D-Day at 75: Why we should remember
‘You just kept going forward and hoped you didn’t get killed,” Earl D. Clark Jr., of West Springfield, remembered. “You’d see people going down around you. Mines and everything else were going off. ... You didn’t just walk up that beach. ... You had no place to hide. ... I was one of the lucky ones.”
Clark went from the hold of a landing craft into waist-high water in the first wave of American soldiers who slogged onto Omaha Beach as dawn broke on June 6, 1944, over the English Channel.
The small, metal-covered Bible, intended to shield his heart and given to him by his parents when he enlisted in 1940, was in Clark’s pocket, where it had been when his unit — with the Army’s 1st Division, the “Big Red One” — led the invasions at Sicily and North Africa months before. Of the 198 men Clark went off to war with, only five would return home alive.
“There was disaster everywhere,” Al Drega, of Westfield, recalled of that morning now 75 years ago on the shores of Normandy, France. “Anyone who says there wasn’t fear that day is nuts. You were told to do it. You went ahead. There was no time to think. If you had, you probably would have jumped back in the (English) Channel and swam back to England.”
Drega was one of the Army Rangers who scaled the 85- to 100-foot sheer cliffs by rope at Pointe du Hoc, prepared to come face-to-face with mammoth batteries of Nazi guns even before the beach landings began. “The amazing thing of it was the Germans had pulled back a mile or so. They pulled a fast one, but we eventually found them,” Drega recalled in 1994.
From his vantage point thousands of feet above in a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter jet that morning, Milton R. Berman, of West Springfield, saw so many ships in the channel that it appeared one could have walked from England to France. “It was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen,” Berman recalled 25 years ago. “I saw huge amounts of fire . . . It looked like the lights ablaze on Times Square.”
Francis M. Lamoureux, of Ludlow, had been on the ground in France for five hours by the time dawn broke over the beaches of Normandy and the Allied soldiers went ashore. A member of the Army 82nd Airborne 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Lamoureux was one of the first 19 paratroopers to land behind enemy lines just after 1 a.m. on D-Day. Nine of his group didn’t make it.
His mission was to set up the radar equipment which would help guide other paratroopers to the area around the village of St. Mere Eglise. “We were 20 miles from the beaches. It was our job to prevent (German) reinforcements from crossing the bridges nearby and reaching the beaches. We lost a lot of men.”
Lamoureux recalled in 1994 how the paratroopers found themselves scattered, how they were surrounded by Germans for several days as they fought to take control of the Cherbourg peninsula and how he later found the body of one of his closest friends, Lt. Gene Williams, lying in the middle of a road, the victim of a sniper.
“He had trained with me for three months. He was only 21. We had taken many jumps together. I was in shock. Here he was in the middle of a road with his helmet on, no boots or jump trousers.” The discovery left Lamoureux so shaken that he sobbed himself into the first sleep he’d had in days. The cost of war had taken a personal toll on him.
Those who lived it say June 6, 1944, was no ordinary day. It was, however, a day when thousands of ordinary men performed extraordinary feats in the fight for freedom around the world.
“The gallantry exhibited on the beaches of Normandy should serve as a reminder of how precious democracy is,” says U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, a son and nephew of men who served in the military during World War II. “That was the generation that asked nothing in terms of special acknowledgment for what they did.”
On this 75th anniversary of D-Day, Clark, Drega, Berman and Lamoureux are all gone. Their stories, shared with The Republican as part of the 1994 series, “World War II: 50 Years Later,” live on. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military in World War II, fewer than 500,000 veterans (496,777 in 2018, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs) are believed to be still alive, and “D-Day vets would be a small subset of that number,”according to John D. Long, director of education at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
The number of World War II veterans who remain in the U.S. is rapidly diminishing. Each day, an estimated 348 die, and with the passing of many of them go their stories of what happened all those years ago. The D-Day museum’s Long, like many counterparts in the world of veterans advocacy, underscores how important it is now, more than ever, to encourage veterans to share their stories, not to glorify combat but to impart the lessons which can be learned.