How can one really understand the scope of the losses that were incurred on D-Day? We can look at the numbers but really unless you were on those beaches those early days we can only imagine. Some of us have heard stories of what it was like and now that most of the soldiers are gone we can only learn from their words. In this post we will cover the words of some of the men who were there.
According to Militaryhistory.com :
On June 6, 1944 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion and by D-Days end on June 6, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Normandy. The D-Day cost was high-more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded.
Harold Winquest was in on the early days of the invasion as he was with the planning division under General Bradley. His daughter Julie writes:
There is a story somewhere of one of the DUKW drivers coming in with Gen Eisenhower and Gen Bradley in the very early days of the war. I think I figured it was probably June 12. I found that documented in the First Army diary*. My mom says that she was at a movie and there was a Pathe Newsreel that showed General Eisenhower visiting the beaches that first week. He was surrounded by several officers in a circle and all of a sudden she recognized my Dad as one of those men. My dad came onto Omaha Beach on D Day +3 (June 9). The headquarters had stayed on ships until it was safe for them to land. He came with one of the early groups to set up a headquarters. The initial 1st Army Headquarters command post was located in an apple orchard and fields near Grandcamp les-Baines (June 9 to July 2). I think that is near or behind Pointe du hoc where the Marines scaled the cliffs. It says the fields were filled with craters from the big bombs.
I can’t imagine what that was like. To be sitting in a movie theater and there on the big screen was Eisenhower and Bradley and as you look closer there is your husband. I am sure it was a relief for her to see at that point in time he was still alive.
Julie also shared a letter written by her step-father Rod Johnson.
From a foxhole somewhere in France, June 26, 1944
Dear LeMonte and all my friends in and around Holdrege:
Little did I realize last year at this time that I would be writing to you in France. But here I am safe and sound and very lucky and thankful to be alive today.
Perhaps you have been reading about the rukus in the papers and what we’ve been doing over here. Not anymore that anyone else over here has been doing but we’re doing our best to keep the boys up front supplied with what they need, namely ammunition and food.
When we first hit the beach over here it was a bit rough and we had a hot reception waiting for us. It’s a miracle how we got onto the beach. I assure you, “jerry” had made obstacles and mines all along the beach that Heinz has pickles, if I may use that expression.
If you’ve read any of Ernie Pyles articles, he gives the best description of the numerous things we encountered. I want to say one thing for the boys who hit the beach before we did-my hat is off to every one of them who had the guts to ever attempt coming onto that beach! It’s no fun seeing American boys dead boys, dying in the sand and their heads buried in it and part of their bodies lying all over. Ill never forget it as long as I live. Those lads were brace and courageous and died fighting for what we all believe in and are fighting for- Freedom of Living- The right to do what we want to, when we want to and how we want to without any fear of being shot for saying something he shouldn’t or something similar. That is the way these French people have been living for the past four years, afraid to do anything or even open their mouth without first raising their right hand and giving the heil Hitler salute. At first the French were even afraid of us.
I believe because of the propaganda the Germans had drilled into them about how the Americans would treat them when and if they arrived. They are learning now more everyday how we’re treating them, giving them food, cigarettes, and candy and gum to the little children. It is a wonderful feeling to know that all the children back home have homes to live in, plenty of food to eat and no fear of planes coming over to bomb them.
These children over here, many of them homeless, some without parents, tattered and torn clothes and a lot of them are wearing home made wooden shoes. Those I’ve seen have had enough to eat however, because this is farming country around here but I imagine it’s a much different story in the cities of Paris and others in France.”
Julie tells me that late in Mr. Johnson’s life she had a chance to speak with him about it. She shared his reaction with me. I have toyed with whether the following words are too graphic but I feel I must use them as it was the reality of the shores those days:
Rod’s memories of the day after D Day was very emotional for him. He usually cried talking about it. I think I mentioned earlier that his memories of our dead soldiers really bothered him. Actually it may be too graphic but they had to run over bodies on the beach as they unloaded the ships.
I know that each soldier that crossed those beaches dealt with those images. It is the reality of war, the part of the war my father kept from the pages of the letters to my mom. He does not talk about the invasion in his letters until after VE-Day in 1945 when the censorship has been lifted. What I am struck with in his letters is the fact that he does not let on how bad things are over there and even when he writes the following after the censorship has been lifted you can tell he is still censoring it for my mothers sake. This is what he had to say:
18 May 1945
Gee Honey no mail again, in fact for about 4 days. And Gosh have I missed it. Boy sure wish they would get on the ball. Course I’m in a bad mood. Mommie I haven’t much to say tonight so I’ll kinda tell you just what we have done here. And perhaps save a lot of talking when I get home. First we landed in England about 25 or 26 of May a year ago. And in France D+30. There was only about 10 divisions here then and by Gosh to look back at it the small post of France we had then, if the Germans had known our strength and had tried they could have driven our whole beachhead into the ocean. We loaded on boats the 4th of July in a town near Plymouth England and landed here the 7th and was committed into action on the 9th North of St. Lo. We were at Lisdon. Well everything went as wars go. The days before the big push off on Hill 122. Bob, Harker Harvey, Sgt. Lance, Reed, myself, Morgan, Edlund, hauled 4 loads of ammunition up to the 134th. This was our first taste of the real front lines. Because there were machine guns all around us and we were under German 88 fire and [there] was also mortar fire all the time. No one was hit but we sure found fox holes in a hurry.
There are many things we can look at now on the 70th anniversary of this important part of history. Many died that day but many made it past the beach and went on to fight for our freedom. But today is not about their fight. Today is about those on that beach who did not make it. Those souls who lost their lives that day, we must never forget their sacrifice. I think Mr. Johnson says it best:
I want to say one thing for the boys who hit the beach before we did-my hat is off to every one of them who had the guts to ever attempt coming onto that beach! It’s no fun seeing American boys dead boys, dying in the sand and their heads buried in it and part of their bodies lying all over. Ill never forget it as long as I live. Those lads were brace and courageous and died fighting for what we all believe in and are fighting for- Freedom of Living- The right to do what we want to, when we want to and how we want to without any fear of being shot for saying something he shouldn’t or something similar. That is the way these French people have been living for the past four years, afraid to do anything or even open their mouth without first raising their right hand and giving the heil Hitler salute.
God rest their souls. I know if my dad and Mr. Johnson were still here and able they would be on that beach to honor those who died that day.
In their place I am lucky enough to have a niece whose husband is stationed in Germany right now. Her daughter, Katie is in the Ansbach JROTC. In fact I am proud to say she is a Command Sargent Major. They were asked to participate in the memorial festivities on those beaches. It was a sixteen hour drive to get there but today she wears dog tags with her grandfather, Sterling Montgomery and my father’s name on it. She will be representing our family in thanking and honoring those men. I sit with tears knowing the 110th/35th Quartermaster with be represented in honoring the fallen on this 70th anniversary.
*Reference “Normandy to Victory” by Major William C Sylvan and Capt Francis G Smith Jr.