By Rick Rzepka, Courier editor-in-chief June 5, 2014
The Second World War was fought in thousands of locations across the globe, yet one place and one day stands out as being the inflection point in the allied struggle to liberate Europe from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.
The "Day of Days" was originally planned for June 5, 1944, but foul weather and choppy seas would push right the largest seaborne invasion in history [Operation Neptune] and the subsequent invasion of German-occupied western Europe [Operation Overlord].
On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops collided into a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline -- part of the Reich's Atlantic Wall -- to go toe-to-toe with the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy, France. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, called the operation a "crusade" in which, "We will accept nothing less than full victory."
More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by dusk, the Allies punched through, gaining a foothold in Normandy.
The D-Day cost was high. It is estimated that more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded. But despite the losses, more than 100,000 Soldiers began the odyssey across Europe to defeat Hitler, according to United States European Command, which is helping support nearly 30 ceremonies in the Normandy region of France June 4-8 as part of Task Force Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Any Screaming Eagle Soldier, past or present and proud to wear Old Abe, should be able to outline the importance of the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division to the success of the D-Day invasion.
According to the seminal work on Screaming Eagle history and what should probably be required reading for those new to the division, retired Col. Robert E. Jones documented the first 50 years of the division in the plainly titled, "History of the 101st Airborne Division, Screaming Eagles: The First 50 Years."
In it, Jones stated the mission on D-Day as being four-fold: Secure four causeways leading from Utah Beach; neutralize the howitzers protecting the beach; link-up with 4th Infantry Division and seize the key southern French city of Carentan, which leads to Cherbourg … and off they went to a victory that would resound throughout time.
"D-Day was the 101st Airborne's baptism of fire as well as the largest deployment of U.S. Airborne Forces in combat up until that date. The accomplishment of the Division's missions of knocking out shore batteries, bridges, enemy reinforcements and command centers greatly contributed to the overall success of the operation, and undoubtedly saved hundreds, if not thousands of American lives on the beaches. The Division's accomplishments on D-Day would make the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne a virtually a household name throughout the United States from D-Day until today," said Dan Peterson, director of Fort Campbell's Don F. Pratt Museum, which is hosting an on-post living history event Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m."It will be much like our Week of the Eagles event, only in this case, limited to the Normandy Campaign."
This week, Soldiers and leaders of the 101st Airborne Division, including Maj. Gen. James C. McConville and Command Sgt. Maj. Alonzo Smith, are representing the Screaming Eagles in France along with 19 other U.S. units, including eight historical units and six nations -- totaling of 650 personnel. They are there to participate in commemoration events in 14 French communities stretching from Omaha Beach to Utah Beach, according to EUCOM. Thousands are expected to attend the assorted ceremonies, including a visit to pay homage to those Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France during a ceremony today. Screaming Eagle Soldiers will also take the lead in a multi-nation paratrooper drop commemorating the historic Airborne insertion of the 101st and 82d Airborne into Sainte Mere Eglise, France.
The mythos of the division began with the rapidly diminishing number of World War II Veterans of the 101st -- borne of fire -- who earned a reputation paid for in blood. From the 'Filthy Few' to the "Five-o-Sink," Easy Co. and tales of cricket-clackers saving men's lives, the 101st Airborne Division continues to uphold its steeled legacy.
According to the Independent, UK of the 61,000 British Soldiers who stormed those French beaches, fewer than 500 are still alive today. As for U.S. Veterans of World War II, more than 500 pass away each day and with them the memories of triumph and loss according to the National World War II Museum website.
More than 16 million Americans served during World War II, yet nearly a million are still alive to tell of their unique role in America's defeat of fascism. Of that million or so, far fewer served at Normandy. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, by 2036, there will no more Veterans of the war that claimed more than 405,000 American lives.