By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle
If you were an 18-year-old private, bobbing and bouncing under heavy-gray skies and lurching surf toward a stretch of beach in France June 6, 1944, you are 87 years old today.
Sixty-nine years ago this past Thursday, thousands of then-young faces hoped and prayed, trembled and puked seasick into the bottom of landing craft, as they inexorably motored toward exploding sand and thousands upon thousands of death-dealing machine-gun bullets from waiting German guns.
D-Day — the Normandy Invasion — goes down in the annals of military history with battles at Tours, Adrianople, Hastings, Trenton, Yorktown, Waterloo, Gettysburg, the Somme, Midway and Stalingrad.
And there are many, many more battles past that turned and molded the course of our history.
In fact, changing the outcomes of any of these epic struggles — from the small Battle of Trenton to the vast armies that killed one another at Stalingrad — undoubtedly would have changed the course of world history from what we view today on the pages of our newspapers and the screens of our iPads.
At Trenton, total casualties for the Continental Army and the British mercenary Hessians totaled under 100 dead and wounded.
At Stalingrad, an estimated 1.1 million Russian soldiers died, along with half a million German and Axis soldiers.
Both struggles were monumentally pivotal in their own way.
But, as America’s World War II veterans leave us in ever-increasing numbers, to take their places in the thousands of cemeteries that dot America’s landscape, we need to take yet another opportunity and at least remember — even if for fleeting moments — what they accomplished.
History tells us that an invading army had not crossed the English Channel since 1688. Yet, in those fateful early days of June 1944, more than 5,000 allied vessels stretching to the horizon crossed the narrow, storm-racked stretch of water with some 4,000 landing craft, and enough soldiers and supporting aircraft to make it the greatest invasion the world had ever witnessed.
As pre-sighted machine guns, artillery, mortars and every scrap of ordnance known to the German Army at that time spewed death and destruction on five Normandy beaches that historic day, scared yet brave men from many nations fought and breathed their last to help put an end to the tyranny and oppression of Nazi Germany.
Some 9,000 Allied soldiers were dead and wounded by the end that first day.
Yet, their sacrifice allowed 326,000 troops, 55,000 vehicles and 105,000 tons of supplies to land on those same beaches the next five days.
Seeking eternal peace
It was a foothold in Europe the American, British and Canadian soldiers who landed and risked their lives there would never give up — until the war in Europe ended less than a year later.
W. Garwood Bacon was a U.S. Navy yeoman from New Jersey, and his story and first-hand perspective on D-Day came aboard a landing craft that hit fabled Omaha Beach.
“Finally, with only a few minutes between us and our appointment with fate, our LCI veered sharply to the right and headed directly for the right flank of the Dog Green beach.
“Some few yards away, to the right of us, another LCI was drifting aimlessly, and German machine guns were mercilessly cutting to ribbons any floundering troops who had managed to jump clear of the smoking and burning hull. On our left, along the (beach) obstacles, I could see two or three LCMs aft, sunk or overturned by shell fire or mines.”
And, Bacon went on, “Suddenly, without warning, a blast shook our sturdy little craft from stem to stern, and a sheet of flame shot up some 30 or 40 feet in the air through the No. 1 hold, directly forward of the conning tower. A fire broke out below and smoke poured out of the gaping hole torn by the flames.
“As if the explosion were a prearranged signal, the (Germans) opened up with everything, 88’s, mortars, machine guns and so forth. Terror seized me as I gazed, horrified at the burned and bleeding, frantically rushing and stumbling past me trying to get away from the blinding fire and smoke. I fought off the weakness in my knees and struggled to keep my mind clear.”
That anecdote was played out thousands of times that gray June day on the beaches of a foreign land.
Landing at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach were volunteers and draftees, everyday Americans of every cut and cloth, who fought and bled and died by the thousands.
They saw sights, heard sounds and experienced smells no human being should ever have to experience.
That they persevered through this man-made hell is a testament to their mettle, that no amount of gratitude truly can ever repay.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking