On this, the 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, there is value in learning more about the incredible invasion of Europe by allied forces than what can be gleaned from Hollywood accounts. Three stories stand out that get little recognition.
The U.S. Army awarded four Medals of Honor for actions that day during the Normandy invasion. One of the recipients was Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of Spanish-American War Rough Rider President Teddy Roosevelt. He had requested to be in the first wave going ashore with his D-Day comrades at UTAH Beach. He was one of the first to step off his landing craft, leading the 8th Infantry Regiment and 70th Tank Battalion. At the age of 56, he was the oldest man in the invasion, and according to the official blog of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, General Roosevelt was “the only father to serve with his son on D-Day. His son, Captain Quentin Roosevelt II, landed at OMAHA beach.”
Though it was learned later that General Roosevelt had most likely suffered two heart attacks on taking the beach, it was not until five weeks later, on July 12, that he succumbed and died as his heart failed. According to World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia, Roosevelt died on the day he was to be given command of the 90th Infantry Division.
Omar Bradley said of him: “Roosevelt’s conduct on UTAH Beach was the bravest act he had ever known in over forty years of military service.” Lieutenant General George S. Patton was a pallbearer at Roosevelt’s funeral.
Operation Pegasus Bridge
On June 6, at sixteen minutes after midnight, the British Airborne Division, D Company made up of a small force of 181 paratroopers led by Major John Howard, a former Oxford policeman, landed in France. This combat unit crossed the English Channel in six flimsy 28-man Horsa gliders towed by Halifax Bombers.
As Rick Atkinson explained, in the third volume of a three-volume history of World War II, The Guns at Last Light, The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, the Horsa glider was “a craft named after the wife of a Saxon king but known as the ‘Flying Morgue’ for its tendency to disintegrate in hard landings.” Fortunately, on this night, Howard and his men would fare better. Atkinson described Howard’s glider, Lady Irene, meeting the ground:
“With a sound likened by one private to ‘a giant sheet being ripped apart,’ the gliders clipped France at one hundred miles an hour, the wheels tore away as the Horsas bounded into the air, then settled on their skids in an orange spray of sparks so intense the glidermen mistook them for German tracers. Stunned but uninjured, Howard and his men wiggled headfirst through jagged holes in the glider fabric, lugging their Sten guns and canvas buckets brimming with grenades.”
The mission was to capture two bridges; one across the Orne River and one spanning the Caen Canal. Because the landings were so close to the bridges, the first bridge was captured and secured in a brief but fierce firefight ten minutes after the British troops were on the ground. Ninety minutes after Howard and his unit had taken off from RAF Tarrant Rushton in England, both bridges were in British hands. The first man killed on D-Day was one of Howard’s, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, mortally wounded as he carried out a grenade attack on a machine gun location. Major Howard and his troopers were the first allies to liberate French soil and defended the bridges until relieved at 9:15 AM on June 6.
As years recede and memories fade, it’s important to cherish those who remember because they were there. So, it is with Charles Durning, a genuinely talented character actor recognized from “The Best Little Whore House in Texas,” as the Governor and as political candidate Pappy O’Daniel in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But that wasn’t the side of Charles Durning his fellow rangers saw on the morning of June 6. Private Durning stood in his landing craft, certainly not thinking of the Silver Star and three purple hearts he would receive for the combat he would endure.
During a reminiscence he gave on June 6, 2014, Durning painted a day of incredible fear and sacrifice. With an intermittently quivering voice, he recounted:
“It’s hard to describe what we all went through that day. But those of us who were there will understand… I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed…I hit the beach; the guys pulled me in who were already there… I saw bodies all over the place. But you didn’t know whether they were alive or dead. They were just lying there… I saw wounded guys dying crawl up to the front of us to act as barricades so they could protect us from getting hit with their own bodies. I saw that.
They would come up and just lay there, you know, and take the shot… I can’t count how many of my buddies are in the cemetery at Normandy. The heroes are still there, the real heroes.”
Durning is right. No-one who wasn’t there can really know. But Americans can do their level best to remember those scared, young men who were at Normandy – and did know.
*If you want to know more about the Normandy landings and gain an in-depth understanding of World War II in North Africa and Europe, an excellent history is Rick Atkinson’s The Freedom Trilogy.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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