Allied invasion on Normandy beaches remembered

  • Published
  • By Chief Warrant Officer Three Heath A. Hielsberg
  • Joint Fires Center of Excellence
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, our nation wholeheartedly joined the war against the Axis Powers. America's patriotism soared and the country rallied behind her leaders as they prepared for certain conflict.

The culmination of our nation's preparations climaxed on June 6, 1944, in the early morning hours. It has come to be known as D-Day, code-named Operation Overlord. Historians have described it as the "greatest military invasion in history."

June 6, 2006, marked the 62nd anniversary of D-Day. Sadly, our nation's World War II veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,500 daily. Retired NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw has described these brave souls as our country's "Greatest Generation." I agree. They never asked for accolades or rewards, they just did what they had to do. Today we can see veterans migrating back to the battlefields paying tribute to the friends who never returned.

The sheer number of personnel and equipment employed in the invasion is astounding, even by today's standards. Historical references state that more than 156,000 personnel, almost 12,000 airplanes and more than 4,000 ships all took part during the initial invasion of the Normandy region of France. The goal was to establish a foothold in continental Europe so the Allies could wage war against Hitler's Fortress Europe.

The first participants in the operation were the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Along with their British counterparts, the 1st Airborne, their mission was to insert by parachute and glider at night, and seize or destroy key target areas that would allow the amphibious forces to gain ground after several beachheads were established later that morning. The plan quickly disintegrated as most paratroopers missed their drop zones. The paratroopers' quickly adjusted tactics, consolidated as best they could and continued their mission with great success.

Shortly after first light, the 1st, 4th and 29th Infantry Divisions, along with elements of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, were assigned the responsibility of making the amphibious assault to one of five invasion beaches. U.S. units were assigned two beach areas codenamed Omaha and Utah, while the British and Canadians were assigned three beach areas code-named Gold, Juno and Sword. All beachheads were secured in short time periods except one; Omaha. The 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions faced such strong opposition that some units experienced 95 percent casualty rates. Casualties were 5,000-plus and the beachhead was almost abandoned. The Allied liberators persisted and eventually broke through the Atlantic wall defenses.

As with any history lesson, we can compare the events of DDay to events of our own generation. We face a threat to our nation just as they did. The world banded together then to stop tyranny as the world bands together now to end terrorism.

The night before the invasion, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, told his troops, "The eyes of the world are upon you. Your task will not be an easy one. We will accept nothing less than full victory!"

These statements all hold true for our military's mission today. The sources of struggle are different, but the faces are the same. Remember what they did for us so that we may continue to make the world safe as they did.