Today is the day of days — at least it was, 61 years ago. Our modern-day Agincourt, when men who lay a-bed in America might hold their manhoods cheap in later years, for not having been there to launch the assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europa.
Of course, the men who were there would have snorted at such flowery, high-flown rhetoric. They were just there to do a job that they didn’t want to have to do, and were pretty ticked off at the Germans for keeping them from being able to lay a-bed back home.
And unlike at Agincourt, there were plenty of men on our side that day. About 175,000 were flung into the headlong, all-or-nothing effort — on that first day alone. The war in the West, and and perhaps in the East as well, depended on the establishment of a beachhead on this day, in spite of everything Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had done to make it impossible. And he had done all he could.
By this time of day, the battle was well joined. Paratroopers had been on the ground since midnight — early evening on June 5 back home. They had been scattered all over the place by C-47 pilots who had been totally unprepared for the volume of anti-aircraft fire they had flown into — dropped too fast, too low and almost always in the wrong locations. Plenty else had gone wrong. So many things had gone wrong that Iraq looks seamless by comparison. At midmorning, Omaha had looked hopeless — to the generals. But individual sergeants and lieutenants here and there didn’t know that, and went ahead to get the job done.
How, I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine. All any of us who were born later can know is what we read in books and see in films. Steven Spielberg has done his best to try to depict the experience, in one epic film and on television, and for many of us, that constitutes our entire understanding of that momentous day.
To help connect us a little more to the reality, I provide links to sites dedicated to two of the real men who were there — Bill Guarnere and David Kenyon Webster. One of them still lives, the other is long gone. Their names — particularly Sgt. Guarnere’s — are well known to those who watched Mr. Spielberg’s "Band of Brothers." Both were members of Company E of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Mr. Webster’s letters home (he was an aspiring writer who had left Harvard to join the Airborne) were a critical source for Stephen Ambrose when he wrote the book upon which the series was based.
Go to the sites. Mr. Guarnere’s is worth it for the intro alone. Mr. Webster’s contains excerpts from his letters. Their words provide a better, and more fitting, tribute to what they and so many thousands of others accomplished than anything further I could say.