The news pages are filled today with D-Day anniversary messages and accounts. It’s 80 years ago. So we’re at the outer rim of time where anyone there that day must be in their late 90s at the youngest. The thing that seems most important to remember is that it was not clear that it would work. The death, the fear, the terror, the sacrifice all take on a certain hue and logic because we know it was a success that would open the door for the reconquest of Europe. But that wasn’t clear at the time. You’ve probably seen references in the anniversary stories to the message Ike prepared to announce the landing’s failure.

The other thing is that everyone who rushed on to those beaches that first morning was a sitting duck. The Germans had had years to prepare. The first waves of soldiers coming off the landing craft into hip or chest deep water were in the open and undefended, rushing into gunfire from soldiers in heavily fortified positions. As the landing craft advanced through the shallows they were stalked by mortar fire. Men injured in the water quickly drowned. It wasn’t the deadliest battle in World War II or American history. But the first waves of soldiers on the beach it was rushing into gunfire with no place to hide. A shocking number died in the chaos and confusion of water and weather.

This 1960 account in The Atlantic by the famous military historian S.L.A. Marshall gives a account of the chaos of the landing, companies ending up far from their intended zone, cut to pieces on the beach and often leaderless, simply drowning in the surf. As he put it, in the initial post war accounts, “the worst-fated companies were overlooked, the more wretched personal experiences were toned down, and disproportionate attention was paid to the little element of courageous success in a situation which was largely characterized by tragic failure.”

The company Marshall follows through the first paragraphs of the article is Able Company. About thirty minutes into the assault about 2/3rds of them are dead or dying. Many have been forced to toss guns, helmet, shoes in the scramble to stay alive and afloat in the water. Marshall counts two men from Able Company who were actually able to contribute to the fighting that day after they joined up with a more intact company.

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