Thursday, 3 June 2010
D-Day, the 6th of June
This Sunday we will celebrate yet another anniversary of that fateful day when GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower, in less than marginal weather, gave the go ahead for the airborne and seaborne execution of his orders from the Combined Chiefs of Staff to “enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with Allied Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her Armed Forces.” British and American Airborne troops, via parachute and glider, were the first to arrive at places like Ste. Mere Eglise and Pegasus Bridge. BG “Slim Jim” Gavin ’29, who literally wrote the book on airborne operations (FM 31-30: Tactics and Technique of Air-Borne Troops) commanded the three parachute infantry regiments of the 82nd Airborne in Operation Boston to capture the bridges over the Merderet River. He would be awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart during the course of the war. Covered in great detail in the book by Cornelius Ryan, he is portrayed by Robert Ryan in the motion picture. Dropped far from their scheduled drop zones in many cases, machine gunned while still falling in their parachutes, drowning in flooded fields or smashed in their gliders upon landing, the airborne troops persevered and won—albeit at great cost.
Other engineer forces clandestinely demolished obstacles in the water, again paying a high price for being first. Among these was COL Paul W. Thompson ‘29, who was badly wounded while commanding the 6th Engineer Special Brigade and then supervised Star and Stripes while recuperating in theater. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership at Normandy. Then came the massive armada of troopships, support ships and destroyers and cruisers. In the minds of many was the loss of lives just a few weeks earlier, on 28 April 1944 at Slapton Sands, when nine U-Boats stumbled upon a practice amphibious landing. Several Landing Ships, Tank, were sunk and hundreds of lives lost. Then came the first waves onto the beaches of Normandy. Bloody Omaha, where the Rangers scaled Pointe du Hoc in search of six German 155 mm artillery pieces set to fire onto the beach. The guns had been moved, but they were found and destroyed. Then, once again, the price of being first was to endure countless counter attacks until the forces on the beaches reached the heights.
BG Norman D. Cota, Class of April ’17, would land at Omaha, one of two general officers on the beaches on D Day. BG Roosevelt was the other. “Dutch” was with a regiment from the 29th Infantry Division attached to “The Big Red One” for the seaborne assault. He would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership in moving the troops off the beaches and be portrayed by Robert Mitchum in the motion picture “The Longest Day.” Later, as commander of the 28th Infantry Division, he would command an ill-fated attack into the dreaded Hurtgen Forest and later absorb some of the first blows of the German Ardennes Counteroffensive that became known in America as the Battle of the Bulge.
Utah Beach was less fatal, only because many troops fortuitously were landed at some distance from their assigned beaches. COL Red Reeder would lead his 12th Infantry Regiment far inland, even though hampered by life vests necessary in the event the enemy had flooded several low-lying areas beyond the beaches. The life preservers were needed to cross the German-made lake at the village of St. Martin de Varreville, where ruts bulldozed in the bottom made it ten feet deep at points. When Red saw non-swimmers doggedly struggling with their packs and weapons to cross the deep points, he knew the war was won. Reeder had been sent from Washington, DC, to take command of the unit because it was performing poorly during training in England. He would be severely wounded by artillery fire a few days later, also receiving the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership and would begin a second career as an author.
Meanwhile, due to an earlier slapping incident, GEN George S. Patton, Jr., ’09 would be cooling his heels in England, commanding a decoy First U.S. Army Group as a part of Operation Quicksilver, feigning preparations for a cross-channel attack against the Pas de Calais.
Because the victory ultimately was so complete, many forget how difficult the struggle was, how tenuous the outcome. Many credited the superior industrial capacity of the United States, but it was more than that, much more. Despite initially inferior equipment and the vast expansion of the armed forces of the United States, leadership at all levels, including private soldiers assuming the leadership of squads and non-commissioned officers taking over platoons and companies when their officers fell, and the creation of general staff officers and a superior logistics system all played a part. That plus the dogged determination of thousands of unsung heroes who lie in far away cemeteries or at the bottom of the sea.
Even Eisenhower was uncertain of the results of D Day, having penned the following for dissemination in the event of the failure: “Our landings . . . have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. In any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
President Roosevelt himself intoned this prayer upon that fateful day: “Almighty God—Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor.”
This past Memorial Day weekend, Honor Flight took 99 surviving World War II veterans to see their war memorial so belatedly authorized by Congress. We are losing thousands of these survivors of the Greatest Generation every month, but for these few men it was an emotional experience of the greatest magnitude. For some, however, it was too late. Accompanying the 99 were 24 burial flags of comrades who had passed away earlier. Please remember these old veterans, and our newest veterans in harm’s way today, in your thoughts and in your prayers.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@wpaog.org
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