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Lest We Forget …

June 7, 2017

By Jim Rhodes

Yesterday was June 6, which is remembered across America as D-Day. On that date in 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to launch the final phase of the land war against Germany. It’s also the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway in 1942, when – aided by intelligence from U.S. code-breakers – the American Pacific fleet rallied to defeat a much larger Japanese armada just seven months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Although by 1944 the U.S. Navy and Marines had accumulated a good deal of experience with seaborne invasion of the Japanese held islands of the Pacific, the scale of the Normandy operation was unprecedented.

As a former naval person, I stand in awe of the detailed planning and meticulous execution it took to move 150,000 soldiers and equipment to land on hostile beaches. The operational plan had to be meticulously choreographed so that everything happened in the proper order at the proper time. It boggles the imagination to imagine a fleet of 7,000 vessels steaming silently in tight formation across the English Channel in the dark without running lights.

As an aside, you may be interested to know that while D-Day is popularly used to refer to the Normandy invasion, it was actually a generic term used by Allied staffs in battle plans. D-Day and H-Hour was the designated time for kickoff of an operation. The timeline for all the intricate interconnected maneuvers leading up to the action were designated D minus 1, D minus 2, H minus 1, H minus 2, and so forth. Likewise the tactical objectives following H-Hour on D-Day were also timelined H plus 1, D plus 2, etc. This nomenclature made it easier to keep secret the actual calendar date for the operation, and also to allow for moving the date to the right or left as needed to adapt to changing conditions.

My father (a very junior Lieutenant JG at the time) commanded a gunship in the first wave of vessels leading the landing craft into Utah Beach. He kept his Top Secret copy of the operation order in an old yellowing leather briefcase in our basement at home for many years and gave it to me before he died in his 90s. Since the document was starting to decay, we agreed to donate it to the D-Day Museum in Bedford, Virginia. The museum made a photocopy of the document for me to keep. The document is about three inches thick. It’s a fascinating read. I wade into it every now and then.

One of his favorite stories was about the final briefing for commanding officers prior to the invasion. Until then, the actual calendar date of D-Day had been a closely held secret. After receiving their final orders, the COs filed out of the briefing room. A U.S. Marine with a sidearm fell in beside him as he walked back to his ship. He asked the Marine, “Are you here to protect me?” He answered, “No sir, I’m here to shoot you if you stop to talk to anyone.”

In a future post, I’ll share a few more of his Navy memories. Until then, I invite you to join me in raising a glass of your favorite beverage – my father’s was Scotch – in honor and remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of heroes who conquered their fear and answered the bell for all those D-Days. They’ve been called the Greatest Generation. For good reason.