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Day of Days

The historical significance of June 6 can never be understated. More than just a mark on the calendar, it is a day of heroism and sacrifice. A day that common men did uncommon things. A day when the forces of good came together and decided that no single country would be allowed to take, terrorize or topple other nations. I submit that next to the resurrection of Christ, no single calendar date bears as much significance for humanity.  

In my study at home are symbols of the service and sacrifice of men in my family who have served before me. Among these personal treasures is an old rifle my grandfather brought back from World War II. I have his General Officers issued pistol, and a pair of Glider Wings in a shadowbox. They mean something. They mean everything.

My grandfather received his Army commission from Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University, in 1942 and went straight to war. He came home three years later after serving in the Glider Troops, first with the 82nd Airborne and then with the XVIII Airborne Corps. He marched across Europe, endured the Battle of the Bulge, and went on to serve through the next 30 years.

Eighty years ago men like my grandfather went ashore, parachuted into the dark of night, and assaulted fortified German forces. The “fog of war” does not begin to describe the horror of June 6th, 1944. Never in history has such an invasion force been launched and we can only hope it will never be needed again.

Kids today need to know freedom is not free. Liberty is not lax. The honor of serving in uniform for something bigger than oneself is not a just a recruiting poster slogan. Its real. Today’s generation might not be here – or at least might not be free – if the men of D-Day had failed.

Operation Overlord saw 7,000 ships and landing craft crewed by over 195,000 sailors. It included 133,000 troops from the U.S., Great Britain and Canada and over 13,000 paratroopers jumped into the darkness. It was epic in scale, it was heavy in its price. It was called “the longest day” by some and “the Day of Days” by others.

Many don’t know that Huntsville native Carl T. Jones was specially selected to be one of the key planners for the D-Day invasion. Jones was one of the few officers who had ever planned and participated in an amphibious landing, having defended Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Recalled from the Aleutians, Jones was sent to London and assigned to a major role as deputy chief of staff for XIX Corps to lend his experience to the planning for Overlord.

Also, on a shelf in my study is a brass shell casing fired in the 21-gun salute for General Dwight Eisenhower’s funeral. Eisenhower is said to have labored over the final call to launch the invasion. He felt the burden of so many lives under his command, willing to do what seemed impossible. The weather was awful. The enemy was dug in. The world had been at war for years. But Eisenhower settled the decision and issued his order to the troops on the eve of the great invasion:

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.
The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you….
The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory.
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.
We will accept nothing less than full Victory!Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

Within hours the first plane of paratroopers crossed the English Channel carrying Pathfinders from the 101st Airborne Division. Small groups of totally isolated troopers marked the drop zones for waves of Airborne soldiers to follow. Airborne troops came in scattered, regrouped, then fought. They took their objectives.

Glider Troops from the British Ox and Bucks Light Infantry landed near a quiet canal in the French countryside. Wearing the image of a winged Pegasus on their uniforms, the glider riders seized a key bridge which is still known as the Pegasus Bridge. The first casualty of the Normandy invasion occurred at Pegasus Bridge when Lt. Den Brotheridge was killed. But they took that bridge. Historians believe these efforts stopped the Germans from reinforcing the troops at the Normandy beaches.

Waves of men came ashore that morning at beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno and Gold. The sand and water turned red. Men came ashore, wading, swimming, many drowning, but still advancing, firing on the enemy. Hours were spent trying to advance mere feet. Obstacles, strafing aircraft, reinforced pillboxes, mortar fire. Men did things that made no sense on a regular day, because it was no regular day. They took those beaches.

Just down the shoreline men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion became known as the “Boys of Pointe Du Hoc” as they climbed ropes up roughly 100-foot cliffs while Germans rained down bullets and grenades. German artillery atop the cliffs were a grave threat to the armada. So the Rangers climbed wet ropes, in sand-caked uniforms, suffering numerous casualties. But they took those cliffs.

The D-Day Memorial Foundation says that 4,426 Allied troops died on that first day 80 years ago. More than 5,000 more were wounded. Over the coming weeks the Battle of Normandy saw 73,000 Allied troops killed and 153,000 wounded. The level of the sacrifice is staggering. Eleven weeks later Allied troops liberated Paris two months ahead of schedule.

D-Day. The day they saved the world.

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