Old soldiers mark D-day on beaches of Normandy

Posted June 05, 2009, at 7:28 p.m.

Sixty-five years ago today, on June 6, 1944, one of mankind’s great crusades against the forces of evil got under way in spectacular fashion on the beaches of the Normandy region of France.

The World War II D-Day invasion of Fortress Europe by Allied forces — history’s so-called “Longest Day” — would lead to the defeat 11 months later of megalomaniac German dictator Adolf Hitler and thwart his plans to dominate the world.

Although their numbers are rapidly dwindling, military veterans of that vast undertaking, now in their 80s and 90s, will again assemble at old Normandy battle sites to commemorate the event. President Barack Obama will participate, as have other U.S. presidents in previous D-Day remembrance ceremonies.

Seasoned citizens beyond a certain age the world over will watch the weekend’s televised proceedings with more than passing interest, recalling an epochal event that, in the interest of future generations, should never be allowed to fade from the institutional memory of nations.

In the past six decades, the D-Day landing has been well-chronicled in books, on film and in television documentaries. Mention of the invasion invokes images of a vast armada advancing from the sea to put ashore thousands of fighting men and their equipment, bent on making a beachhead at all costs — all of the advantages, including numbers, to the well-prepared enemy, all of the disadvantages to the attackers — and succeeding, despite tremendous odds.

To visit a United States military cemetery in Europe is to get an idea of the cost, in human lives, of D-Day and successive battles before the Allied victory came in May of 1945.

Row upon row of identical white crosses aligned in perfect symmetry on immaculate grounds bring home the enormity of the national loss. Name, rank, outfit, date of death and home state are chiseled in stone for each fallen warrior. The simplicity of the epitaphs en masse inspires a renewed and profound respect for the dead.

As this D-Day anniversary has approached, I have been reading author Clay Blair’s book, “Ridgway’s Paratroopers,” published in 1985 by Dial Press. The personal story of Gen. Matthew Ridgway, one of America’s ablest World War II corps commanders, it is also a history of our airborne infantry troops and the important role they played in that war.

Ridgway and his paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped in darkness behind enemy lines in France several hours before the D-Day invasion began. By first light on D-Day there were 18,250 Allied airborne and glider troops behind the Atlantic Wall.

In preparation for the jump, the paratroopers had been ”weighted down like medieval knights in armor,” Blair wrote.

They “wore jumpsuits (impregnated with a malodorous chemical to resist gas) with large patch pockets in the trousers. These pockets were crammed with ammo, grenades and K and D rations.

“Over their jumpsuits they wore pistol belts, supported by suspenders, to which were attached ammo clips, canteens, shovels, first-aid kits, .45 caliber pistols, bayonets, compasses and musette bags containing extra socks, cigarettes, ammo and, usually, a 10-pound antitank mine. They strapped gas masks and trench knives to their legs or boots. Some men carried bandoliers of ammo slung over their shoulders; others had binoculars or radios…”

Then came the main parachute with rifle or carbine stuffed into its wide “belly band,” plus a reserve parachute and a Mae West inflatable life preserver because they had to fly over water from England to get to their drop zone in France.

The average paratrooper carried between 125 and 150 pounds of gear tightly strapped to his body and had to be helped into the plane by his buddies. Once aboard, most men discovered that they could not fit in the plane’s bucket seats, and so they kneeled as in prayer, the bulk of their equipment resting in the seat.

And pray they likely did, just as their comrades advancing on the Normandy beaches from the water must have. And just as surviving old soldiers in Normandy surely will this weekend — for those who never made it home, as well as for a civilization that seems never to learn from war.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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