They Came to Do Their Duty

June 03, 1994|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- D-Day, 1944, was less about the quality of war-making machines than it was about the quality of war-making men.

Most of the Americans who came ashore at Normandy were untested in combat, many of them still teen-agers just out of high school or off the farm. They faced hardened soldiers whose experience included the occupation of Europe. American forces had never experienced anything like it and would never again.

My uncle, Master Sgt. Everett Thomas, was among those who landed on Omaha Beach 50 years ago. He was in the 3rd platoon, anti-tank company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. He writes:

''About daybreak [June 6], we could see the beach, and about that time the battleships, cruisers and destroyers began firing. I watched those huge projectiles go over my head and I wondered how anyone could be alive on that beach. Let me tell you, they were very much alive, like a damned hornets nest. Those Krauts were ready to fight.

''Soon we were close enough that the machine gun fire from the Germans was spraying along the sides of the ship. I remember one guy saying to me, 'Sergeant they are shooting at us.' I said to him, 'Of course, you nut. We are the enemy.'

''When we began to circle for a landing it really did get rough. The waves were terribly high. The Navy pulled her in as close as they could, down went the ramp door and the troops as well as the half-tracks and big guns began to disembark.

''That's when we really caught hell. The water was up to my neck. I had two real short guys in my platoon. I grabbed both of them by the neck and held them until they could wade in.''

My uncle was wounded, but kept going. He was twice treated at field hospitals and rejoined his unit as it advanced inland toward St. Lo, France. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and battle stars representing five campaigns. I am proud of him.

His bravery and that of others was typical of a time and a people whose belief in freedom and whose hatred of evil caused them to make great sacrifices.

For Gen. Omar Bradley, the memory of D-Day at Omaha Beach was always a ''nightmare.'' Decades later he said: ''Even now it brings pain to recall what happened there. I have returned many times to honor the valiant men who died on that beach. They should never be forgotten. Nor those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins.''

In the films we see on television and the folklore that has grown since D-Day, it is easy to forget how so many lives were changed. For those who received a certain telegram that came to too many homes, they were changed in a unique way: ''The Secretary of War desires me to express deep regret that your [husband/son] was killed in action on six June in France. Letter follows.''

It is also easy to forget that America and freedom nearly lost. When they reached shore, the D-Day forces were scattered, without leaders and bewildered. At Omaha, only two of eight companies landed according to plan. Within 15 minutes of one company's landing, 180 of its 187 men had been wounded or killed.

It was individual courage that turned imminent defeat into victory. Private First Class Edward Regan recalled, ''I was a 22-year-old guy from Oliphant, Pennsylvania, and I wondered whether I would live 'til noon. Flattened out there in the tide, I found out what fear was. I could see our men get hit. But I was a rifleman and I had come there to do my duty, as best I could. We all fought back.''

''I had come there to do my duty.'' It was an eloquent explanation for America's victory. By 1:30 p.m., General Bradley received a report: ''Troops formerly pinned down on beaches now advancing up heights beyond them.''

On June 6, 1944, at the invasion's inception, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation by radio. He began with a prayer: ''Almighty God: Our sons, the pride of our nation, this day have set out upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.''

Winston Churchill said, ''Modern opinion resists this truth, but great battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations.''

They succeeded in doing these things, and more. They provided an example of how uncommon courage can come from common men, who ''more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.''

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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