This morning I was moved to tears as I watched the 90-minute ABC News broadcast from Portsmouth, England. The 75th Anniversary tribute to D-Day veterans was filled with the kind of pageantry that the British do so well, attended by world leaders and surviving World War II veterans of the battle that raged on the other side of the English Channel, the invasion that was credited with changing the course of the war.
Tears also came easily in 2018 when I visited the Normandy landing beaches, the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, and the impressive Caen Memorial. I learned much about D-Day during that trip, and more about our country’s part in World War II. But I also learned how much I did not know.
I was born into a world at war, but I do not remember it. My father, who also was born into a world at war some 25 years earlier, left when I was barely a month old, not to return to the United States for another 18 months. He was in England and on duty on D-Day, stationed at Honington in Suffolk, with the 364th Fighter Group of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. He seldom spoke of the war, almost never of D-Day, but flyers from that group participated in 321 sorties from June 6 through June 15, losing only one plane, according to unit records.
Learning from the records
Early on June 5, a group of 50 P-38s took off from the RAF base on what was listed simply as a support mission. According to the unit’s history, what was then termed “Neptune,” was air support for an invasion fleet that had already left the English coast.
I had not previously realized that my father was actually a part of D-Day.
“The average line pilot and the crews had little, if any, advance knowledge of the massive buildup of allied ground and sea forces being assembled in the south by General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander.”
The 364th Fighter group had arrived in England only in February; the first mission was flown about one month later, on March 2, 1944. The primary task was to escort bombers, provide air support, and aid with “bomber withdrawal.” But, early in June, things were different. A special briefing was held at 1 a.m. on the morning of June 6.
“When the bombers and the planes pulling the gliders blanketed the skies over the base, the men were surprised and awed but quickly ‘caught on’ as to what was happening. It was a sight never to be forgotten by those viewing it.
“The Group’s three squadrons became an integral part of the invasion of the continent until regular missions resumed on June 16. ‘Neptune’ called for constant, around-the-clock air support of the sea lanes and invasion approaches to protect the allied forces from the Luftwaffe. To accomplish these area patrols, the squadrons divided their pilot rosters into sections and planned to fly three missions per day (nine total for the Group), weather permitting.”
Returning to “business as usual”
The Group’s mission log reports that on June 16, “Normal combat operations resumed,” and pilots continued to escort bombers to their targets all across Germany.
The massive D-Day assault was carried out with 1,200 aircraft and more than 5,000 vessels. Approximately 160,000 troops crossed the Channel on a single day. By the end of August, more than two million allied troops were in France; Paris was liberated on August 25. By the end of the month, the German Army had withdrawn to territory east of the Seine, and Operation Overlord was deemed complete. Although the war would not end for nearly another year, D-Day is considered the pivotal factor in allied victory.
It occurred to me as I watched the ceremonies in Portsmouth this morning that there is only one world leader left who has personal knowledge of World War II: Queen Elizabeth. She noted that her father and predecessor on the British throne, King George VI, had said in his address to his nation on D-Day that the undertaking would require:
” . . . something more than courage and endurance.” He called for “a revival of spirit, a new incomparable resolve.”
She also added that “the wartime generation — my generation — is resilient,” but acknowledged that “the fate of the world” depended on the success of those young men who were a part of the D-Day assault.
Paying tribute to uncommon courage and resolve
How true. At the tribute ceremony this morning, it was said that approximately 300 veterans of the D-Day Landing were in attendance. There are not many left; those who are are nearly 100 years old. The battle cost a lot of lives, and the intervening years have taken their toll. Indeed, there are less than a score of men still alive who served with my father in the 364th Fighter Group.
The 364th was one of five fighter groups that made up the 67th Fighter Wing during WWII, and the last to actually arrive in England; it was officially disbanded after the war.
My father was not a pilot, but he loved those airplanes, and following his retirement from the U.S. Army, after almost 30 years of service, he obtained his private pilot’s license. He is not here to shed tears with me today, but I have no doubt that he would have watched this morning’s ceremony with great interest, remembering that day so very long ago, and those airplanes, with a mixture of pride and regret.
I remember it now — for him and for all the others who were called to serve in those troubled times, those who perished and those who survived.