Hunker Down

Published: Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 09:19 AM.

            The 82nd Airborne paratroopers were “dropping in” behind Utah Beach in the dead of night, into a foreign land, into hostile enemy territory, into a battle zone to disrupt the German communications and to stop these support troops from getting to the coast. Not much to ask of some teenagers, is it?

            The 101st Division was doing the same thing behind Omaha Beach. No one had to tell them their actions would greatly impact the landing forces poised and ready for the invasion. Lives depended on them. The mission depended on them. Those German reserves had to be stopped!

            As in most battle situations, there was a snag or two. The men were scattered from here to yonder. Some had been caught up in trees. Some were drug through the flooded fields by uncooperative chutes. One paratrooper, John Steele, got hung on a church steeple. The thick hedgerows hampered maneuverability. There was no home base or assembly hall. The “chain of command” in the cold, damp, enemy ridden darkness was not overwhelmingly present. The men gathered in small groups of two or three, four or five……took their bearing as best they could and set out to liberate France.

            By 4:30 that morning these young soldiers had captured the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. They had located and wiped out the main German communication center for the region. And they had isolated and were digging in to defend the few precious bridges over which the Germans planned to rush their tanks and reinforcements to push the invading Americans back into the English Channel.

            The fighting was horrific on June 6 for control of these passageways. It was face to face and hand to hand in some instances. No quarter asked and none given!

            I tried to picture it from 69 years after the fact as I rode across one of those historic bridges, still in tack, at La Fiere, France. It was small and narrow with just enough room for a tank or a heavy artillery truck to pass over. This bridge guarded the western entrance into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a crossroads from which the Germans could have spring boarded to Utah Beach.

            I stood on a slope above the bridge and “pictured” as best I could the three days of intense fighting that occurred across the fields surrounding this very same bridge. I listened for the gunfire, the calls for help, the bombs bursting in air. I raised my nostrils into the wind to catch a lingering whiff of the ever present smell of fear and death that once permeated this battlefield. I lowered my head and gave thanks from a grateful nation.

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