As more and more of the veterans of World War II fade into history, it becomes increasingly important to be cognizant of, and grateful for, the extraordinary things these soldiers accomplished in battling—and being victorious over—forces led by perhaps one of the most evil men to have walked this planet in modern history.
As one World War II veteran said to me years ago about his experience of liberating prisoners in a concentration camp, “If I’d ever doubted that we was on the right side of things, what I saw that day…what I saw of the things that men can do to each other…well, I never doubted again. It was good that we won that war. I’m told it changed me, and maybe it did. But we was on the right side, and I’m glad I was a part of it.”
LONG TIME GONE
and fighting the good fight
Thursday, June 6, marks seventy-five years since the Allied invasion of Normandy, a massive, complex military operation that was, and continues to be, the largest seaborne invasion in history, involving nearly three million troops crossing the English Channel from England to occupied France. Among those three million troops were fighting units from twelve different Allied nations, including the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Belgium, free fighting forces from France, Czechoslovakia, Greece, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway and free fighting forces from Poland. Meanwhile, 16 million tons of arms, munitions and supplies had been stored in Britain for use once Allied forces were on the ground in France.
Code named “Operation Overlord”, the plan was to invade in two stages. The first stage, code named “Operation Neptune”, involved 150,000 troops from the United States, Great Britain and Canada landing simultaneously on five beaches that stretched over 50 miles of the northern coast of France, which was heavily fortified by German forces. Once the beaches were secured, the second stage was the transport of 3 million troops across the English Channel to the beaches at Normandy from where they would then advance inland to liberate occupied France and, later, Europe from the Nazis.
Both goals were ultimately accomplished. By late August, 1944, northern France had been liberated. By the following spring, Germany had been defeated. However, history has come to view the June 6, 1944 landing of those brave boys from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada on the beaches of Normandy as the beginning of the end of World War II.
But just as the invasion involved horrific battles that exacted a heavy toll in human casualties and lives lost, it also took extensive, intricate planning to be successful.
In the interest of understanding what exactly was on the line and the challenges related to the Invasion at Normandy, a brief (very brief) review of World War II might be helpful.
It’s the general consensus of historians that World War II officially began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded neighboring Poland. Many of the countries in existence at that time were reluctant to engage in battle, but Hitler entering Poland prompted a number of them, most notably France and Great Britain, to act. As a result, on September 3, 1939, both countries declared war on Germany.
That didn’t stop Hitler. Beginning in May of 1940, Germany invaded and occupied Northern France. The Nazis also drove British troops back to English after the battle of France. At that point, things were looking very bad with some saying Hitler was unstoppable. Numerous voices called for Roosevelt to declare war and enter the conflict, but, lacking significant support from Congress, he refused.
And then, a year and a half later, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the United States had no choice. Roosevelt declared war in December of 1941.
By 1942, it was clear that an enormous influx of troops would be required to defeat Hitler’s army, and military commanders with the United States and Great Britain were considering the possibility of a major Allied invasion across the English Channel. By 1943, plans to cross the channel were being discussed more seriously.
Hitler, knowing that the northern coast of France was vulnerable to attack, put his most brilliant general, a man named Erwin Rommel, in charge of directing defense operations. Neither Hitler nor his military commanders knew where the Allied Forces might attempt to land, so he directed Rommel to finish the “Atlantic Wall”, a 2,400 stretch of impediments designed to fortify the coast, including bunkers, landmines, and beach and underwater obstacles.
In January of 1944, “Operation Overlord” was put under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower and his commanders knew that Hitler had his eye on the northern coast, and the element of surprise was vital. So, they carried out an enormous deception designed to make Hitler think that Pas-de-Celais—the narrowest point between France and England—was the main invasion target, going so far as to send out fake radio transmissions, put double agents behind the lines, plant fake equipment, and create a phantom army commanded by General Patton in Britain.
Meanwhile, plans were made to invade on June 5, 1944, but the battle began months before the invasion. Allied bombers began to “pound” the coast of Normand and further south in order to destroy German transportation lines and stall their build-up of military strength. More than 300 plane dropped 13,000 bombs over Normandy. Under the cloak of night, six parachute regiments, totaling more than 13,000 men, dropped behind enemy lines to cut railroad lines, blow up bridges, and seize landing fields. Gliders, who could more easily avoid anti-aircraft guns due to their lack of engines and propellers, also brought in men, light artillery, jeeps, and small tanks.
Eisenhower was more aware than anyone of the challenges and potential disaster that awaited them. They had a very small window in which they could launch the invasion: they needed some illumination from the moon for the airplanes to see where to bomb but not so much that the parachutists being dropped from the gliders could be seen. They also needed the low tide so that the boats transporting troops for the landing would not have to get within range of the guns from the bunkers.
Eisenhower also knew that the nature of the invasion itself was precarious. No military operation that involved crossing the English Channel had even been tried since the late 1600s, precisely because the water is terribly unpredictable with currents and winds that can be hard to gauge. And the weather in the weeks preceding D-Day had been unusually stormy to such a degree that the Germans had figured the Allied troops would never try to launch an attack. If they didn’t move on June 5, they’d be forced to wait another month, which greatly increased the chances that the Germans would catch on to their plan.
But what bothered him most of all was the age and experience level of the men who would be landing on the beach. The average age was 20 years old and less than 15% of the boys had ever seen battle before. They were weighted down with heavy equipment—guns, ammo, heavy boots-- and if, through some error, they were dropped into water deeper than 6 or 7 feet, they’d drown before they could make it to land. Even if they made it to the shore, the beach was wide with several hundred yards of open space, making the troops easy targets for the guns from the bunkers.
And his advisors could offer him no assurances. He was told there was a chance that 75% of the paratroopers would be killed. He was told there was a good chance that 20%-30% of the soldiers landing on the beach would be injured or killed.
Nonetheless, when his meteorologist told him there was a small window on the 6th of June that would work, Eisenhower committed to the attack.
The invasion was scheduled for 6:30am. In the early dawn, Eisenhower addressed some of the soldiers. It wasn’t until years later that he admitted to looking into their faces and wondering who among them would not see nightfall, yet, still, he spoke to them of great victory, that failure was not an option and the eyes of the world were upon them.
On that morning, the Allies boasted a 5,000-vessel armada that stretched as far as the eye could see, transporting both men and vehicles across the channel to the French beaches. In addition, the Allies had 4,000 smaller landing craft and more than 11,000 aircraft.
By the end of that first day, approximately 4,500 soldiers were killed, more than half of them Americans. And of those numbers, several hundred drowned having been left off the boats in water that was too deep.
Today, almost 10,000 American soldiers are buried in the cemeteries of Normandy, a site that is both cared for and treasured by the citizens of France who continue, to this day, to express the sacrifice made for their freedom.
As for those who died in World War II who have ties to Kiowa County, what follows is a list of names, as provided by Areta Laird.
We owe them more than we can say.
U.S. Army, gunner
Landed on Normandy Beach on D-Day
Liberated concentration camps
Honorably discharged from the Army on December 6, 1945
Edward Osborn Baxter
Died April 12, 1945 from wounds received in Battle of Germany
Leo Alvin Frazee
Colorado National Guard Army 45th Division 157th Infantry
Killed September 12, 1943 at Salerno Beach, Italy
Leland T. Frost
U.S. Army C.O.A., 137th Infantry
Injured near Vacanceville, France
Died September 16, 1944 from his injuries
Milton L. Koepsel
K.I.A. in France
Buried Lorraine Cemetery at Saint-Avold, Moselle, France
P.O.W. in Poland
M.I.A. by Germans
December 17, 1943
James S. Miller
P.O.W. Fall of Bataan
Died December, 1943 in Mudken, Manchukuo
Killed October 5, 1943 delivering planes near Ontario, California
Roy E. Griswould
U.S. Air Corps
K.I.A. September 25, 1944
Henry G. Pollreis
K.I.A. November 26, 1942
Ivan A. Priefert
Lost at sea November 15, 1943
K.I.A. in France June 11, 1944
Raymond V. Udick
Torpedoman on submarine in Pacific
Tailgunner in a bomber
M.I.A. in France