On June 5, 1944, at 4:15 a.m., after getting the latest forecast from a meteorologist predicting a small area of moderate storms for June 6, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower makes the command decision for Operation Overlord to begin the next day.
At 10 p.m., the 101st Airborne takes off from England. The 101st begins dropping into occupied France at 2 a.m. on June 6. More than 13,000 soldiers who were carried in 822 transport planes, a total of six regiments of paratroopers from the 101st and 82nd, descend on Normandy, parachuting into the dark skies.
The planes flew just 500 feet over the English Channel to avoid the enemy radar. Their drop zones had been marked by troopers who jumped from pathfinder planes beginning at 12:15 a.m. Sgt. Guy Whidden, of Frederick, was to hit a drop zone designated as Drop Zone A, and jumped from only 300 feet off the ground. He landed just outside of Sainte Mere Eglise in Normandy, 2 miles from his intended location. Few troopers landed where they were supposed to. At 4 a.m., U.S. Waco gliders began coming in near Utah Beach, bringing equipment too heavy for parachutes.
The USS Bayfield, the flag ship of Task Force U with VII Corps anchors at 2:30 a.m. Their mission, to support the invasion of Utah Beach. At 2:50 a.m., the USS Ancon of Task Force O of V Corps sets anchor, their mission is to invade Omaha Beach. The ships, anchored just out of range of German shells, begin to unload their landing craft vehicle personnel (LCVP). German coastal batteries open up at 5:35 a.m.
In response, all Allied naval battleships, cruisers and destroyers begin their bombardment of the enemy defenses at 5:50 a.m. One of these ships, the Quincy, carried Mantz Michael, of Frederick. Michael had heard the bugler’s call to man battle stations at 10:30 the night before the invasion.
The Quincy anchored at 3 a.m. and began firing shells just before 6 a.m., continuing to fire toward Utah Beach for 36 hours, using half of their supply of 8-inch ammunition. A nearby ship, the USS Corry, was hit by enemy fire and began to sink.
To protect the Corry, the Quincy fired off a smoke screen to provide cover and later sent 5-inch white phosphorus shells to shield the Corry and the ships charged with picking up survivors.
Dawn broke at 3:30 a.m. H-Hour, the name given to the airborne assault during the Normandy landings, was set for 6:30 a.m. At Omaha Beach, Gen. Leonard T. Gerow’s corps was led by Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner’s 1st Division, including the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division. Disaster lay in store for this first wave of soldiers. Many of the landing craft were sunk before hitting the beach, and those that made it to the sands of France were decimated by machine-gun fire. These included the 35 soldiers from Bedford, Virginia, 19 of whom died without firing a shot at the enemy. This is why the Memorial to D-Day is in tiny Bedford, a town of slightly more than 6,100 people.
The 115th Regiment began landing at 9:30 a.m. As the beach where they were scheduled to land was crammed with sunken landing crafts, wounded men and those trying to get off the beach, the 115th was told to land farther east, at Fox Green.
Most soldiers in Company A were from Frederick County, including Pfc. Annon Shriner, Pfc. Ronald Sier, Sgt. Hassan Sauble, Pfc. Dale Ford and Staff Sgt. Harry Nogle. In other companies of the 115th were Fredericktonians Lawrence Myers, Henry “Pete” Ponton and Donald Null. Many soldiers were ferried to the beaches by wooded boats, one with Donald Englar (Union Bridge) as the coxswain. The crews were told to not pick up any of the wounded as it would take valuable time and the American forces needed to get as many troops on the beach as possible. Englar and others of the Navy crews refused the order and quickly loaded as many of the wounded as possible on their “mother ship,” where they were unloaded and more infantry loaded for their next trip to the beach. On Englar’s third trip, he was struck by a German shell, losing part of his ear. He looked back to his machine-gunner, and saw that he had been killed by the same shell that nicked him. Back at the mother ship, he refused to go to sick bay and made one last trip with reinforcements to the deadly beach.
Pfc. Shriner did not survive that terrible day. He was only 25 feet from Pete Ponton when a shell found its mark. Born in Thurmont in 1905, he was buried in Wellers Cemetery. Pfc. Calvin Cannon, with the 26th Regiment, 1st Division, also lost his life that bloody day.
After they fought their way off the beach, the 2nd Battalion of the 115th attacked the small village of St. Laurent. Myers was hit with a wooden bullet, the kind used for practice. He bandaged it himself, but soon his leg became swollen. Despite the injury, he continued to fight.
Pfc. Cannon, of Yellow Springs, was in the 26th Regiment. He had fought in Africa and was wounded in Sicily. He was one of four brothers in the Army. Only three returned home. Calvin lost his life on a Normandy beach.
Tech Sgt. Allen Nicholson, of Brookeville, drove a 2½-ton truck mounted with a .50-caliber machine gun, and died as he tried to get his truck off the beach. Dick Fox, a platoon sergeant with Company A, didn’t even get his feet wet when he landed. Later he was given a field promotion to second lieutenant.
Donald Null remembered stepping onto the ramp and feeling as though every German soldier on the beach had his eyes on him. By the time he got to the end of the ramp, the water was up to his chest. The current picked him up, but the weight of his pack pulled him down. Just as he reached the beach, a German shell hit the craft beside his and killed all the soldiers on its ramp. As his company finally reached the top of the beach, they found that the enemy’s guard posts had already been destroyed by the Navy’s guns.
Maj. Thomas Meehan’s brother, Capt. John Meehan, a veteran of WWI, died in a plane crash in 1942. Maj. Meehan disappeared on D-Day, the day before his son Richard was born.
At one point, the success at Omaha Beach was in doubt, but the Americans were determined to overcome the enemy and the Normandy beaches were bought with the blood of the Allies.
Soldiers fought the battles in the hedgerows with the next goal of taking the critical city of Saint-Lô. It took a frightful toll. Pfc. Robert Hessong died June 12. Dale Ford and Pfc. Dale McDannell both died June 13, Austin Reed on June 17, leaving behind an infant child. Ronald Sier died June 18. Sier earned a Distinguished Service Cross. Harry Hahn Jr., with the 1st Division, died June 25. Pfc. Paul Dean, of Middletown, was killed on July 3, leaving behind an infant son. Pfc. John Davis, who had joined Company A at 15, died at Saint-Lô, as did Harry Nogle Jr. Sgt. Hasson Sauble and Donald Null’s brother, James Austin Null (with the 30th Division), all died on July 11.
Saint-Lô was supposed to be taken in seven days. Instead, it took almost seven weeks. It was secured with the courage and sacrifice of young American soldiers, few of whom survived the war. The Allies now had a foothold in Europe from which they launched the eventual defeat of Hitler’s Germany.
Seventy-five years later, let us not forget the men who fought and died to free our world from fascism. We might honor their memory by visiting their graves, some at Mount Olivet, or pay homage at the D-Day Memorial at Bedford. As you salute the Greatest Generation who were part of the greatest invasion ever seen, remember the tremendous courage it took Eisenhower to launch it with no guarantee of success.