The North Bend Eagle


 

D-Day commemorated

Congresman Jeff Fortenberry
Released 6/13/14

On the night of June 6, 1944, President Roosevelt came on the radio to tell Americans that the greatest battle of their time had begun. America held its breath and her people lifted their eyes to heaven to pray for those who were hitting the beaches an ocean away in a place called Normandy, France.

Along Normandy’s hilly coastline at a place called Omaha Beach, the future of civilization hung in the balance. Young American soldiers were given the assignment to land in the face of a ruthless, well-trained Nazi enemy. As their Higgins boat troop carriers opened, machine guns fired and mortars fell from well concealed German bunkers. Some soldiers drowned before making it ashore. Others died instantly in the hail of gunfire. As General Omar Bradley said, “Six hours after landing we had ten yards of beach.” But somehow, inch by inch, these brave young men, fighting through the storms of bullets, managed to secure the beachheads.

Along Omaha Beach, the future of civilization hung in the balance.

I had the special privilege of representing America at Omaha Beach for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. It was an extraordinary occasion to honor those who sacrificed their all for us, and to greet the veterans who had returned. The formal ceremonies were held at the American Cemetery which sits atop the hill at Omaha Beach. It is a fitting resting place for our fallen. Orderly rows of white crosses and Stars of David align in beautiful formation, bearing the names of those who died--or of those known only to God. The cemetery holds forty one sets of brothers, a father and a son, and 97 Nebraskans.

Unlike the day of the invasion, the day of the commemoration was beautiful, calm and blue skied, with a warm gentle sun covering the lush green hillside. The veterans in attendance—most of whom were over 90 years old—were in good cheer, eager to tell their stories and happy to be so honored. As one veteran said to us, “I haven’t been here in 70 years. Much better reception this time!”

Private Lawrence Brannan told me his story. “I was in the Third Wave that hit the beach at 7:30 a.m. Fierce resistance held us back. The general on the beach said we should turn around. But Eisenhower sent us in. If we hadn’t gone in, you’d be speaking German.” Private Brannan had only one hand – he lost his other on the beach.

Floyd Hayley of South Carolina joined when he was 16. He was a medic on a landing craft that reached Utah Beach. “I considered it a privilege and an honor to be a medic,” Floyd told me. “I felt like I was taking care of the heroes.” His childhood friend Ed Teagel joined him for the commemoration. They had entered the Navy one month apart. When I asked how they had answered the age question on the enlistment forms, they responded: “Very creatively!”

Guy Benza was wearing a special medal on his uniform that caught my eye. It was awarded to him by the French, and called the Legion of Merit. He came into Omaha Beach at about 8:00 am. In a reminder of what it was really like, Guy said, “Everyone was throwing up on one another.” He made multiple supply runs to the beach in his boat that day.

One military historian described the German fortifications as “a string of pearls along the coast” and emphasized the fearless determination of the defenders. So much went wrong: missed paratroop landings the night before, overcast skies complicating air cover, and rough seas. The battle consisted of five attack points with the Americans at Utah and Omaha Beaches, the British at Sword and Gold Beaches, and the Canadians at Juno Beach. Omaha turned out to be the toughest.

There are 9,387 Americans buried in our cemetery above that beach. Some killed that day; others later in the march to liberate France. At the ceremony, President Obama said: “Whenever the world makes you cynical, think of these men. Whenever you doubt that courage and goodness aren’t possible, think of these men.” President Hollande of France added: “France will not forget what we owe these men.”

Henry Doncheski of Tekamah was able to make the trip. He landed at Normandy and fought all the way across France into Germany. I met Henry last year during the Veterans History Project where he told me his story.

The commemoration of D-Day had another personal significance for me as well. In August of 1944, my grandfather left his wife and two children for the war in Europe. He was an Army Captain, and a medical doctor. In November of 1944, he was killed in France by a land mine. He was initially buried at the cemetery at Sainte-Mère-Église, one of D-Day’s key battlefield sites, and he is now interned at Arlington National Cemetery. I want to personally thank the Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal Star, and the Norfolk Daily News for writing very special articles on the celebration and the life of my grandfather.

There is much more that could be written: as you can imagine, it was pretty special to be there. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have participated in this most solemn ceremony of remembrance.

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