By James Lee Hutchinson
D-Day should never be forgotten. Seventy- nine years ago 130,000 American and British troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France in the most massive invasion in history. Operation Overlord was launched on D-Day to defeat Adolph Hitler’s reign of terror and restore freedom to the people of Europe. Germany surrendered eleven months later, May 8, 1945.
Norm Taylor and I interviewed many local veterans on the Bedford North Lawrence High School channel 14 Television program. Two shared their D-Day stories which I have included their stories in my book “B-17 Memories” and others.
The landing of troops began at 6:30 am June 6, 1944 on five different beaches. British and Canadian forces landed on the Gold, Sword and Juno beaches. United States troops hit Utah and Omaha beaches. More than 4,000 men died and thousands more were wounded on that first day! Thousands more died as troops fought move into France. Allied planes dropped airborne divisions and glider troops behind enemy lines to capture key targets while the infantry climbed into LCT and LST’s to reach the beaches and charge out of the landing crafts into the deadly bullets and shells of German guns. Many men drowned or died before they reached the beach. The Utah Beach landing went smoothly and our troops gained the first day’s objective. Omaha beach had more casualties because our forces were pinned down by the heavy fire of German guns in concrete “pillboxes” and “bunkers” on the high cliffs beyond the beach. Men of a giant Navy armada, six infantry divisions and five airborne divisions trained in the United Kingdom for six months to prepare for D-Day. Eighth and Ninth Air Corps fighters chased enemy fighters from the sky and strafed enemy positions while Eighth Air Corps heavy bombers hit prime targets inland. Fighters and bombers flew over 2,300 missions to support the invasion. They destroyed bridges, railroads and highways to harass German troop movements.
Sgt. Merrill St John of Orleans, Indiana was a radio operator on one of those C-47 Skytrains that flew in over the invasion fleet. (Full story in “B-17 Memories”)
Flying low, often at tree-top level, and braving flak cannons blazing below, 629 unarmed and unarmored. 53rd Wing C-47A Skytrains and 412 gliders were dispatched to Normandy to be dropped behind enemy lines between June 5-7. They delivered nearly 6000 airborne troops, 256 jeeps, 107 pieces of artillery, 230 gallons of gasoline to refuel jeeps, 308,786 pounds of ammunition,14,204 pounds of rations and nearly 2,000,000 pounds of other equipment. Navy guns bombarded the concrete German pillboxes and shore installations beyond the beaches in the early morning hours before the thousands of Allied troops went ashore in landing craft. Twelve thousand warships and six thousand other naval vessels participated in the invasion.
T/ Sgt. Tom “Dody’ Newkirk of Medora, Indiana hit Utah beach at the eighth hour when the large doors on his LCT landing craft dropped into the sand. He was driving a half-track and pulling a trailer and became mired down on a sand bar before he reached the beach. General Theodore Roosevelt II yelled at him to get that half-track moving and ordered a tank to hook a chain to the vehicle and pull it to dry land. Sgt. Newkirk said the General was one of the bravest men he ever saw.
Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was the first Allied General to wade ashore in the first amphibious landing on the Normandy beachhead (not counting para-troopers in the airborne assault inland behind the lines.) Although crippled from an earlier wound, Roosevelt had volunteered to serve on D-Day. Due to a navigational error on the part of the landing craft crews, the first wave of his 4th Infantry Division landed on the wrong inlet on Utah Beach. Fortunately for them, it was less heavily defended than their original objective.
“We'll start the war from here!" was Gen. Roosevelt’s famous quote. Quickly assessing the situation and seizing the initiative and advantage, he re-routed the remainder of the division into the new sector. American troops overwhelmed the defenses and rapidly drove inland. His 4th Infantry Division then proceeded to outflank the Germans on their initial objective, clear the entire beachhead, and link up with the airborne assault forces with fewer casualties than the divisions on the other four beachheads. Armed only with a pistol and walking with a cane due to arthritis, Gen. Roosevelt led several assaults along the beachhead in what Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the US 1st Army and the overall amphibious operation, later described as the single bravest act he witnessed in the entire war.
Perhaps Gen. Roosevelt had the same thoughts as another officer who urged men forward with this statement,
“There are two types of people on this beach --- the dead and those who are going to die, so let’s get the hell out of here!”
By the end of day five, 326,000 men and 54,000 vehicles had crossed the beaches and moved into France and by the first of July that number grew to a million Allied troops. D-day gave Allied Forces a foothold in France and eventually, Allied forces battled German troops across France all the way to Berlin. Many Lawrence County men participated in D-Day and/or were “replacements” for Army units fighting in France and Belgium. Replacement troops were desperately needed to relieve battle- weary men and replace the dead and wounded on the front line. We interviewed several area veterans who went overseas as teenagers after eight weeks of basic training. They spent the summer in combat on the front lines in France or Belgium and defeated German troops in the Battle of the Bulge during Europe’s worst winter.
General Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor for his D-Day leadership. His troops drove on into France, but died of a heart attack about one month after the invasion. Adapted from B-17 Memories by T/Sgt. James Lee Hutchinson.
Links to James Lee Hutchinson’s books
The boys in the B-17: The Boys in the B-17: 8TH AIR FORCE COMBAT STORIES OF WWII
B-17 Fighters and Flak: B-17s, Fighters and Flak
On Leatherwood Creek: On Leatherwood Creek: Dutchtown Boys Grew Up in Poverty and Fought WW II As Teenagers to Take Their Place in the Greatest Generation https://www.amazon.com/dp/1524643084/ref=cm_sw_r_api_i_4J4BW5K5EFWHAFEDYSFS_0
Bombs Away WWII Air Force Stories: Bombs Away: WW II Air Force Stories
Through these Eyes: Through These Eyes: A World War II Eighth Air Force Combat Diary
Hutch’s Rainbow Bridge: Hutch’s Rainbow Bridge: 93 Years of Pets