Today is the 75th anniversary of the Western Allies’ invasion of the Nazi built and defended Fortress Europe during World War II.
Anyone who has watched the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan” will remember the instantaneous slaughter of US troops once the ramp dropped on their landing craft. The survivors scrambling over the side to escape the fusillade of bullets entering the boat. What was not well depicted in that scene was the lead-up to that moment.
Many years ago, long before Spielberg’s movie, I read that D-Day soldiers in the landing craft could hear the Nazi machine gun bullets hitting the bow ramp as the gunners periodically checked the range on the approaching landing craft. Those gunners, firing “Hitler’s Buzzsaw” at 1,200 rounds per minute, knew that their richest kill box was that landing craft as soon as the ramp dropped. The soldiers behind the ramps knew that as soon as the ramp went down those bullets had their names on them. Think about that for a moment. You are standing there for ten minutes or so in a small, densely occupied boat with nowhere to go except into a swarm of full metal jacketed 7.92mm lead that will tear you to pieces once that ramp no longer serves as your shield. You don’t know when it will drop, just that it soon will. You are seasick, cold and wet and you have never been in a battle before. You may well never really be in one. Some landing craft lost everyone aboard. Overall the first wave lost one of every two soldiers, many before they ever stepped on the beach.
Other soldiers parachuted out of aircraft into the night illuminated by the tracers of anti-aircraft fire, muzzle flashes, explosions and the flames of burning aircraft. They couldn’t see the ground let alone their landing zones. They knew the deadly obstacles below them - flooded fields, tall trees, buildings and the enemy – but couldn’t see those either. Yet jump they did and then dangled alone, defenseless, unprotected and impotent for minutes that must have felt like hours as their parachute lowered them to the unseen ground. Imagine doing that.
The bravery of these American, British and Canadian men is what we honor today and every day. They were just like us with the exception that they chose to respond to a much more serious challenge than we will ever face. Thank them, remember them and be the best you can be in order to fully respect what they bought for us with their lives, wounds and suffering.