Veteran Moe Anderson shares his memories of where he was on D-Day with other veterans at the Pines Village Retirement Community on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 7, 2014 6:03AM
Seventy years ago today, Allied forces unleashed history’s largest amphibious military invasion against Nazi Germany that dramatically changed the course of World War II. And the world.
After months of rumors, secrets and strategies, the historic date of June 6, 1944, finally arrived — D-Day, code in the U.S. Army for invasion day. The massive assault, Operation Overlord, has since been called the “longest day.” To this day, it still rings true.
Under the heavily defended cliffs of Normandy, once-beautiful French beaches — dubbed Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword — became infamous battlefields.
Armed with weaponry, ammunition, grit and cigarettes, U.S. troops faced relentless enemy fire, thousands of land mines and fatal miscalculations. It was a gruesome early morning scene of blood, vomit and body parts.
Thousands of soldiers were killed before even reaching the beaches, swallowed by the sea. Thousands more died on the shoreline, easily gunned down by Nazi gunfire. Many more infantrymen floated dead in the water without firing a single bullet.
It was nothing that military leaders had planned or what most Americans had hoped for.
Back home, the long-anticipated news of the invasion slowly rippled across the Atlantic Ocean through wire and radio reports. It reached Northwest Indiana several hours later that same day.
“I’ll never forget that day,” recalled Gilbert Hancock of DeMotte, a U.S. Air Force plane mechanic who served Uncle Sam at the end of World War II.
Hancock was still a student at Lew Wallace High School in Gary, which interrupted classroom time to announce the news. Everyone marched into the school auditorium. A prayer was said. A moment of silence offered. A hush fell over the school.
“History was being made that day and everybody knew it,” said Hancock, an ROTC cadet at the time. “We also knew that many of our soldiers would die that day. Almost everyone had a family member serving in the war. It was all very somber.”
With the privilege of history-book retrospection, we now know it was the beginning of the end of World War II. A turning point to victory and, almost a year later, to V-E Day, signaling the end of the war in Europe.
On D-Day, however, without the reassuring convenience of hindsight, Americans had no assurances about their future.
“We only knew we were in danger of losing our way of life, our freedom, our country,” Hancock told me. “Nobody knew the outcome for sure.”
Just a few years earlier, many Americans were fiercely against getting involved in another conflict after still reeling from World War I. But such criticism ultimately faded away as Nazi Germany flexed its military might and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
“At that point, everyone was joining up to serve our country,” said Jim Estep, who was serving with the Merchant Marines in the Pacific theater on D-Day.
“If you were an American, it was the only thing to do,” said Dick Abel, who was learning to understand Japanese while stationed in California with the U.S. Army.
“That was all that mattered, joining the fight. Period,” said Maurice “Moe” Anderson, who was serving in the South Pacific with the U.S. Navy.
Earlier this week, I sat down with Estep, Abel, Anderson and two other WWII veterans at the Pines Village Retirement Communities in Valparaiso. They brought old magazine stories, battleship records, dusty photos and crystalized memories about D-Day.
“We were more concerned with the warfront against the Japanese — we hated the Japs — but we knew how important that invasion was in Normandy,” said Al Terzes, who was serving with the Navy on the USS Essex in the Pacific.
“We knew we would never be able to go back home unless we won in Europe,” said Bill Biddinger, who was serving with the Army Air Corps in Burma.
There, he helped build a 400-mile road to transport troops, supplies and war refugees.
It was monsoon season and his unit had little radio contact with the outside world. But word of D-Day reached even them.
Al Wiseman was stationed in Africa, training with the Navy for the invasion of southern France. German prisoners of war came off the ships taunting him and his mates.
“They told us we lost the war,” he recalled. “We just laughed at ’em.”
Abel heard it over the base’s public address system in Monterey, Calif.
“We all stopped our Japanese language class to listen,” he said.
Anderson was serving on an escort carrier, the USS Petrof Bay, in the Pacific. Updates of the invasion came to his ship in waves.
Terzes, who manned an anti-aircraft machine gun during battles with Japanese kamikaze pilots, heard news of the invasion over his ship’s PA system.
“The captain told us directly,” he said. “And then we went back to our own war.”
Terzes’ high school sweetheart (and current wife), Peggy, cut out newspaper clippings about any D-Day news.
“We weren’t told too many details at first,” she said.
“We just knew it was so very important,” Wiseman added.
Younger generations of Americans have experienced nothing of the kind, they all agreed. Except for, possibly, the flash of patriotic fervor in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Leading up to D-Day, patriotism was extremely high,” Estep said, choking back emotion.
“I’ve never seen anything like it since,” Anderson added.
“What a massive and incredible effort America put out on D-Day, at home and abroad,” Biddinger said, wiping tears from his eyes. “It was so ... mighty.”
“We were all one,” Hancock said. “One nation, all on the same page. Even though it was the worst of times, it many ways it was the best of times. That’s how I’ll always remember D-Day.”
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.