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Fight or die

Jun 9, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

Horror, heart and heroism characterized the allied landing on D-Day 70 years ago

Nothing against today's combat soldier, who puts his life on the line, comes under fire, experiences fear and uncertainty, sheds blood, longs for home, loves his country, and is brave as they come.

But those guys on D-Day had it bad.

When the enormous coalition of troops from the U.S., Britain and Canada crossed the English Channel 70 years ago this weekend, there had never been anything like it before.

And there's been nothing like it since.

This weekend, a few hundred men who survived the fight-or-die invasion came back to the beaches of Normandy in France to be cheered and thanked -- perhaps for the last time in such a setting.

Time passes. The troops who stormed those beaches on that June morning seven decades gone were youngsters. Most were 19, 20 and 21 years old. Some were just 17.

That means the old soldiers who reassembled in France over the past few days are mostly in their 90s now, a lifetime removed from what must could only have been a terrifying morning in 1944, when they putt-putted closer and closer to the beaches in their boxy landing craft, seeing and hearing German machine gun bullets peppering the closed ramp at the bow of each boat -- and then throwing the ramps open and splashing out toward land.

Many were killed by the machine gun fire before they even got off the boats, some by bullets that pierced the bodies of the men in front of them and tore through to kill the men behind as well.

Carrying their heavy gear, many others sank to the bottom of the channel as soon as they jumped from the boats, which were supposed to stop where the water was shallow but didn't always do it.

If you got to shore at Omaha Beach, where resistance was toughest, you were in Hell on Earth. The allies had to fight their way across hundreds of yards of open beach, much of it mined or strewn with spikes, barbed wire and other obstacles, with well-fortified Nazi gunners blazing down on them from the bluffs above.

The invaders who didn't get shot on the sand then had the pleasure of climbing up the bluffs while Germans fired straight down on them.

If you got shot, you hoped the nearest corpsman with a modicum of field medical training hadn't already bought a bullet himself. If he did find you, the treatment available often wasn't much more than a lick and a prayer. Sometimes your best option came from the near-overdose morphine syringe the medics carried (some soldiers did, too). It knocked you out and stopped your thrashing and moaning -- and kept the enemy from shooting at you again.

The beachheads were only part of the story. Nearly 25,000 paratroopers were dropped further inland, often blown hundreds of yards off course from their intended landing areas, hitting the ground in the dark in unfamiliar surroundings, greeted by the enemy and his weapons.

How many men died on "the Longest Day"? Truly, nobody knows. The confirmed count is 4,414 on the allied side, with three times that many wounded, perhaps to die from blood loss, head trauma or organ damage the following day, or from infection a week later.

And yet -- it worked. Through luck, through sheer volume, through planning and execution, it worked. Eventually, a million soldiers came ashore at Normandy The beaches were taken, the German army driven back. The following spring, Germany surrendered.

The Normandy invasion was planned meticulously, so there are good records for historians to pick through. We have a pretty good idea of that part of it. There are facts and figures about the numbers of troops, the boats and planes, the guns and ammo, the generals and the battle maps.

But what everyone came to realize was that the victory on the beaches of France 70 years ago this weekend happened because of the individual men in the sand, their willingness to keep fighting alongside their buddies, inching forward on their bellies, rising and sprinting to the next hole in the ground, no longer under any central command or cohesive plan, but possessed of a fierce will to survive, ready to keep going because that's what the guy next to you was doing, too.

Could such an operation be carried out today? Would it even be planned? Could the American public stomach the toll? Would any president approve it?

With luck, we'll never need to find out. But we learned what we were made of then, as did the world, and the silver-haired elders standing tall on their old battlefield this weekend are, for awhile longer, living, breathing proof.

Salute.

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