American, British and French armies, fighting through Africa, invading Italy, surrounding the chunk of Western Europe held by the Nazis.
They bombed Germany with regularity but knew they had to get a foothold on the continent before coming to grips with the Hun.
Russia was pounding on the eastern front and American soldiers were coming north through Italy, but everyone knew the real fight would come when troops that had been gathering in England crossed the Channel to confront German power on the beaches.
The allies had been building up for months, waiting for the right time to hit the Axis with all they had and without letting the enemy know when or where, along 800 miles of coastline.
Preparations for Operation Overlord were ultra-secret. A fake army set up in England by Gen. George Patton had inflatable rubber vehicles and misleading manufactured radio traffic, aimed at making Germany believe the attack would come somewhere else.
The British gave a dead-man new life, or at least the appearance of one, to fool spies in Spain into believing the attack would come at Cherbourg.
There were scares. A valet in the British embassy in Turkey told Germans of the invasion date, but they didn’t believe him and rewarded him with counterfeit money. The London Daily Telegraph, by coincidence, used Overlord and four other invasion code words in its crossword puzzles in May.
Two allied military leaders separately mentioned the date in casual conversation—and were sacked. An Associated Press flash notified the world on June 3 that invasion had begun, but by the time it got to the Independent on June 4 the Ashland newspaper knew that the transmission was a clerk’s error.
Most Germans believed the attack would come on what Churchill called “the soft underbelly of Europe”—the French Riviera. It was no wonder, because American aviators dropped tons of bombs on coastal strongholds, particularly Marseilles, where Suzanne Figueire’s grandmother’s house at Toulon was hit by a 500-plane squadron that included Quentin Lockwood as an airman.
On June 4, in unrelated warfare, the U.S. 5th Army captured Rome on its way up the Italian peninsula. That same day John H. Via Jr., in civilian life an accountant for Ashland’s power company, went for a long jeep ride along a flashlight-marked road through England. He and two other paymasters distributed $2.25 million to soldiers headed for France.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower originally set the date for June 5, based on tide and weather expectations, but unfavorable conditions brought a 24-hour delay. That night the armada steamed eastward, but before they left, “Ike” went aboard the USS Texas and told the crew—including electrician’s mate Charles Sinnette—They would be assigned to shell defenses at Omaha Beach.
First came the minesweepers, followed by 5,000 ships of every description. They steamed toward five code-named beaches—Omaha and Utah for the Americans, Juno Gold and Sword for the British.
The Sun broke through an overcast sky an hour before dark, opening the way for air cover and for the initial invaders—members of the 82nd and 101st paratroop/glider outfits who jumped behind German lines.
Some hit right on top of the enemy and were killed or captured immediately.
Robert E. Lee Thompson of Flatwoods was a radioman aboard a C-47, a small transport airplane that made two trips over Normandy on D-Day. “We dropped the 101st Airborne at St. Marie Eglise—12 paratroopers and one officer each time, and each one had 120 pounds of equipment. The engineer and I had to get six parapaks of supplies out the door.”
As shown in the movie, The Longest Day, some troopers landed in trees, on a church and even in a well. The most treacherous site had been planned by Rommel, who flooded much of the lowland ahead of time, creating a massive marsh-trap.
Morris Craft, who would later become a barber in Ashland, said his first look at death came while still aboard the ship. “They had planned on calm water, but a breeze came up and the water got rough. The landing craft would drift out and bang back into the side of the ship, crushing soldiers.”
Others jumped out of the LTSs into deep water and their hundred-pound loads pulled them beneath.
“I was in the Second Infantry, a medic,” Craft said. “We went in Omaha on the second wave. We had been briefed all night long on the ship. If we don’t make a beach head, they won’t be able to get supplies to us, food or anything. It scared the daylights out of every one of us. When a man got killed, someone else would take his food, sometimes his paratrooper boots.”
Craft’s job was to treat the wounded on the beach and get them back to the ships, so he wasn’t involved in rushing the cliffs ahead. “It was all confusion. I saw guys hide behind two bodies. Planes were coming in, and fire from the big guns on our ships, along with machine gun fire from the enemy coming right down on us. I saw those men, so brave, go up that hill.”
The troops worked inland from the beaches, meeting strong resistance but pushing the defending Germans back, back, day by day, for the following year. But with each foot forward, some boy lost his life. . . .
One week after D-Day, Quentin Lockwood was a crewman aboard a B-24 flying northward to Munich. It lost one of its four engines as it reached the target and ran out of fuel on the way back. “We had the option of bailing out to become POWs or crash-landing in the Adriatic. The crew chose the sea because we knew there was air-sea rescue off the east coast of Italy, out of Ancona. All 10 of us got out, although the pilot had to crawl back in the plane to bring me out—unconscious from landing in the water. We floated out there about six hours.”
There was some good news. James Irwin, reported missing on D-Day, cabled home five days later: “I’m all right, would like some mail.”
An after-action report from the U.S. 1st Army said 1,465 Americans were killed that first day, 3,184 wounded, 1,928 missing and 26 captured.
The 82nd and 101st lost a total of 2,499 men killed, wounded or missing.
Canadians suffered 335 deaths and Britain lost 2,500 to 3,000 casualties.
German General Erwin Rommel said by the end of June he had lost “28 generals, 354 commanders and approximately 250,000 men.”
It took three weeks for Craft to get to St. George, evading hostile fire, mines, and unusual death traps. “The Germans were smart. They stretched piano wire across the roads and caught drivers in Jeeps with their windshields down. We started welding a rail up front on the Jeeps to break the wire.”
“Later, a lot of men were getting killed, alone, and we couldn’t figure out how until after three days we found the fire was coming from a sniper in a well box, firing through cracks between the boards. He’d only shoot at singles so no survivor would know where he was. Our BAR man ripped well box and all to pieces when we found out.”
“The Germans would drop in infiltrators wearing U.S. uniforms and talking good English. Word got around not to sleep out at night, to stay in a foxhole. I dug my foxhole next to a barn and couldn’t stick my head up. It poured rain and water off that barn filled my foxhole. We never got a bath, wore the same clothes two months. When seven or eight of us finally got in a pool at St. George, the scum off our bodies made it look like buttermilk.”
Craft kept a diary a few days “but it got so rough I stopped. I remember the first time I saw a man hit with a hardwood bullet, in a bell tower at St. George. He was dead when we brought him out.”
“The worst thing is to have a battle in hot weather. Fourteen of our men were killed, laying there swelled up and turning black, and I was assigned to get their bodies to the rear. A group of black soldiers came to remove them and thought they were black men who had been killed upon the line.”
Oakley Fannin of Flatwoods got to England six months ahead of D-Day with a responsibility for loading troops and directing traffic. “They came into our camp, we put ‘em in a space and they got ready to go. They trained so they’d know what to do when they got there.”
Jim Ward, a railroad engineer when he entered the Army, waited in England with a shipment of a thousand locomotives. They crossed the Channel, but had to back off until coastal guns could be silenced by Sinnette and other sailors aboard the Texas.
The dreadnought took two major hits when the shore batteries opened up, one taking out the ship’s bridge.
Ward and his crew ended up driving French locomotives into the continent.
But before they could move far, the 351st Engineer Battalion, with at least 13 men from around Ashland, had to repair the rails and bridges. We landed on Utah Beach on Aug. 16,” Henry Sparks recalled.
They had been trained to build bridges from trees at hand but ended up installing a wartime invention, the Bailey Bridge.
Allied forces effectively broke out of the Normandy sector by July 25, 50 days after landing. It had not been easy.