The crusade of liberation

“We must go unless there is a real and very serious deterioration in the weather” are words that echo down the corridors of time from nearly 70 years ago as of tomorrow, June 3. More poignant from June 6, “You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” These words are of course from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1944, when the Allied Forces planned and executed the invasion across the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy in northern France to liberate Europe and defeat Nazi Germany during World War II. Commonly known as D-Day and a turning point in the war, but with great loss and suffering, it is an anniversary date that should not be forgotten by the every-day American citizen. It is certainly not forgotten by the families who personally had a relative storm one of the beaches.

According to The National Museum of WWII, the “D” used in the term “D-Day” is an alliteration or code designation of the word “day,” just as the letter “H” is used for “hour,” both of which are used for any important military operation. Additionally, plus and minus signs, such as D-4 or D+7, mean four days before a D-Day and seven days after a D-Day. Consequently, any major assaults have had their own D-Day, or important operation dates. The museum notes that in World War II alone, there were also D-Days for the Pacific, North Africa and Italy. Nonetheless, due to eventual success leading to the end of the war, most people associate “D-Day” as the event solemnly remembered this upcoming week. Officially part of “Operation Overlord,” the beginning of the assault by Allied Forces to liberate Western Europe, “Operation Neptune” refers to June 6, 1944.

The fall of France in 1940 to Nazi control and occupation came at a great price. The balance of power in Europe changed and gave Hitler strategic points along the Atlantic coast of France. As stated in the book “World War II The Definitive Visual History,” French citizens were deported to death camps and hundreds of thousands were forced to work in Germany for the German war effort. “France suffered 90,000 dead and 200,000 wounded, and 1,900,000 soldiers had been taken prisoner or were missing one quarter of the country’s young male population.” The war continued in Europe with Germany’s “blitz” and bombardment of British cities in 1940-1941, and the United States entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. From the outset, it was understood that Germany could only be defeated by Allied Forces entering mainland Europe and from the same book, “Preparations should be made for an invasion of Europe across the English Channel and that there would be a build-up of US forces in Britain for this purpose.”

The beaches of Normandy were chosen as the invasion and liberation sites. Five were selected and codenamed Sword and Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Omaha and Utah (American). With relatively less German resistance and other conditions, the beaches other than Omaha achieved quicker success and had fewer losses. Its cliffs, underwater obstacles and heavily defended beaches caused great loss. More exposed to the weather, many tanks sank off-shore and those men who made it to the shore were “pinned down on the beach.” One survivor, quoted in the “Definitive Visual History” book, said, “I didn’t have any idea of how deep it would be and it took me a while to find my feet.” He described helping a fellow soldier in the water by pulling him from under a ramp in the water from being steamrolled by the landing craft. Out of the surf, a mortar shell landed behind him, killing and wounding nearly the entire mortar section. He said, “Germans are shooting at me. Bodies lay still. Some were crawling as best they could. Others tried to get back to their feet, only to be hit again by enemy fire.” As noted in the book, while attempting to secure this beach area, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed or injured.

A more personal account of surviving “D-Day” and Omaha beach comes from the father of Fredonia resident Marsha Merkling Sullivan. Recounted in greater detail four years ago through this column in, “The Story of a D-Day Survivor,” Robert Merkling’s World War II experiences included “Bloody Omaha.” Although he was too young, but having few friends left at home, he decided to change the birth date on his birth certificate, making him 17 when he enlisted during WWII. Merkling, a member of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, was among the first to hit the beach under sniper fire. His battalion, in advance of the first wave of infantry troops, was in charge of armored bulldozers to clear invasion paths through the network of German-built beach obstacles. Half of the 299th Engineers were killed or wounded on Omaha Beach.

Part of an account of Robert’s war experiences summarized by his granddaughter Danielle Sullivan states that the invasion of Normandy was scheduled on Robert’s 18th birthday, but was postponed until June 6. He arrived by ship to the shores of Omaha Beach. The ships could not pull up to the shore, so they had to wade in. Some soldiers couldn’t get the dynamite off of their extremely heavy packs in time, and they drowned. Some close friends drowned, but there was no way anyone could have helped them. They had about 30 minutes after landing because of the rising tides to clear the beach of any obstacles. Suffering heavy casualties, the battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic work done on the beaches. Merkling was also present at the Battle of the Bulge at Remagen Bridge. Here, he had once recounted, “The German shelling attack had begun, and I immediately hit the ground. I lay silent and scared until it was over. I stood up and told the others that it seemed safe. I shook the men on either side of me, but they did not, would never move. I had lost two friends; one a very good friend from home.”

Discharged in 1946, Merkling lived until 2004. He occasionally commented to his daughter Marsha that his safety may have come from the Bible he always carried in his breast pocket. He represents just one of the many personal stories of heroism, most known only to individual families.

Make it a good week and take the time to hear and cherish these eye-witness accounts. Like Memorial Day, remember the significance of this June date in our nation’s history. Our nation helped free others from the “freedom of fear” as said by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eisenhower said, “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.”

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