D-Day + 66 years – This Day in History, June 6th

Today is a big day for me as an (amateur) historian, a Texas Aggie (whoop!), and as an American.

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.

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San Jacinto Day and Aggie Muster – Today in History, April 21st

This Day in History:  April, 21 – San Jacinto Day, Aggie Muster
Today is a very cool day for me in several different ways – first as a Texan, second as an Aggie, and third as a nerd an amateur historian.

As a Texan, April 21st (1836) is a momentous day because it marks the victory at San Jacinto for Sam Houston and the Texas Army, effectively ending the Texas Revolution.  You should definitely read the full article on Wikipedia (it’s actually pretty good), which you can find here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_San_Jacinto .  Just in case you’re more devoted to my blog than history, I’ll give you a brief run-down on what happened and why it’s awesome.

http://thesafiles.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/alamo_at_night3.jpgMexico and ‘Texians’ (American settlers in the Mexican territory of Coahuila y Tejas) were increasingly at odds until armed conflict broke out at Gonzales (the ‘Concord and Lexington’ of Texas – google that if you don’t get what I’m talking about).  Anyway, the Texas Revolution begins a war of independence from October 1835 until April 1836.  After several conflicts of note, the Mexican army under their president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (several thousand soldiers) surrounded and besieged the Alamo at San Antonio de Bexar (modern day San Antonio) on February 23, 1836.  For thirteen days the small force of 180-200 men inside the Alamo held off the Mexican Army bombardment and small skirmishes, eventually losing a main assault early in the morning on March 6th.  During that siege, a delegation of Texans drafted and signed the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2nd (Sam Houston’s birthday, coincidentally).

After the Alamo, Santa Anna split his force into several prongs in order to try to find and eliminate the Texas Army under Sam Houston.  Over the next month and a half, Houston continually retreated to the east (toward the Houston area) so that he could train his men and consolidate his ragtag military and engage the Mexicans on a good battlefield – this is what we know as the ‘Runaway Scrape.’  On April 20th, two prongs of the Mexican Army (Santa Anna and Cos) caught up with the Texas Army at the San Jacinto River.  The Mexicans expected the Texans to retreat again and did not prepare to attack.  To their dismay the Texans mounted a surprise assault in the mid-afternoon on April 21st and completely defeated the larger Mexican force in about 18 minutes.

Santa Anna disguised himself as a Mexican private and was captured immediately after the battle was over, hoping to escape the attention of the Texan leadership.  He was discovered and brought to Sam Houston who had suffered a gunshot wound in his ankle and was laying down at the time.  Houston exchanged Santa Anna’s freedom for Texas’ independence, ending the Texas Revolution and establishing Texas as a sovereign republic.  Therefore, April 21st, 1836 is an awesome day for all Texans.

Now, as an Aggie, this day also holds a very special significance because it is the day on which we hold a celebration called ‘Muster’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muster_%28Texas_A&M_University%29).  On April 21st (because of the immense importance of San Jacinto Day) Aggies all over the world get together to commemorate current and former students who have passed away in the previous year.  Loved ones gather during the ‘Roll Call of the Absent’ and as a list of the names of the deceased is read, their loved ones answer ‘here’.  It is a solemn time of celebration and remembrance, and one of the most moving traditions at A&M, of which there are many.  ‘Silver Taps’ is another similar tradition where students silently gather in the Academic Plaza on the A&M campus the first Tuesday of every month to honor current students who have died in the past month.  A special harmonized rendition of Taps is played and then a 21-gun salute is given for the deceased.

If you care to perpetuate the stereotype that A&M is a cult, please do so in an educated fashion by refraining from commenting until after you have studied up on what the traditions actually mean – you can find them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditions_of_Texas_A%26M_University .

Thanks, Gig ‘Em, and Remember the Alamo.
– nj

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