On this day 73 years ago, at 2 a.m. EST, Americans awoke to reports that the Allied invasion of Europe had begun. All throughout the United States, people were woken by neighbors, radios turned on, and churches filled as all listened to the reports on the status of the invasion. For three long years the American people had been on a war economy. Everything and every action was to help the war effort. On June 6, 1944, the liberation of Western Europe, the final phase of the war, began.
When the American public began to hear of the invasion, it was already well into its second hour, and still U.S. troops had not taken Omaha Beach. The invasion started on time, but by then was behind schedule. The German defenses were stronger than anticipated, tanks were unable to get to shore to support the troops, and aerial and naval bombardments did not destroy their targets. The situation was dire. If the Americans could not take the beach, German armor would arrive and defeat the pinned-down troops with ease.
The Situation Was Dire
Elsewhere the invasion also stalled. British and Canadian troops, despite securing their beaches, faced heavy fighting with Germans inland. They would not be able to secure their first-day objectives.
Far away, paratroopers were scattered all throughout Normandy. They were tasked with securing bridges and key cross-roads to stop German reinforcements to the beaches and keep them undamaged so the Allies could advance into France. Many paratroopers landed far away from their objectives, mixed with other divisions, and lost most of their heavy weapons and equipment. Undermanned and underequipped, these units started their almost impossible mission.
The risks of D-Day landings were well-known. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, had written his letter of resignation in case the plan failed. For a few hours the invasion appeared to be a disaster for the Allied forces.
Yet the plan did not fail, as the Allies continued to press forward against the German defenses all throughout Normandy. Officers rallied their men to continue advancing, and as more reinforcements came to shore to support the offensive they maintained high morale. Even men who were rescued from the water, wounded or shocked, and dropped off on a ship offshore wanted to get on a landing craft and return to the beach they had just left.
Despite being surrounded and outgunned, the paratroopers continued their missions in hopes that reinforcements would reach them soon. By 1:30 p.m. Central European Time, the last major German defense on Omaha Beach was broken and remaining German forces were defeated. History now tells that the D-Day invasion was a great success and helped seal the defeat of Nazism over Europe.
The Bitter Price of Liberation
How did the Allies rally against such impossible odds? Cecil Breeden, a medic in the 29th Infantry Division of the 116th Infantry’s Company A, said it best: “Every man was a hero, never saw a coward.” Company A was on the first wave of the invasion, and had one of the most dangerous tasks. When Company A landed, the men were under fire from three German pillboxes, combined with concentrated mortar fire. The company was decimated. At the end of June 6, of the 230 men only 18 were unhurt.
In Company A many came from a small Virginia town called Bedford. More than 30 men from Bedford served in World War II. Less than a half hour into the start of the invasion, 19 sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers were killed. Three more would be killed later in the Normandy campaign. Bedford, Virginia would suffer the largest per capita loses in World War II of any American town. Everyone in Bedford knew at least one who was killed, and many were friends who had grown up together.
To free Europe, Bedford paid a heavy sacrifice. The town and its people were scarred for many years, and the pain of the loss never left. For their sacrifice and suffering, the National D-Day Memorial was built in Bedford to proclaim the link between victory and its price.
Every June 6, people lay wreaths at the memorial in remembrance of D-Day. Those who attend are veterans from U.S. wars and delegates from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and many other European nations to show their appreciation for those brave soldiers’ actions on that fateful day, now so many years ago.
How They Earned the ‘Greatest Generation’ Monniker
The men and women who fought this war were heroic and earned the title “Greatest Generation” not only during World War II, but also before and after. Those who fought in World War II had spent their youth in the Great Depression. The average American age during the war was 26 years old, so the World War II generation was born between 1915 and 1919. They had experienced the stock market crash, the start of the Great Depression in childhood. This generation spent the next ten years of their lives trying to find work. Any money earned would go back to the family to help keep the house warm and food on the table.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States had suddenly entered the Second World War. The nation now called upon its citizens to fight and die for countries that had not provided assistance during the Depression and to help save people they never knew from lands they never saw. These men, some of whom were drafted and others enlisted, were thrown into the greatest conflict the world had ever witnessed. The United States waged a war to liberate the millions of people suffering under Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It lasted until the official signing of surrender from the Empire of Japan on September 2, 1945.
The United States and its allies suffered much in people and money to free the world, and with the start of peace, it asked for no new lands or money to repay the Americans’ sacrifices. The only foreign lands the United States owns are places where American troops are still active, ready to defend those nations, and overseas cemeteries where American troops died to defend those faraway lands from threats.
Americans should always remember and honor June 6 for what so many thousands of the nation’s young soldiers went through and what their sacrifices achieved. The United States continuously loses more and more of its World War II veterans, so it is now the responsibility of subsequent generations to preserve their stories. Visit the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia and read “The Bedford Boys” by Alex Kershaw so future Americans will remember why freedom is so important. Through these stories, the current generation can see the cost of what so many take for granted.