D-Day 70th anniversary
HUNTINGTON -- It would take more than the passage of 70 years for Paul Stansberry to forget they day he stormed Omaha Beach along the coast of Normandy, France.
The Peebles, Ohio, native was all of 19 years old when, as part of the 467th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, he was one of 160,000 Allied troops to push forward and step off of the 5,000 ships that carried them across the English Channel and into Normandy on Tuesday, June 6, 1944.
"We no sooner come off of the LCT (landing craft tank) than we were running," said Stansberry, now 89. "I guess one of the bad things was several of us were laid on top of a hill in foxholes, and some of us prayed to get shot right then because we knew what was coming.
"But, we made it."
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied Forces' invasion of the heavily guarded French coastline to fight Nazi Germany soldiers, in which more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in the first move of Operation Overlord to overcome the Nazis and retake control of Europe.
He is part of the Greatest Generation, and year after year, as the men and women who fought in the war pass away, so do their first-hand accounts of World War II.
Today, Stansberry splits his time between a home with his wife in Gallipolis, Ohio, and another in Florida, but he vividly remembers all of the experiences that came in the immediate years following his 18th birthday on April 25, 1943.
"The minute I turned 18, I was in the military," he said. "I was overseas for two years, and I spent the better part of a year training when I got into the military. I was in Fort Eustis, Virginia. The better part of my outfit was from St. Louis. I met them at Camp Shanks, New York, and Fort Dix is where we caught the boat in January."
Stansberry said he and his unit trained in England for months leading up to the invasion, including a couple of practice invasions on the English coast.
Allied troops first set sail across the channel on June 4, but the rough waters forced them to turn around.
"I think a lot of people don't realize the invasion was scheduled for the 5th of June, not the sixth," Stansberry said. "We got halfway across the channel and had to turn around and go back. We laid overnight and came back the next day.
"I didn't hear much or see much of anything before we got to the beach because it was dark. This was part of the invasion, so we didn't broadcast anything."
Once he got to the beach that he estimated was about 300 feet wide, it was up to the troops to take over a half-mile hill occupied by Nazis.
"I don't really know how to tell you other than we were fighting a war," Stansberry said. "We were fighting enemies. We had to edge roads to get across, and the hill we had to climb was full of machine gun nests. We lost an awful lot of tanks and equipment and an awful lot of people on the first day."
Even though Stansberry battled through the tedious first day, he can't help but to hold tight to his memories, his photos, clippings and correspondence from the war in concern that letting them go would mean they would be lost forever.
He talks about his closest call with death during the war, when planes began to bomb his camp in France on July 29, 1944.
"That was the one time I really was scared and worried because I came off the gun, and I was running for my foxhole," he said. "My buddy, who I hunted with when we were over there, said, 'Get your butt in here, or you're going to get hit.' I jumped in. When it was all over, we walked over to my foxhole, and there were two anti-personnel bombs in the bottom of it."
In total, 3,000 troops died on Omaha Beach, where Stansberry landed, and he aims to make sure that day and the war effort that followed isn't soon forgotten.
"I would say probably about 40 percent of kids in school don't have any idea where we made the invasion or when," Stansberry said. "If you try to tell them the things I'm telling you, they don't believe you."
D-Day legacy today
William Palmer, professor of history at Marshall University, said he thinks students are aware of the importance of the invasion, even if they don't come into class with a lot of knowledge of the day.
Palmer said he approaches the subject by talking about the day before the invasion.
"Eisenhower was told by his weather man that there are perfect conditions for the invasion, but it will only last for 18 hours. Perfect conditions won't appear again for another month," Palmer said. "Eisenhower has to make the decision if the weather is worth putting 200,000 men across the channel and in harm's way.
"I always ask students if they would want to make the decision," Palmer said. "I say I would chicken out. It's too risky. But it's a good thing Eisenhower was making the decision and not me."
David Trowbridge, associate professor of history at Marshall University, said students care and show interest, but they don't know much about D-Day in their entry level classes.
"In a class of about 90, only a few will know about D-Day," Trowbridge said.
Trowbridge said this is because students graduate from high school with little knowledge of World War II, knowing about Germany and Japan, but with a timeline that makes it seem America won the war by itself.
Trowbridge said it is important to understand D-Day to understand how America fought the war.
"They would be shocked to find if D-Day failed, there would have been another," he said. "One battle would not lead us on a different path, because we had already decided to free Europe."
Still, Stansberry said he holds on to hope that his stories and the stories of the thousands of men who stormed the 50-mile stretch of French coastline in 1944 aren't lost on young people today, who themselves were born more than 50 years after the invasion.
"I don't want it to be forgotten, because we all went through so much," he said. "With all the hell we went through, and what we did, it would be a shame to see it all go down the drain."