FIRST-PERSON: D-Day & the price of freedom
ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) -- June 6 will mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe known as Operation Overlord. The first stage of the operation was the D-Day invasion of the Normandy coastland of France.
At dawn, on what has been dubbed The Longest Day, Allied troops embarked on the largest amphibious assault in military history. Throughout the day approximately 160,000 troops stormed some 50 miles of beach in an effort to gain access into German-controlled France.
Young soldiers poured out of landing crafts tossed by rough seas. Estimates were between 85 to 95 percent of the first wave of troops were killed within the first 10 to 15 minutes of landing on the beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
By day's end, the Allies had landed some 156,000 troops on the blood-stained sands of the Normandy beaches. More than 4,400 Allied soldiers died that day, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, including 2,499 Americans. Nearly 8,000 Allied soldiers also were wounded.
One young soldier who survived the carnage of D-Day was Carl Praeuner, who landed at Omaha Beach with Company K of the 16th Infantry Regiment. Omaha and Juno Beach were regarded as the bloodiest of the D-Day landing sites.
Praeuner's D-Day experience was recently recounted by the Omaha World-Herald on its Omaha.com website.
"I decided to zig and zag to make less of a target," Praeuner wrote years later. "I did see the sand kick up just in front of my feet, but nothing hit me."
"Praeuner vividly remembered reaching the ridge. He stepped on a mine. Luckily, his foot slipped off without detonating it," the World-Herald recounted.
"But a mile inland, Praeuner stopped to set up his mortar at the edge of a ditch to take out machine gun nests. Nearby, he saw someone squatting in the tall grass. Moments later, he saw a puff of smoke. A bullet ripped through his leg, from his knee to his crotch," the World-Herald continued. "Praeuner's buddies left him in a field, sure that medics would arrive shortly to take him to an aid station on the beach. No one came."
"I prayed most of the night while tracer bullets flew just over my head," Praeuner would later write. "I was so grateful that I had been raised in a Christian home."
Several years ago I came across the letter Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, wrote which was given to every young man involved in the D-Day invasion.
Thinking about the young men who died, who were wounded, who endured the trauma of the assault and sacrificed so much for the cause of freedom, I was in awe when I first read the letter:
"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
"Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
"But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
"Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
Dwight D. Eisenhower"
The D-Day letter occupies a prominent place in my office and I can see it as I write this column.
I read Eisenhower's letter often to remind me that freedom is anything but free. The young men who fought during D-Day did so for the cause of freedom, to stop a fascist dictator from taking over the world.
An average of 413 veterans of World War II die every day, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Only about 1.2 million of the 12.2 million Americans who served in the war are left. We must never forget their sacrifice and service.
I also read Eisenhower's letter when I think I'm having a bad day. It reminds me that my worst day is a picnic compared to what those young men endured on the beaches of Normandy.
"Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends," Jesus was quoted as saying. The Allies of World War II sacrificed and many laid down their lives so the world then and now could be free.
On June 6 take time to remember those who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Their sacrifice gained access into Nazi-occupied Europe and helped the Allies win World War II.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention's office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).