Some years ago, I spent a summer vacation in Northern France. We stayed in a small hotel on the coast and I clearly remember walking along a wide, buff-colored beach in the early morning sun. It was warm, the sky was blue, the ocean calm and the sand was almost deserted apart from a few families scattered here and there below the low bluffs, above which seagulls lazily circled. It was an idyllic scene but, 75 years ago tomorrow, it would have looked very different.
At that time Germany was in control of most of Europe. The bluffs above the beach were festooned with barbed wire, protecting big gun emplacements and numerous machine-gun nests, while at the tideline, steel, concrete and mined wooden obstacles stood waiting for any unwary craft that came near them.
The craft did come, many hundreds of them, each carrying dozens of young Americans. These were soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division and that morning they landed on the beach that, by the end of the day, would have earned the name "Bloody Omaha."
This was D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the Allied invasion of Europe was on. The landings had started in the dark hours just after midnight when around 15,500 men of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions dropped from the skies into the darkness of the Normandy countryside.
These paratroops, along with their British comrades, spread chaos among the German units along the coast, helping to prepare for the 156,000 allied soldiers who poured ashore from the numerous ships and landing craft.
In some places these seaborne warriors found little resistance, some of the Canadian troops were already pushing inland within an hour of the landings, but for the 34,250 men who stormed on to Omaha beach the situation was different. Here, only two tanks made it ashore and the artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire from the well-prepared enemy positions was devastating.
Around 4,500 of the invaders became casualties that day with almost half of them falling on Omaha beach. Among those who made the ultimate sacrifice were several from West Virginia and the initial casualty list of those killed in action bore 38 names from all over the state, although there were hundreds of other Mountaineers who were there, of course.
One of the first to land was Sergeant Clifford Carwood Lipton, a native of Huntington. He served as jumpmaster on a C47 and parachuted into the swampy fields of Normandy with the rest of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the unit made famous by the HBO series "Band of Brothers.'
Lipton landed in darkness away from his drop zone but soon made contact with other members of his unit. He was in action all through the long day that ensued and, as nightfall came he'd earned a purple heart after being wounded by shrapnel and a bronze star for his actions in silencing an enemy artillery battery at Brecourt Manor. He fought on throughout the rest of the war, earning two more purple hearts and a second bronze star as well as a battlefield commission. He finished the war as a First Lieutenant and passed away in 2001.
Lipton wasn't the only West Virginian jumping into the unknown that night. Harrison Summers of Rivesville in Marion County was with the 502nd Regiment of the 101st Airborne and his unit swiftly seized their objective. Summers was then tasked with capturing a group of buildings. These proved to be a German barracks and with just two companions Summers attacked them. Five hours later he'd captured them, killed 31 of the enemy and sent many more running for their lives. He was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor at the time and again after his death in 1983 but received the Distinguished Service Cross instead. He too finished the war as a First Lieutenant and spent the rest of his life working in West Virginia's coal mines.
As dawn broke and Lipton and Summers were fighting near the Normandy town of Carentan, Pierre Gunnoe from Boone County was with his unit, the 5th Ranger Battalion, in a landing craft approaching the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach. This was the most heavily defended sector of the whole invasion coast and the unit started to take casualties before they came ashore at around 6:30. The survivors reached the beach and stormed a pillbox to open the way for the waves of men behind them. Gunnoe was lucky, he received a minor flesh wound but the rest of his unit suffered more than 75 percent casualties. Gunnoe was to be wounded another 4 times and passed away in 2000.
These were just three of the West Virginians who took part in the invasion 75 years ago, there were many others from the Mountain State who played their part too. George Wehrle, for instance, was a seaman aboard the heavy cruiser USS Tuscaloosa. He didn't land in France that day but he left a diary detailing the aerial assault and how his ship moved in toward the shore to provide supporting fire for the ground troops despite being targeted by enemy shore batteries.
Vincent Di Bacco from Tucker County wasn't in the first waves of the assault, he was a medic who landed on Omaha Beach with an engineering battalion around 10:00 a.m. He later described the scene that met his eyes as "something from hell." The assault troops were pinned down all along the shore line, the mortar and machine gun fire was incessant and there were so many wounded he worked non-stop until well into the night. Di Bacco was lucky, he survived the war, as did his two brothers, who also served.
Hundreds of West Virginian natives were there seventy-five years ago. Unfortunately most of them have gone to a better place now but their deeds will be remembered tomorrow. President Trump will be taking part in the commemorative services as will members of the Royal Family and representatives of the governments of many of the countries whose men and women played a part in freeing the world from tyranny. Once again the boats will come ashore and the planes will roar overhead, one of them carrying at least two men in their nineties who will be making tandem jumps with the British parachute display team and who last parachuted into Normandy in 1944.
Many years have passed and the world is a different place, but it's different because of what these men did and so it's only right that we should remember them on this anniversary of their sacrifice. Remember them and those who continue to serve to ensure we keep our hard won freedom.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.