Sixty-four years ago today, thousands of young American, British, Canadian, Australian and other allied men -- most of them ten years younger than I am now, and people nonetheless tell me I'm "young" -- poured off small landing craft to wade through the cold Atlantic water towards Normandy's beaches. On some beaches, they met with very little resistance, but on others, the young men Germany sent to oppose them poured down a murderous rain of lead that wiped out whole platoons in moments.
Last year I read Stephen E. Ambrose's D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II . It's a solid history, with a lot of personal stories from diaries, letters and interviews with veterans.
This year, however, I stumbled across a very up-close look at one unit's experience, The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-day Sacrifice by Alex Kershaw. It tells the story of the men of Company A, 116th Infantry Reg., 29th Div. 34 of Company A's men were from the town of Bedford, Virginia, from a national guard unit which had been called up to full time combat duty for the duration of the war. They were in the very first wave to hit Omaha beach on D-Day, the beach which say the stiffest resistance and the highest casualties. 19 of Bedford's men died within the first hours of D-Day, and it would certainly have been nearly all of them except that one of Company A's boats sank well out from the beach, and the men aboard it were taken back to England (after treading water for over an hour) and didn't land in Normany until several days later.
The Bedford Boys tells the story both of the men on the beach, and of the families back home -- including the day several weeks later when the telegraph machine in the town drugstore starts to reel off one "We regret to inform you" telegram after another. Bedford lost the largest percentage of its men in uniform of any town in the US during World War II, and it did so mostly in a couple of hours.
The book's focus is necessarily very close. You won't get a strong sense for the overall organization of D-Day from it, and it concentrates on what is already by far the most famous beach, for Americans at any rate. What you do get a strong sense of, however, and what is perhaps the most astounding human element of the D-Day story, is the bravery against impossible odds that somehow allowed thousands of young men, wading out of the water into withering machine gun fire, to eventually make their way up the beach, overwhelm the machine gun nests and pill boxes, and begin the long awaited liberation of Europe.
In 24 hours the Allies landed as many soldiers as are currently in Iraq, and suffered as many casualties as we have in five years. Through great bravery, and in the face of incredible suffering. As with so many others who have, throughout history, found themselves having to stand firm in the face of death -- I don't know how they did it, other than that they had to.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.