Every day starts a new story.
Lord Tennyson said it best: “Cannon in front of them volleyed and thundered; stormed at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell.”
D-Day began the evening before, when Eisenhower drove to visit with the paratroops waiting to embark. He didn’t give them a pep talk. Instead he asked them about their homes and such. It was Ike’s gesture to let them know that he realized the human element of his decisions.
Steven Ambrose says that Ike had tears in his eyes when he returned to his staff car. The airborne loaded into their cargo planes. They had to be pushed and pulled because of their heavy gear.
In the pre-dawn night flew the C-47s. Their pilots were not the gutsy fighter pilots or the combat experienced bomber pilots. These were unarmed cargo pilots like Mark Passwater. Still, they were as brave as any as they held their line through heavy flack; their fellows exploding all around.
The airborne troops drowned as they landed in fields flooded by the Germans. Others were butchered as they landed in town squares; unable to return fire because of the recoil while in the air.
The sailors in the Chanel were on general quarters for three days. Several ships struck mines, and sank with their full complement.
I look to guys like Mack McCarel for the main charge of the Normandy light brigade. As the ramps opened on the Higgins boats, pre-sighted German fire would slaughter everyone onboard. Others drowned in heavy gear when the boats hung up on the sandbars and they stepped into the deep water.
The ones who made it to the beach had one defense. Run for the base of the hill! They did this across half a mile of open wet sand. Each step tugged at their boots to make the effort greater.
The Catholics among them repeated “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Others kept saying “Oh, God” or “Help me!” Still others cursed as they had never cursed before. This did not belie their bravery. It merely made them human.
On they ran through that hail of fire and the mad sounds of exploding mines, machine guns, artillery and the shouts of their comrades. They stepped without hesitation on the severed limbs and mangled bodies of those before them. They heard the final pleas of the wounded calling for their mothers.
For too many, their final sensation was of approaching the relative safety of the hill and thinking I’ve made it! Then, the thump of a bullet, a moment of intense pain, and they fell face down into the sand to be stepped on by the men behind. The last sound they heard was the thump of a combat boot and a heavy breath.
Over the hill their spirits rose to a peace they could not have imagined. Today, every grain of sand on that quiet beach could tell a story.