JUNE 6 MIGHT not mean much to people these days. Maybe it’s one day closer to a summer vacation or time to mow the lawn.
June 6 means something else to what we call the “Greatest Generation,” the men and women who served in the armed forces during World War II.
They are described in the book “Citizen Soldiers” (1997, Simon & Schuster) by author Stephen E. Ambrose as “high school or college students who invaded France on June 6, 1944 as liberators not conquerors.”
They were part of the invasion of Normandy, known as Operation Overlord. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, designed to drive the Nazis out of northwestern Europe.
It began at 6:30 in the morning along a 50-mile front on the coast of Normandy with 175,000 Allied troops landing on five beaches that had been fortified from a sea-borne invasion by Hitler’s Gen. Erwin Rommel.
Most of these troops had one thing in common: They did not want to be there. They were hoping the Russians and the Germans would have wiped each other out by then so the Americans wouldn’t have to. This had not happened despite the genocidal slaughter of Stalingrad, Kursk and other battles on the Eastern Front in 1943.
Resigned to do their duty, the American boys figured they were going to stop the Germans from taking over the world, and they did.
Seventy-four years later there are still a few D-Day veterans around. It is my privilege to know one of them and call him my friend.
Pete Peterson of Forks arrived off Omaha Beach some time after noon on June 6. It had been a rough journey from Wales where his 2nd Division had been training. The seas were so rough in fact the invasion had been postponed for a day already. Any further delay would have stalled the landing another two weeks because of the tides.
This would have blown the secrecy and given the Germans more time to move in re-inforcements, so Gen. Eisenhower made one of his most difficult decisions of the war when he decided to go ahead with the invasion despite the weather.
Peterson said there was so much smoke in the air from the artillery and bombing you couldn’t see the beach from a mile away. At the time things were not going well on Omaha Beach. An Allied bombing raid missed the German shore defenses, hitting some cows further inland.
For a time, Gen. Omar Bradley considered getting the troops back off the beach. Then the Navy came in close to shore and began shelling the Germans.
Peterson went ashore. He was a medic. His job was to get the wounded to an aid station where they could be treated. He started gathering the wounded under a large tree that served as a landmark. As luck would have it, the first patient he lugged in was the biggest guy in the unit.
On D-Day the progress of the Allied invasion inland was measured in yards. German artillery observers could call in accurate fire on the Allies from a hill 30 miles away.
It took two weeks of fighting to reach that hill.
The war was far from over. Peterson’s 2nd Division went on to participate in five campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge during 337 days of combat that took them 1,750 miles and into Czechoslovakia by the time the Germans surrendered.
Then Peterson was chosen for the invasion of the Japan. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan ended WWII. Peterson returned to Forks where we remember D-Day to this day.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected]