On June 6, 2019, the country will remember the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, a battle that turned the tide in World War II. There are very few veterans alive today from that time and we wonder if this country, and its citizens, would have the stomach to do what needed to be done in 1944.
Although the term D-Day is used, it was actually called Operation Overlord, the day that the allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France to begin the liberation of western Europe. By September, the northern part of France would be free and preparations were made for the final push into Germany.
Although the plans for the D-Day invasion had been discussed for a lengthy period of time, the decision to move forward was made just the day before the battle. Once the order was given by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, 6,000 landing craft were launched, ships and vessels carrying 176,000 troops began moving towards France, over 800 planes filled with paratroopers headed for the battle zone and 13,000 aircraft were in the air to provide air cover for the invasion.
As dawn approached on the morning of June 6, 1944, 18,000 paratroopers were already on the ground as the land war started around 6:30am. By the end of the day, 155,000 Allied Troops had successfully stormed the beaches.
The Germans were taken by surprise and according to military experts,
were confused as their leader, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was away from the line, some say on a vacation. But, even lacking the leadership they needed, they put up a stiff battle and fought harder than expected. Although the battle from the allied perspective did not go exactly as planned, it was a heroic battle that set the stage for the liberation of the continent.
Today, the veterans from D-Day are rapidly disappearing. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs report that fewer than 3 percent of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive. And for those who saw the worst of battle, just three of the war’s 472 Medal of Honor winners are still alive. The youngest of these vets are now in their mid-90s, so we are losing them rapidly.
As a child growing up in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, there was a rich history and deep respect for those who served in the war and took part in that invasion. My relatives who were alive during that time say they remember when they first heard about the battle on the radio "like it was yesterday."
And when I was grade school, anytime we studied World War II, we would always have a visit from a veteran named Bill, who would tell his story of the event and what he saw. To this day, Bill’s verbal painting of the event has left an indelible picture in my mind, some 53 years later.
In my third grade class, I remember Bill coming in, uniform on and carrying a scrapbook and letters he wrote home. That was 1965, just 21 years removed from the event and Bill’s recollections were still fresh -- probably too fresh.
He told us that when he hit the beach in Normandy, those on the front line lost 9 out of 10 soldiers to injury or death. He recounted stepping over bodies or pieces of bodies, pulling men who had been injured or too weak to swim from the rough waters of the English Channel. Although he was not a medic, he stated that he would give the most seriously wounded soldiers shots of morphine, mostly, he said, so they could die in peace.
The water was full of bodies, he remembered, mostly Marines, who had died in the initial assault. Bill said seeing this made him sad and even sick to is stomach but, “I had a job to do.”
Bill then related how he was hit from behind by a “flying body” sent airborne from a mine blowing up on the beach. This sent him tumbling end over end down a hill, landing next to a pile of dead soldiers. Laying there, in tremendous pain and in and out of consciousness, he awoke later on a transport vehicle with a broken back.
Although what I am relaying comes from memory, I do remember one quote from Bill that has stayed with me all these decades, “When I came home, I weighed 130 pounds, that's what I weighed in 8th grade. I spent a year in a hospital in England and then was shipped back to the United States where I had to learn to walk again.”
Back in the Lehigh Valley on June 6, 1944, the time was 2:00 am and most Americans were fast asleep. When the American public began to hear of the invasion, it was already well into its second hour, and still U.S. troops had not taken Omaha Beach. The invasion started on time, but by then was behind schedule.
A cousin, who had a friend who worked at the local newspaper called the
Easton Express, stated that they first received the news “sometime after midnight” and a special edition was put together to go out in the morning. The Express, at the time, was an afternoon paper.
Upon waking up, my grandfather said he turned on the radio when he heard the news. He was getting ready for work and lost all interest in showing up that day.
Listening to radio station WEST, he said that NBC broadcast bulletins one after another, something he had not heard since the Pearl Harbor attack.
NBC continued to interrupt its programs with additional updates on what German radio was reporting – that the French Port of La Havre is being shelling, that airborne troops have landed near the mouth of Seine River, and that German naval craft are battling Allied landing craft off the northern coast of France.
NBC’s bulletins emphasized that these were German reports and that there had been no official confirmation that the invasion had begun. The War Department reported it had no information on the reports being broadcast by German radio.
Leaving the house for his job at a local textile mill, he stopped at John’s Diner for a coffee and toast where he saw the counter lined with others going to work, listening intently to the radio reports. No one was talking, they were just listening.
Upon arriving at work, offices that had radios found employees sitting around them, listening to the news reports. No one seemed to have any interest in starting the day. By noon time, he said, the bulletins had stopped and the radio stations just broadcast news that seemed to change as fast as they read what was coming over the Associated Press' teletype machines.
What he remembered most about that day was by early afternoon, recaps were being read by the reporters and then, NBC played the song “Stars and Stripes Forever” and those within earshot of the music stood at attention, hands on their hearts or weeping, realizing the magnitude of what was occurring an ocean away.
Now, 75 years later, relatives are finding letters and journals of the day and many report that they had no idea their loved ones had been on the French beach that day.
The Washington Post recently reported a story from a reader who found her father’s journal when they were in the process of moving. “How this manuscript came about, none of us knows, “ she told them. “It’s 16 typewritten pages, and neither my father nor my uncle ever remembers Bill Sr. typing. In passages, it’s brilliantly written and remarkably self-aware. Bill Sr. wrote it, it seems, on July 11 at a rest camp in England — after the horrors of D-Day but before his next mission, to the Mediterranean. It reads like both a history book and a movie script.”
And at Connelly Law Offices, Elaine Lux, from our firm's fiduciary department, recently found a page from the journal of her late father, who was on the beach that fateful day 75 years ago. He was documenting the battle as it raged around him.
'...they didn't have to tell us. We practically new[sic] we were in on the invasion
there were thousands of ships loaded to the gills all around us. I didn't sleep all night they had us on all alert.
June 6 - 10+30 hrs
We were in on the first wave. From our ship, we could see ships blowing up, men catching hell, shell exploding everywhere, boy it was hell. We didn't have a chance to unload our ship of its cargo. We took on about 170 wounded men before we unloaded. It was hell to see these men shot to pieces, after unloading our ship we took on more wounded men. American, German, Russian, and English. Japanese? About 2800 hours, we were still taking on wounded when a German flew right over us and dropped five bombs. They landed about fifty feet away from our boat. I thought sure and first we were hit. It scared the s*** out of me...'
Elaine also found a Bronze Star citation, something she had no idea even existed. It reads;
John W. Koziol, Sergeant, Medical Department, United States Army. For meritorious service as a medical technician on an LST from 6 June 1944 to 21 June 1944. During this period the LST on which Sergeant Koziol was stationed rendered uninterrupted service in evacuating wounded from the Normandy beach head. Sergeant Koziol was given responsibility for much of the splinting work and redressing of wounds. He labored tirelessly at these tasks as well as administering plasma, morphine and doing general nursing for the wounded. The LST made four complete trips during this period. During the second trip, the ship was subjected to German artillery fire from which one man was killed and six injured. During the last two trips difficulties of voyage were extreme. The sea was so rough that beaching was for a long time impossible and during the storm an LCT rammed the ship piercing its stern end. Sergeant Koziol demonstrated the highest degree of skill and devotion to duty. Many of the wounded were exceptionally difficult cases but he showed great courage and ability throughout. The actions of Sergeant Koziol reflict [sic] great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States. Entered military service from Rhode Island.
“I was amazed by what I saw and read. He never spoke about the war, in fact, to hear him even acknowledge that he served was rare. I wish we had more than one page from his dairy, I can just imagine the story it must tell. These guys were a breed apart," said Elaine.
Attorney Connelly recalls similar stories from many veterans he has helped through the years and those he continues to work with.
“It’s mind-boggling to think that the average age of our soldiers in that invasion were in their mid-twenties. Think about that, the age that most of our kids today are finishing college and looking for a job. Those kids were fighting to save the free world. What a debt of gratitude we owe them and of course, any man or woman who serves this great country,” reflected Connelly.
Connelly, who provides elder law services to multiple vets at the Providence VA, says we are losing these men at a rapid pace. “Sadly, friends of mine at the VA tell me that around 350 WWII veterans die every day and a decade from now, fewer than 50,000 WWII veterans will remain. They represent a great generation of Americans.”
And back in the Lehigh Valley, the Easton Express published a story in 2012 about a veteran named Harold Kist, who spoke about his experiences in Normandy at the St. Anthony's Youth Center. Mr. Kist was a rifleman in the 99th Infantry Division and according to the newspaper report, the center was silent as he told his story.
"The older I get the harder it is for me to control my emotions," said Kist, of Palmer Township.
Kist told of his return to Stavelot, Belgium, where he had fought. In a moment of reflection, he said, he stepped away from a ceremony to soak in his thoughts and memories. Two Belgians approached, hands extended, gushing with gratitude for providing liberty more than a half-century earlier.
"I was instantly overcome with emotion," Kist said. "I couldn't speak. I wanted to say something. I didn't know what to say. All I could do was clasp their hands."
Then he launched into a series of poignant questions…
If America faced the challenges and threats it did in the 1940s, would our nation respond in similar fashion today…I wonder.
Would 16 million men and women leap to defend their country?
Would we stick to the fight with 400,000 of our own dead?
Would we crank out on the homefront more than 90,000 military aircraft in a single year?
Would we be capable of rationing everyday goods such as food and clothing?
Would we limit our consumption of gasoline, sugar — virtually everything?
Would the public unite in support of our nation’s leaders? And would we actually believe what they had to say?
Would our commitment and resolve lead to a doubling of our gross national product in just six years?
Would that fortitude sustain fighting a global battle on no less than four fronts?
Would D-Day have been a secret, with 150,000 Allied forces in an armada of 5,000 vessels crossing the English Channel tasked with the mission of changing the course of the war?
Would we buy billions in bonds?
When all was said and done, would the world be a better place? I wonder.
Mr. Kist died at the age of 94 on December 14, 2017.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.