Every year on June 6th the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Is it different than any other day of the year? Sixty eight years ago it was.
The rising sun on June 6th 1944 brought with it a fierce and terrible battle. It brought with it death and destruction, worse than one could possibly imagine. But that’s not all it brought. The rising sun gave birth to a new day filled with leadership, courage, loyalty and most important of all: hope. Nine nations throwing their weight against the might of Nazi Germany in the forms of ships, planes, tanks, and soldiers. That’s enough to give hope to even the most despairing of men and it did. The allies had finally begun the invasion of Nazi occupied France after years of planning. Millions of men and women were involved in this effort, but I will focus on the soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy that fateful morning. Not because they’re contribution is of any more importance than others, but because when I set foot on Omaha beach in Normandy, only one month before my enlistment into the military, I found myself praying that I would be able to find just the smallest fraction of courage that these men had found on that fateful day.
As the landing craft of Company A of the 116th Regiment closed in on Omaha beach, the incessant aerial and naval bombardment suddenly ceased. The thunderous booms of the cannons came to a stop and an eerie silence fell over the water. One thought crossed the minds of the infantry soldiers on the landing craft. It was their turn to step out of the on deck circle and into the batters box. They were up.
For the first few waves of soldiers, fate was not on their side. As they approached within a few yards of the beach the world around them exploded in a fiery hell. The Germans, waiting until the last minute to expose their positions, rained fire down on the landing craft before they could even touch land. The water ran red as the onslaught continued. American soldiers climbed over their fallen comrades as they struggled to get on to the beach by any means possible. Once getting off the crafts they had to maneuver through waist high water, minefields and a myriad of obstacles awaiting them. Four hundred yards of exposed beach stood between them and the seawall, the only bit of shelter against the German fortifications. They fought through in order to attempt to clear a path for incoming waves of soldiers. Under a barrage of bullets, mortars and grenades, they clawed their way to the sea wall, broken and without spirit. Of the first wave of soldiers ninety percent were killed including all the officers. And still they came.
Masses of soldiers, tanks and jeeps started to pour onto the beach forcing the Germans to disperse their fire and give the Allied soldiers a chance to bring their equipment up to the sea wall. Still, the assault on Omaha beach was not going to plan. At 8:00 that morning the assault was effectively dead. At 8:30 the order was given to stop sending in landing craft with reinforcements. There was just no room on the beach jam packed with men and equipment unable to progress beyond the sea wall. It was one of the few times in history where the wounded were brought forward instead of being evacuated. There were many obstacles on the beach that day, but the deciding one was chaos. The forces at Omaha beach had all the right parts of the equation: Soldiers, tanks and ammunition, but at that moment the variable called chaos ruled the day.
Not long before the order to stop the reinforcements was given, Brigadier General Norman Cota landed on the beach and made his way through the death and destruction to the sea wall. He quickly surveyed his surroundings and in that moment solved the equation that had pinned down the Americans all morning. He jumped up on the sea wall, exposing himself to German fire and started calling out instructions and encouragement to the dispirited soldiers beneath him. Mortars and shells exploded around him wounding many, but leaving Cota unscathed. The soldiers encouraged by Cota, began to form makeshift squads and started to follow him up the bluff and towards the German positions. Officers along the beach took in this sight and realized that if this fifty year old man can stand up against the German firepower than so can they. All along Omaha beach the American forces began to rise and make their way over the sea wall and up the bluff, advancing on German positions. General Cota had solved the equation. The answer was leadership.
It would not be easy and many more would be killed while attempting to secure the beachhead, but the courageous acts of Cota and many more like him are what turned a catastrophe into a success. The early morning was rife with death and destruction. The late morning was filled with leadership, courage, loyalty and hope. The leaders of that day were not singled out by the ranks on their shoulders but by their actions in battle. In some places corporals would be leading commanders up the bluff and in other places generals received orders from lieutenants. The ability of these men to inspire courage and hope in their fellow brothers in arms is what turned the tide of the battle.
When all was said and done, these men were brothers who in those moments of chaos were not fighting for some lofty cause but were fighting for each other. In one case two soldiers got into a fight a couple of days before they left England for Normandy. One of the soldiers threatened the other and said that he would kill him if he saw him over there. As fate would have it, they met up on the beach that morning. They took one look at each other and together assaulted the German positions, two brothers fighting side by side. On that day men fought together as brothers and prayed together as brothers. Personal religion became irrelevant. Christianity or Judaism; none of it mattered. They believed in god, yet more importantly they believed in each other.
Sixty eight years later, the sun still rises and sets on June 6th. A lot has changed since then, but many things have stayed the same. We can still find stories of war, death and destruction. We can also still find stories of courage, loyalty and leadership. Another one of the things that have stayed the same, and the one that in my eyes stands out the most is hope. The actions of the men who landed on Normandy beach that day should and will always be a reminder to us of its importance. In the past we have always had it and it has raised us from the lowest of depths. In the future, when we need it most, will it still be there?
Let’s hope so.