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It was 68 years ago today that thousands of American, British and Canadian soldiers boarded landing craft for one of the decisive battles of World War II.
The United States had wanted to do it the year before. We wanted something to bring the war to a successful end as quickly as possible. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had also been clamoring for the Western allies to open up a second front against the Germans. Winston Churchill, however, had balked. He seemed to want to piddle around in the Mediterranean.
Finally the Americans and Russians got their way and the cross channel invasion was planned for 1944.
A number of things went right. We fooled the Germans into thinking we were going to land at Calais and they concentrated their forces there. We also came on a day and at a time when they didn’t expect us.
However, many things went wrong. The time allowed for the Naval bombardment was too short. Weather kept bombers from hitting their targets. Instead of blasting German gun positions just back from the beach, their bombs killed cows inland. Rockets launched from special landing craft fell short of the beach. Furthermore, planners had overloaded the soldiers with equipment and many men who ended up in water over their heads drowned because their burdens dragged them under.
We ultimately won the day on June 6, 1944, because of the determination of the men who landed that day. Scattered and separated from their units, they formed ad hoc units and found ways through the barbed wire and mine fields. By noon the Germans thought they had beaten back the assault. Before the day was over American soldiers were in the Germans’ trenches and attacking gun positions from behind. The crews of small warships also showed determination. The skippers of destroyers and destroyer escorts came in close to the beach, as close as they could without running aground and destroyed gun emplacements with direct fire, shooting three inch and five inch shells through the gun apertures of the German bunkers.
The victory was decisive because it opened the way for American, British and Canadian troops to ultimately drive toward Germany’s industrial heartland at the same time that Russian troops were closing in on Germany from the east.
This all comes to my mind for a reason beyond the fact that today is the anniversary of D-Day. That reason is Bob Slaughter’s death last week. Bob was one of those determined young men on D-Day. His death makes me think of a number of old D-Day veterans I’ve interviewed over the last 15 years who are no longer with us.
One was Roy Stevens. His landing craft sank on the way in and he would have gone to the bottom if another soldier hadn’t helped cut him loose from the gear that was weighing him down. His twin brother, Ray, made it to shore and was one of the 19 Bedford Boys cut down in the first 15 minutes of fighting.
I also got to know Ray Nance, Alpha Company’s second in command on D-Day. He made it to the beach but was too badly wounded to be able do anything.
I keep thinking about what great guys these men were. They were not only genuine heroes, but they were really nice people too.
They also did positive things after they came home. Roy became a Boy Scout leader and taught a boys’ Sunday School class in his church. I understand that one boy ultimately became a pastor. Ray restarted the local National Guard company. It’s here today because of his initiative. Bob, displaying some real long term tenacity, led the effort that built a beautiful memorial to all the men who fought that day, and the National D-Day Memorial exists today because of his vision.
Now, they’re gone, and I really wish they were all still here. Let's treasure the ones who are left while we still have them with us.