As the summer of 1944 neared the war was everywhere. Car tires and gasoline were scarce. For children the cardboard at the back of their school tablets became something to covet, material for inside their shoes to help plug the holes in the soles. Even then, a rainy day meant wet feet – and new shoes were nearly impossible to acquire.
Families with service members overseas felt a sense of dread when a knock summoned them to their front door, afraid that messengers from the Army, Navy or Marines would be on the stoop to deliver devastating news – that their son or brother was dead, yet another casualty of war.
For others the dreadful news came in the form of a War Department telegram, the words in all capitals announcing their loved one was missing in action, captured or wounded ... or worst of all, among the slain.
Yet World War II dragged on. Although U.S. forces and their allies had made inroads in North Africa and Italy, and the Russians had at last begun to push back the Germans after two years of retreat and stalemate, Adolph Hitler’s Nazi forces still held a death grip on much of Europe.
But on one bloody, destructive day – June 6, 1944, known forever as D-Day – a glint of sunlight appeared on the horizon. It was 75 years ago today that Allied forces launched their assault on the German strongholds along the beaches of Normandy.
More than 10,000 Allied fighting men were casualties in that single day of fighting. Nearly 4,500 of those were killed, including nearly 2,500 Americans. The Battle of Normandy would drag on for more than a month, claiming a total of 450,000 casualties on both sides.
The eventual Allied success at Normandy, however, marked the beginning of the end of Hitler’s reign of terror.
Today row upon symmetrical row of bright white grave stones mark the progress of the battle lines that stretched across France and into Germany, stark reminder of the human cost of the conflict.
I feel a personal calling to keep alive the memory of what those brave young men and women of World War II did for us. They were willing to lay down their lives in the name of freedom, and far too many did just that.
Through the years many men and women who fought that war have seen fit to share their stories with me, to trust me with sharing their experiences with the world. Their words have left their mark. I never will be the same, and I hope my written words have done their brave deeds justice.
My own father-in-law, Merle Eutsler, went ashore at Normandy as a young soldier a handful of days after D-Day, as the battle of Normandy still raged. He was in the thick of the fighting across France and into Germany, laying wires to front line artillery batteries. He was wounded, by shrapnel from a German fighter plane, then recovered and returned to battle.
Merle didn’t talk about the war. The only reason I knew how he earned the Purple Heart was by being a fly on the wall as Merle and a visiting Army comrade shared accounts of their harrowing escapes.
I once interviewed an airborne medic who was dropped behind the German lines before the D-Day assault, then took part in the ensuing advance on Berlin. At one point the veteran, Olen Walker, was too overwhelmed by the memories to speak, tears in his eyes as he recalled the horrors. Tears welled in my own eyes as my heart ached for his ordeal.
I was gratified to learn that the day his story ran Mr. Walker’s Times carrier knocked on his door, saluted the heroic paratrooper, and then handed over the newspaper.
A dear friend, the late Jack Bryce, honored me with the opportunity to ride with him in a B-17 bomber, in the nose of the aircraft where Jack served as bombardier and nose gunner. Jack, too, became speechless, tears on his cheeks, as he told me about a nearby aircraft that exploded when hit by German anti-aircraft fire, taking the life of his friend.
Even my own name is a reminder of the cost of World War II. My namesake, sailor Don Allison, lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean entombed in the USS Little, the casualty of a Japanese kamikaze attack.
At this point I can’t even begin to remember all the nurses, infantrymen, sailors, marines, aviators and others whose stories I’ve been blessed with the chance to pass on, and to save for posterity.
Because of their sacrifice tyranny was defeated in Europe and the Pacific. Future lives were spared, and millions of the world’s people are living in freedom today.
On this anniversary of D-Day let us take a moment to remember, to not let ourselves forget. And most important of all let us resolve to not waste their sacrifice, to remain ever vigilant against the forces of tyranny that continue to threaten us even today.
Don Allison is an author, columnist and retired editor of The Bryan Times.