One of the most iconic moments in United States history occurred 66 years ago today: the amphibious assault on the Bayeux region in Normandy, France which began the Allied invasion of Europe (‘Operation Overlord’) in World War II.
Late the night before on June 5th, several airborne divisions landed behind enemy lines and got into position for the main assault the following morning. Early in the morning on June 6, 1944, 5,000 vessels carrying over 160,000 Allied soldiers (nearly 75,000 Americans) landed at various beachheads along the northern French coast. Though it was by no means the beginning of American involvement in World War II (we’d already fought in the Pacific and North African theaters), it did represent the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
A whole host of factors came together in a perfect storm to make the D-Day landing a success, including: Hitler sleeping late because he was coming down from the moral equivalent of a crystal meth high, a brilliant fake-out involving General George S. Patton and a cardboard army in southern England (‘Operation Quicksilver’), and a daring assault involving a 100 ft. climb up a rocky cliffs under enemy fire.
Though there are many cool stories surrounding the D-Day invasion, I’d like to tell you of one in particular that struck me as extra awesome. Pointe du Hoc lay directly between the American-assigned Omaha and Utah beaches on the western edge of the Allied assault. There, on a ridge overlooking the sea was a large fortified battery of German artillery with a commanding view of the entire invasion force. After a bit of pre-invasion bombing, Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder (a Texan) led a force of Army Rangers up a100 foot steep, rocky climb under fire to directly attack the enemy artillery position. Rudder lost half of his men in the initial assault, but after capturing their objective held off enemy counterattacks for two days until American soldiers from the Utah beachhead fought their way to the point. ‘Rudder’s Rangers’ ultimately suffered 70% casualties (Rudder himself wounded twice), but accomplished a pivotal objective in the Normandy invasion which helped the largest amphibious assault in history to succeed.
Rudder went on to become one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, and also served as the president of Texas A&M University – my alma mater – from 1959-1970 (the main auditorium and meeting room complex at A&M bear his name).
I had the opportunity to visit the Bayeux and Caen area on a long weekend during a study abroad trip in the summer of 2004 (I missed the 60th anniversary ceremony by just a couple of days), and it is a beautiful area. The rich history of a united Allied effort against a tyrannical dictator and an oppressive fascist permeated the beautiful rural region, which still bears the scars of naval and aerial bombardment.
So whether you love history or Texas Aggies, or don’t care about either, please join me in remembering and honoring the heroism that 66 years ago today helped establish the freedom in which we as Americans now live.