Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Is the U.S. up to the challenge of a modern day D-Day?
On Your Right
At 7 a.m. 75 years ago Thursday, 1st Lt. Arthur Eichelbaum was squeezed into a landing craft with three dozen other men in the 116th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 29th Infantry Division, heading for Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. The sea was choppy, rolling the boat; many of the men were seasick. All of them were nervous. They were the first wave of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of occupied France and part of the grand crusade to wipe Nazi Germany off the face of the earth. By the end of the day, many of them would be wounded or dead.
Precedents for Overlord were mixed. Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa, was disorganized, but resistance was relatively light. The British large-scale raid on the French port of Dieppe was a spectacular failure. Husky, the invasion of Sicily, had faced stiffer opposition, and fighting inland of the beaches had been bloody. The dress rehearsal for Normandy at Lyme Bay in England had gone terribly awry when German torpedo boats showed up and turned the practice real, and 750 men died. Now, approaching Omaha Beach, things didn’t look good.
The landings at Omaha, in the center of the Allied line, went wrong from the beginning. Preinvasion aerial bombardment and offshore naval gunfire had missed most of the beach, meaning there would be no craters or shell holes for cover. Strong cross-beach currents and winds swept the landing craft far from their assigned sectors. Underwater obstacles snagged and upended boats, exposing men to withering cannon and machine-gun fire. Runnels in the beach, invisible if submerged, meant that sometimes when landing craft grounded, men would step off into deep water and drown, dragged under by their equipment.
And when boats made it to the beach, many landing craft were raked with machine-gun fire immediately when the bow ramp — the exit for troops — dropped. Some men were cut apart by the bursts. Others, badly wounded, fell into the water and drowned. Those who made it out of the boat found themselves on a flat and largely featureless beach, devoid of any protection from the shot and shell crisscrossing it from German positions high in the bluffs 200 yards beyond the shallow shelf at the beach’s high-water mark. Within 10 minutes of landing, many officers were dead or wounded. Several companies of the 116th lost so many men that they ceased to be effective combat units.
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There were heroics aplenty from men fueled by adrenaline: radiomen and engineers who risked death time and again to gather equipment to communicate and to fight a way off the beach, medics who treated others throughout the day though wounded themselves, officers who stood up and led though it was suicide. Lt. Arthur Eichelbaum was one of those, urging his men forward, off the death trap that was Omaha Beach. He received the Bronze Star for what he did that day.
Things were far smoother and less bloody elsewhere. The British Second Army efficiently took Juno, Sword and Gold beaches, and the U.S. 4th Division pushed quickly off Utah Beach toward the French town of Sainte-Mère-Élgise, already liberated by elements of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. But without the deadly work, sacrifice and heroism at Omaha, the Normandy landings could have failed. Victory there, won at terrible cost, was crucial to Overlord’s success.
The soldiers who fought their way across Omaha Beach to push the Germans off the bluffs and establish a toehold in France were not supermen. They did not descend from a race of heroes nor were they Homeric demigods. They were ordinary men who did extraordinary and heroic things when the situation demanded. Due to their efforts, at the end of June 6, Allied armies had a stable beachhead in Normandy and the death knell rang for Nazi Germany.
At least one person heard it. Gerd von Rundstedt, a German field marshal who future President Dwight D. Eisenhower respected and Adolf Hitler loathed, was asked in mid-June by the Wehrmacht’s High Command what to do about Allied advances in Normandy. “End the war, you idiots,” was his terse reply.
Three months later, German armies had been driven east of the Seine. Eleven months after Arthur Eichelbaum landed in France, Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich was dead and buried.
Could we do the same sort of thing today? Possibly. Our current all-volunteer army is at least as competent as it was June 6, 1944, if nowhere near as large. But how about the rest of us? Is our country, and are its citizens, up to the challenges that mounting and following up the modern equivalent of Overlord would pose?
This weekend, visit a museum offering a display about D-Day. Honor the memory of those who served, and ask yourself that question.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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