The singing stopped as the Norman coast drew near. Stars threw down their silver spears on a long column of 800 airplanes ferrying 13,000 American paratroopers to battle ...
Formations disintegrated as the C-47 Dakotas climbed and dove to avoid colliding. Dark patches of earth swam up through the murk only to disappear, and now German antiaircraft fire — like “so many lighted tennis balls,” in one witness’ description — began to rip into the clouds … Shells blew through aluminum skins as if “someone threw a keg of nails against the side of the airplane.” Three GIs died when a smoking 2-foot hole opened in a fuselage; a dozen others became so entangled after slipping on the vomit-slick floor that they would return to England without jumping.
… Chutes ripped open with such G-force violence that “anything in my jump pants pockets simply burst through the reinforced bottom seams,” a trooper recalled. Rations, grenades, underwear and cooing pigeons spilled into the night. Gunfire thickened “like a wall of flame.” … Men in parachutes that failed to open hit the ground with a sound likened by one soldier to “watermelons falling off the back of a truck.” …
Of more than 6,000 jumpers from the 101st Airborne, barely 1,000 had landed on or near the H-hour objectives on this Tuesday morning. Most of the 1,500-odd who had drifted far beyond the 8-mile square enclosing the division drop zones would be killed or captured; a few made their way to safety with maps torn from local telephone books by French farmers. More than half of all supply bundles lay beyond retrieval at the bottom of various water meadows, with a devastating loss of radios, mortars and 11 of 12 75mm pack howitzers. A sergeant peering into a barn found “men lying in the straw, wrapped in bloody soiled parachutes, their faces darkened and bandages stained.”
Yet stalwart men, those stout-hearts celebrated in song, gathered themselves to press on …
— Author Rick Atkinson,
“The Guns at Last Light,”
describing D-Day, June 6, 1944
Parachuting into the unknown
This is the 70th anniversary of D-Day … June 6, 1944.
We all have seen the photographs and footage from the beaches of Normandy. We have seen the rows upon rows of our nearly 9,400 military dead at the Normandy American Cemetery — most of them killed in Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allies’ invasion of France.
But so few of us in subsequent generations can even imagine what author Rick Atkinson vividly re-creates in his epic book, excerpted above.
With each passing day, there are fewer and fewer of these duty-bound soldiers who disembarked from lurching landing craft or jumped into the dark unknown to execute their mission: To bring a Final Solution to Adolf Hitler and his own diabolical Final Solution.
This is indeed one of those days that should remain immortalized in Americans’ memory.
Dec. 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor
June 6, 1944 — D-Day
Sept. 11, 2001 — Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
On this day, at the command of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a humble West Pointer from Abilene, Kan., 160,000 Allied troops swarmed the Normandy shores and dropped from the sky in the largest one-time assemblage of man and might of any modern war.
When the campaign began before dawn, few of those young soldiers had an inkling what was in store for them or that, beyond the German soldiers they were about to encounter in combat, they would discover Hitler’s true horrors.
In time, they would find such places as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzac, Treblinka and Chelmno in Poland; Dachau and Buchenwald in Germany; Natzweiler-Struthof in France; and 43 other concentration camps where Hitler and his beasts “exterminated” 11 million Jews, their protectors and friends and others designated as social excrement.
When Allied troops emancipated Strasbourg, France, they discovered nearby the Natzweiler-Struthof labor camp. This was one of the sites where the SS experimented on Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies with typhus, yellow fever and mustard gas. “The corpses of gassed Jews were trucked by the score to a Strasbourg anatomy laboratory for dissection or preservation in alcohol as part of an SS study on ‘racial inferiority,’” Atkinson wrote.
What we fought against
At Auschwitz, Atkinson reported, Russian liberators discovered “seven tons of women’s hair shorn from victims, 348,820 men’s suits and 836,515 dresses, neatly baled” and “pyramids of dentures and spectacles whose owners had been reduced to ash and smoke.” More than 1 million were exterminated there.
Atkinson described the day, early April, 1945, when Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley took their supreme commander, Gen. Eisenhower to his first sighting of a concentration camp, “S-3.” Bradley wrote in his diary:
“We passed through the stockade. More than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen … A guard showed us how the blood had congealed in the coarse black scabs where the starving prisoners had torn out the entrails of the dead for food.”
“Patton,” Bradley wrote, “walked over to a corner and sickened.”
Atkinson recalled how Eisenhower turned to a young GI who was giggling nervously: “Still having trouble hating them?” the general asked. To other troops on the scene, Eisenhower said: “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now at least he will know what he is fighting against.”
For nearly three-quarters of a century, world leaders, historians, human-rights organizations and descendants of those affected have exposed us to Hitler’s atrocities in Europe.
“Never again” echoes.
But on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, while remembering what the Allies did in that massive assault for good, it’s also worth noting that Hitler’s evil — his hatred for Jews — is a simmering ember. And it’s being fanned.
“Anti-Semitism has returned to Europe.”
So declared Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013.
Sacks was among other Jewish and government officials from the European Union, France, Romania and Israel who made similar declarations to more than 2,000 attendees at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Global Forum in Washington, D.C.
We heard it firsthand.
“I never experienced anti-semitism once in the first 50 years of my life,” Sacks told his AJC audience. “But Jews are asking today: Is there a future for Jews in Europe?”
To emphasize the question and growing concern, the American Jewish Committee presented results of an EU study and survey of Jewish people’s experiences of discrimination and hate crimes. Seventy-five percent of 5,900 survey respondents reported that anti-semitism has worsened over the past five years in their country.
“I feel worried about anti-semitism now in a way that I did not 30 years ago,” reported a mid-50s woman from the United Kingdom. “Something that should have disappeared from social acceptability is instead becoming stronger.”
Responded a Swedish man in his 50s: “I am sometimes shocked that my children who are third-generation Swedes do not feel safe.”
And as it was in the late-1930s in Germany, Jewish people are reluctant to report acts of anti-semitism to authorities. Victims tend to believe it will do no good.
Nor does much of today’s anti-semitism reach the pages of newspapers, TV newscasts or media websites, except in extreme cases. This reaction hearkens to similar media responses in the late-1930s and early-1940s.
Former journalist and Northeastern University Professor Laurel Leff wrote a 358-page book in 2005, “Buried by The Times,” recounting how the New York Times downplayed the Holocaust, rarely, rarely publishing a story about the extermination of Jews or the concentration camps on the front page of the paper.
The Times was not alone, Leff reported: “The information was not readily available to the public, because the mass media treated the systematic murder of millions of Jews as though it were minor news,” according to David Wyman, in his book, “Abandonment of the Jews.”
We know now the story deserves prominence — as much today as it did then. It cannot be buried; we know history repeats.
As you watch the soundbites or read of President Obama commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day amid the graves at Normandy, the courage of those 160,000 Allied troops who stormed the beaches or parachuted from sky should indeed be honored. We owe it to them and the 11 million murdered in the Holocaust to honor their sacrifice.
— Matt Walsh