WASHINGTON, June 6, 2011 — About 300 U.S. Soldiers, most of them combat veterans themselves, joined their British, French and German counterparts in Normandy, France, to honor the sacrifices of World War II veterans who conducted the D-Day invasion 67 years ago today.
The troops spent the last few days visiting key battle sites during the mission code-named Operation Overlord: the beaches 160,000 troops stormed on June 6, 1944, during the largest amphibious invasion in world history; and St. Mere Eglis, the first French village to be liberated by U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Division Soldiers, among them.
Throughout the visit, where they received briefings about the history of the sites and got a firsthand look at the tactical challenges Allied forces faced, the troops participated in D-Day commemorative ceremonies and met veterans of the invasion.
Today, they took part in ceremonies at Ponte du Hoc, the formidable cliff-top perch west of Omaha Beach that U.S. Rangers assaulted; and Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five D-Day landing beaches.
“Getting the chance to be here has been an amazing opportunity,” Capt. Ted Jacobs, executive officer for the Army Reserve’s 345th Tactical Psychological Operations Company in Dallas said by phone as he waited for the Utah Beach ceremony to begin. “Seeing what these veterans had to go up against — the terrain, the weather situation, the wet, the cold, being in fear of their lives all the time — it really does help you understand the challenges they had to deal with.”
Jacobs is among about 150 Army Reserve paratroopers with the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, with headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C., participating in Operation Airborne Normandy, a mission that is bringing together U.S. and European forces for commemorations and interoperability training.
Other U.S. participants include active-duty Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg; 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team at Vicenza, Italy; 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.; and riggers from the Army Reserve’s 824th, 421st and 861st Quartermaster Companies and U.S. Army Europe’s 5th Quartermaster Detachment.
One planned event, a combined jump involving more than 700 U.S., British, German and French paratroopers, has been canceled twice due to bad weather. Participants are hoping the event may take place tomorrow, conditions permitting, to enable every paratrooper who jumps with another country’s jumpmaster to receive that country’s jump wings.
Meanwhile, the Soldiers called the chance to meet with veterans of the D-Day invasion the highlight of the visit.
“I feel honored to have the opportunity to come out here and meet them face to face and shake their hands and say thank you,” said Sgt. Nathaniel Bier, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom serving with the 301st Psychological Operations Company. “That is one of the best things I will always remember about this trip.”
With two combat deployments in Afghanistan under his belt, Jacobs said, he gained a new appreciation for the odds the Allied forces — including his own father — faced during Operation Overlord.
Then-Sgt. Thomas Jacobs jumped into Normandy during the D-Day invasion, but has spoken little of the experience except to describe it as “godawful” until recent years.
“We grew up basically with the understanding that we didn’t ask questions about that,” his son said. “He was one of those veterans who just wanted to forget.”
Bier shares Jacobs’ personal connection to the D-Day visit: his great-grandfather, who died before Bier was born, took part in the invasion.
“My father really looked up to him,” Bier said of his great-grandfather. “So he was even more excited to hear that I was coming here than I was.”
Walking the beaches, seeing the formidable terrain and standing the ground his great-grandfather helped to liberate has given Bier a special appreciation of the magnitude of what happened in Normandy. Pausing to reflect on it, he admitted, “I had to stop myself from tearing up, because it’s so powerful just to be here.”
Bier said he’s been particularly struck by the courageous leadership the D-Day noncommissioned officers demonstrated in the face of adversity.
“I don’t know how some of those sergeants kept going, how they kept their people motivated as they were coming off the boats, and how they kept them moving forward,” he said. “My hat is really off to those sergeants.”
Jacobs said he, too, stands in awe of what the D-Day veterans accomplished, and declined to compare it with anything he has experienced in combat.
“I wouldn’t even dare to hold a candle to what those guys did,” he said. “Certainly, what we are doing in Afghanistan is at times very difficult and dangerous. But what these guys went through, there is no comparison. Ours is a counterterrorism fight, so there are brief moments of intensity, but nothing to even come close to the scale of events that happened here.”
Walking the hallowed grounds where many made the ultimate sacrifice “has given me a deeper appreciation for the legacy that has been left to us by the greatest generation by these Soldiers who came over here and did what they did,” Jacobs said. “It further solidifies the fact that I do not ever want to betray that kind of legacy, and want to continue to build it and maintain what they have carved out for us.”
A high school math teacher in the Dallas public schools in his civilian life, Jacobs said he intends to share the experiences he’s gained at Normandy, like those from Afghanistan, with his students.
“All these values from the military are just common core good-citizenship skills and behaviors that these children desperately need, particularly those from the inner city,” he said. “So I incorporate everything I can from my experience in the military.”
“What it means to serve instead of always looking out for yourself or putting yourself first, [and] thinking about putting others before yourself and service to the community and country,” he said. That is just a core theme in my classroom.”