Monday, June 6, 2011

Just in case you forgot what happened sixty-seven years ago today

Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne.
 Of all the days in World War II, why does June 6, 1944 stand out so much, almost as much as December 7, 1941?

Just a few weeks after these photos were taken, my great-uncle, 1st Lt. Joseph P. Cronin, landed with the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry, Seventh Army near Saint-Raphaël, about 25 kilometers southwest of Cannes. They landed August 15. Just a few days later, after a relatively rapid and easy trek of 205 kilometers known as the "Champagne Campaign", Great-Uncle Joe lost his life when the Germans launched a vicious and effective counter-attack at Montélimar. And that wasn't the only bloody nose the Seventh Army suffered, as they punched and slogged their way into and through the Vosges Mountains, into and through Alsace into Haguenau, before the German Army finally collapsed and started surrendering in droves in April 1945. (You can read the history of the 141st IRT here.)

British 3rd Infantry soldiers at Sword Beach(?).
Yet there's something about the magnitude of the Normandy invasion that can't help but attract attention, even to the detriment of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fighting on other fronts around the world. The number of ships alone, from battleships to corvettes to landing craft of various types, alone is enough to boggle the mind: over 5,000, even before the LCVPs ("Higgins boats") are considered. In the words of the late historian, Stephen B. Ambrose, "It was as if the cities of Green Bay, Racine, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, were picked up and moved — every man, woman and child, every automobile and truck — to the east side of Lake Michigan, in one night."
Crashed American glider.

What made that logistical nightmare possible to begin with was American industrial might. In 1939, the US produced only 800 military aircraft total; by the end of 1943, with a sizeable percentage of men already in the military, the factories were churning out 8,000 per month of all types. Kaiser Permanente had perfected the application of the assembly line to shipbuilding; as gruesomely effective as they were, the U-boat wolfpacks literally could not sink merchant ships fast enough to prevent the invasion buildup. For the first time, the economy was making the fullest use possible of its available workforce, including women and minorities, which set the groundwork for later civil rights advances. As a result of this, even with generous deferments and demanding high standards for acceptance, the US military was still able to field multiple armies on multiple fronts.
Wounded men from the 1st Infantry at Omaha Beach.

The larger the operation, the more opportunities there are for things to go horribly wrong. The 8th and 9th Air Forces sent waves of medium and heavy bombers to blow the coastal emplacements apart; for fear of bombing too close to the invading ships, however, the bombers dropped their deadly loads too far inland to have any appreciable effect on the outcome. A combination of cloud cover, heavy anti-aircraft fire and inexperienced C-47 pilots meant that only one Pathfinder unit found its drop zone, with the result that 25,000 American paratroopers were scattered all over Normandy, often miles away from their objectives and the rest of their units. Scattered too were the landing craft taking the 1st and 29th Infantry in to Omaha and the 4th Infantry in to Utah; at Omaha, the sudden loss of unit cohesion combined with murderously well-placed fields of German fire stalled at least three successive waves of attack, and put the whole invasion into peril of failing.
Robert Capa's most famous image, from Life Magazine.

That it didn't fail was due, above all, to an uncounted, unknown number of company-grade officers and NCOs, most of whom will never be known, many of whose names decorate white marble crosses and Stars of David in the cemetery in St.-Laurent-sur-Mer, which overlooks the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach.

My great-uncle isn't there, by the way. After the war, the Army offered the option of sending his body back, which my great-grandparents accepted. He now rests in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha, Nebraska. Requiescat in pacem.