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Voices of D-Day

True stories of heroism, humility, and heartbreak.

By James C. Roberts

Eighty years have come and gone since D-Day, and still the full story of that fateful day has not yet been entirely told. It was a time of heroism, humility, and heartbreak – with ample amounts of each. It’s doubtful the American public will ever be able to capture the experience of those brave men who landed on the sandy beaches of Normandy, France. Still, there is no better way to learn of their courage than through the voices of the men who lived to tell about it.

Through my association with the American Veterans Center for the past 25 years, I have had the honor and privilege of meeting dozens of veterans who lived to tell about what they saw, heard, felt, and experienced on June 6, 1944. There are so many fascinating stories. Here are three of them:

First Sergeant Army Ranger Leonard Lomell (later promoted to Second Lieutenant)

Sgt. Lomell and his platoon had a tough assignment. Looking up from the beach where he landed, it seemed a nearly impossible task. The platoon’s mission was to take out five German 155-millimeter guns on top of the cliff at Pointe du Hoc. The sheer height of the cliff was daunting. Taking the high ground and destroying those guns would be nothing short of miraculous. And things for Sgt. Lomell were about to get a whole lot more complicated.

When the ramp on Lomell’s landing craft went down, he was struck by a machine gun bullet and almost drowned. Somehow, he managed to stagger onto the beach and, though wounded, successfully scale the cliff.

On reaching the top, Lomell was stunned to see that the guns had been removed and replaced by telephone poles. Accompanied by Staff Sergeant Jack Kuhn, Lomell went in search of the guns and found them a mile inland, camouflaged in an orchard. While Kuhn kept watch on the gun crew, who were over to one side getting a briefing from their commanding officer, Lomell placed silent thermite grenades in the gear assemblies of the guns, disabling them. The German weapons had a range of 16 miles, putting Utah and Omaha beaches and the invasion fleet within range of being hit. But by putting them out of action, Lomell prevented potentially disastrous casualties for the Allies.

Contemplating Lomell’s feat, historian Stephen Ambrose said that if he had to pick one man other than Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower who was responsible for the success of D-Day – that man would be Leonard Lomell.

Merchant Marine Academy cadet Frank Hayden

Frank Hayden was assigned to the liberty ship USS William M. Pendleton, which ferried troops and supplies between England and the landing beaches of Normandy. On one passage, the Pendleton was hit by a German bomb that grazed the mast, shearing off the firing mechanism. As a result, the bomb didn’t explode, but rather landed on the ship’s main wooden deck, only a few feet from where Hayden was standing. But it didn’t stop there. It penetrated a second deck before finally resting on the third, where it caught fire. It was all hands on deck until the fire was extinguished, and the Pendleton escaped intact.

Hayden, who died in February of 2009, loved showing the photo of him standing a few feet from the perfect outline of the unexploded bomb as it crashed through the Navy ship. He never got over the fact that his life had been spared in such a miraculous way.

Gen. Milnor Roberts

Milnor Roberts was another D-Day survivor who was often moved to reflect on his mortality because of his experience at Normandy. General Roberts, who was a captain at the time, was the aide de camp to General Leonard Gerow, commanding officer of V Corps and commanding officer of the operational commander of the D-Day forces. Because of his high rank, he was one of the few people who knew of the invasion beforehand. In fact, Roberts was given one of the few printed copies of the D-Day invasion plan to guard for Gen. Gerow.

Roberts recalled making friends with a young officer who could have been his twin. He remembered, “We were the same age, went to similar colleges, and even looked alike.”

Both young officers struggled to make it ashore on Omaha Beach from their landing craft and then got separated. Roberts tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible while he took his rifle apart and cleaned it in order to make it usable. About an hour later, making his way across the beach, Roberts saw his buddy leaning against an obstacle, a bullet hole through the middle of the forehead part of his helmet.

“He’s there, and I’m here,” Gen. Roberts often remarked. “Why?”

~

This is the first of three articles honoring the tragedies and triumphs of D-Day. Sign up to receive notifications as these stories publish throughout the day.

James C. Roberts

Guest Author James C. Roberts

James C. Roberts served in the Reagan Administration from 1981-1984. He is founder and chairman of the American Veterans Center, and of Radio America, a national conservative radio network with more than 630 affiliates.

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