Commentary: A year of great sacrifice


This week marked the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy (D-Day) June 6, 1944, in which American, British and other Allied forces stormed ashore to breach Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” in the battle to liberate Europe from Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Hitler had fortified potential invasion sites such as the Normandy beaches with thousands of steel obstacles and hundreds of thousands of mines to halt and destroy Allied forces at the water’s edge.

Leading the main assault around 6:00 am, Navy UDT (underwater demolition teams) “frogmen,” swam into the surf, often under heavy enemy fire to emplace demolition charges on underwater obstacles, clearing a path for follow-on assault troops.

Inland, between 1:00 and 1:30 am American and British paratroopers were dropped on each flank of the invasion forces coming ashore at five designated beaches, with the American forces assaulting Utah and Omaha beaches and the British and Canadians assaulting Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. The American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions assaulted the west flank in the Cotentin Peninsula while the British 6th Airborne Division and a Glider regiment secured the east flank of the invasion beaches. Glider troops were towed to their target area by aircraft, cut loose and silently glided onto selected targets, (such as vital bridges) making a crash belly-landing adjacent to their target. More than a few glider troops were killed during the landing before a shot was fired. Altogether, about 156,000 ground troops assaulted ashore that day with another 170,000 U.S. and Allied forces in 5000 ships and landing craft providing gunfire/support to ground troops. Private First Class Don Ellis, with the 82nd Airborne Division, parachuting onto St. Mere Eglise, was my uncle. He survived the war, making four combat parachute jumps and lived a long life, but not before being drafted again to serve in the Korean War.

Nazi resistance was fierce, pinning down Allied troops in places such as Omaha beach. By the day’s end, American forces had suffered 5299 killed: 2500 from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and 2700 lost by the 29th, 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions assaulting the beaches. The fatalities are low estimates and ever-changing; about 7000 allied troops were wounded that first day. By comparison, America has lost about 7000 killed and 52,000 wounded in 17 years of combat in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns combined.

The European campaign against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, starting from the Normandy invasion, began a period of continuous combat for American and allied troops in Western Europe and the Italian Peninsula. Major offensives, such as “Operation Market-Garden,” the largest airborne operation in WWII generated very heavy casualties. The Nazi counteroffensive in December 1944, known as “The Battle of the Bulge” inflicted over 100,000 American casualties (killed, wounded and missing) in just under a month.

Shortly after Normandy, the invasion of Saipan began in mid-June 1944 in the Central Pacific, followed by a series of major island invasions in which the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy bitterly fought to the death as American forces advanced closer to Japan.

The Marines and Army were engaged continuously in the Pacific with each and every battle more savagely fought than the last. The Japanese initiated their “Kamikaze” (Divine Wind) suicide tactics in the air and on the ground. Refusing to surrender, Japanese soldiers often chained themselves to machine guns to prevent their retreat or capture, fighting on under conditions that easily persuaded Nazi forces in Europe to yield.

On the island of Saipan the wholesale massacre of Japanese and Chamorro civilians began as Japanese propaganda persuaded women that if captured, they would be gang-raped by American Marines and then eaten, along with their children. Accordingly, hundreds of women with their children leaped to their death off 200-foot cliffs rather than surrender. Other groups feigned surrender but Japanese soldiers attached explosive satchel charges to civilians which were then detonated in mass when they approached close enough to American forces. My family lost a cousin on Saipan, Marine First Lieutenant Al “The Saint” Santilli. Before joining the Marines Santilli was the Fordham University football hero of the 1942 Sugar Bowl game. On Saipan, Santilli and his interpreter went forward attempting to direct a group of about 20 women and children to safety when Japanese troops hiding in a sugarcane field opened fire, killing Santilli, his interpreter and most of his machine-gun section. These tactics were repeated over and over on Saipan, smaller islands and in Okinawa. During the Okinawa campaign, Japan’s desperate suicide tactics continued, sinking 30 American warships, killing 12,000 American soldiers, sailors and marines in 10 weeks.

The savage resistance of the Japanese in the Pacific forced America to re-think invasion plans for Japan. The Japanese war council envisioned a national suicide of 100 million people rather than negotiate peace. They trained school-girls armed with bamboo spears for mass “banzai charges” on the landing-beaches, hid 10,000 aircraft, (5000 suicide planes) 500 suicide mini-subs and boats and fortified Japan with 5 million troops, twice the number we thought they had available.

The American people had endured great sacrifices during the first three years of our formal participation in WWII, suffering about 250,000 casualties, beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However during the last 15 months of the war, from May 1944 until the Japanese formal surrender on September 2, 1945, America suffered over 1,000,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing).

The Normandy invasion was of historic importance and unparalleled in military history but it also heralded in America’s bitterest year of fighting during WWII.

Al Fonzi

Atas News article 7 June 2019

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