting through the end of the war in Europe nearly a year later on May 8, 1945. Many of those who survived the fighting have now died of natural causes.
The veterans of this huge military operation are fading fast.
Some of those from Enid who survive include James Montgomery, who was a 19-year-old buck private in the 987th Field Artillery. They manned 155 millimeter guns that could fire a 100-pound artillery shell 18 miles. They went in with the British on Gold Beach because the British did not have any big artillery pieces.
They made their landing at 3 in the afternoon, and Montgomery remembers shells exploding and the air being full of tracer bullets as he hunkered down in the landing craft.
John Sheffer, from over near Billings, was a member of the 377th Automatic Weapons Battalion — an antiaircraft unit that went into Utah Beach a few days after the initial landings.
Sheffer said the Allies had complete control of the air in the daytime, but German aircraft would bomb the beaches at night, and the beaches were so congested a bomb dropped anywhere would kill men and destroy equipment.
Sheffer was asked if he had revisited the beaches since the war. His reply was no — he had no desire to see it again. Not now, or ever.
The late Pat Murphy was flying air cover over the invasion site in a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. He remembered the channel was full of ships all the way back to England. Murphy remembered seeing the battleship Tennessee down below firing its big guns at the shore. He could see the big battleship roll sideways when it fired a salvo at the beach defenses.
Four months later Murphy was shot down and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
Some of them described fighting the Germans out in the open, in the rain, in the cold and snow from the June landings in Normandy until Thanksgiving without a shower or a hot meal.
Leonard Dresser, who operated a grocery store and post office at Lahoma in the 1940s, was a member of the 145th Postal Unit. They landed on Omaha Beach three days after the invasion. When they drove their Jeep off the landing craft it was submerged in three feet of water. He ran ashore and persuaded a tank commander to pull them out. The tank pulled them out, and the Jeep was saved.
Elmer Leavengood, of Enid, if he still is alive, would be 99 years old. He was a mechanic and gunner on a three-man 36-foot assault boat. They went into Gold Beach about 4 a.m. on June 6, 1944, and stayed there for six weeks ferrying supplies onto the beach and carrying wounded Americans and German POWs out.
Leavengood said the toughest thing he had to do was retrieve American dead that had been floating in the water for two or three days.
The late Jack Hodgden was a 20-year-old second lieutenant who had graduated only a few weeks earlier from the Oklahoma Military Academy at Claremore. D-Day found him commanding five Sherman tanks aboard a LST plowing through the English Channel’s choppy waters on his way to a landing on Utah Beach.
They landed about 4 a.m. — 22 hours after the first wave hit the beachhead. Hodgden told me in 1996 he really was scared just before the landing — so scared he could neither eat nor sleep. Hodgden and his squadron of five Sherman tanks found little resistance after they breached the shoreline defenses.
Hodgden said the Germans were surrendering in such great numbers it was kind of scary. He said they would come out of their hiding places along the roadway and surrender. There were so many of them his men couldn’t handle them. Hodgden said he would take their weapons, tell them to put their hands on their head, and directed them back toward the beachhead.
These are just a few of the invasion participants that I know about. All of them are genuine heroes, and if they are still alive, they’re very lucky. We all need to remember what they went through 64 years ago.
Brown is a former managing editor of the Enid Morning News.