Honoring D-Day

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE Seventy years ago today, U.S. troops crouch down in a landing craft as they approach Omaha Beach. These troops came from everywhere - from farmlands to factories to banks.

EXACTLY 70 years ago, 100,000 Americans (joined by 80,000 Allies) were the dice rolled in Operation Overlord - the code name for the invasion of France.

Supported by 1,200 airplanes and 5,000 warships, American, British and other forces boarded transports on the coast of Britain to land on the barricaded beaches of Normandy. The largest sea assault in history was a frightful gamble because the Wehrmacht was crouched and waiting behind Hitler's bristling Atlantic Wall.

Where did America find such men?

On the farms and in the factories. On the campuses and the athletic fields. On the prairies and in the mountains.

Cattle drovers and cabdrivers. Teachers and tailors. Bankers and barbers. Musicians and milkmen. Each a precious life pledged to a noble cause. Most survived, many did not.

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower's D-Day message to the troops warned that the enemy was well-armed, well-trained and would fight savagely. He was right. The message prayed for victory, it did not assure it.

Casualties were expected to be high, and they were. Soldiers who at daybreak scrambled into Higgins boats to assault one of the five landing beaches - Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah, Omaha - knew they might be dead by dark.

On deadly Omaha Beach - a bog of fatigue and fear - casualties ran up to 60 percent for the first wave. Every other man died.

Where did America find such men?

I found one of them here in Philadelphia. Like almost all of the D-Day troops, he is now at eternal rest. He was Fred Sherman, the financial commentator on KYW Newsradio with the trademark sign off, "This is Fred Sherrrrrrrrman."

We had several conversations about his service, which he wore lightly, without braggadocio. I believe he spoke for many, if not all, who survived D-Day.

A Ranger attached to the 82nd Airborne, the All-American Division, he wasn't just there on D-Day. He was over France before D-Day, on June 4, June 5 and then on June 7.

A navigator/radar specialist, on June 4, he was on a C-47 painted as black as the night sky to drop Rangers and Free French to disrupt German communications. Aircrews "were told we had a 50/50 chance" of survival, Sherman told me. "The guys that we dropped, they weren't told what kind of a chance they had. Most of them were out of uniform," meaning they'd be shot as spies if captured.

That flight turned out to be easy, no flak. He was above France on the night of June 5, dropping paratroops to attack German positions. On June 6, "We pulled gliders. It was a complete disaster."

The gliders "got slaughtered" when dropped right in front of German artillery.

There were many disasters on D-Day, as was shown in the 1962 movie, "The Longest Day."

Probably the most realistic, terrifying and gruesome depiction of men hitting the beaches was 1998's "Saving Private Ryan." Some drowned, some were blown up, some were cut to ribbons in the landing craft or on the beach. The living advanced.

When things went wrong, troops improvised, sometimes with brains, sometimes with balls.

On June 7, luck ran out for the 20-year-old Sherman. On a mission to drop six huge bundles of supplies to ground troops, "We got shot up pretty bad." Every member of the crew was hit and Sherman was hospitalized.

Because of the flak, only four bundles were dropped. The pilot said they were going back in to drop the remaining two bundles.

"You're crazy, we're gonna get killed," Sherman told the pilot, who wheeled the plane back into the antiaircraft fire.

"We got hit again, pretty bad. But we got rid of the two bundles," Sherman said.

D-Day was a turning point in the war in Europe. It was not the first, but it was the last. After D-Day, the Germans were back on their heels, fighting defensively, running out of ammo and out of hope.

About 11 months after D-Day, Hitler took his life in a bunker and Germany surrendered.

Thanks to the men of D-Day.

"We were assigned a mission, we were assigned a job, we did the job with little bulls---. We just went out and did it," Sherman said.

Where did America find such men?


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