At 3:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, Peter Fantacone was feeling queasy. He and his fellow sailors had spent the last few hours crossing the dark, choppy waters of the English Channel on a cramped landing craft, trying hard not to think about the grave danger that lay ahead. What the 18-year-old navy radioman saw next did little to settle his stomach. Two LCIs (Landing Craft for Infantry) that had been flanking his vessel were hit by German artillery fire, pitching bodies into the surf and staining the ships’ decks with blood. Concussive thuds thundered in the distance and the sky above was filled with explosions and screaming projectiles. These days Fantacone, now 81, remembers the scene as a “thousand Fourth of Julys rolled into one.”
Today we honor his bravery and the sacrifices made by the thousands of other American, British, and Canadian troops who took part in Operation Overlord, the Allied offensive which liberated northern France from Nazi rule and set the stage for the final push on Berlin. More than 70,000 soldiers, including 30,000 Germans, lost their lives during the two-month campaign, which began 63 years ago today. The idea for an invasion of western Europe had been discussed by the British as early as 1940, but pressure to act was ratcheted up a notch in 1942 by Josef Stalin, who wanted a second front opened against Hitler in order to relieve his bleeding and beleaguered Soviet armies.
Dwight Eisenhower chose June 5 as the day the operation would begin, but a patch of bad weather prompted him to delay it for 24 hours. The Allies divided Normandy into five beaches which they codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword, and Juno. Mr. Fantacone and tens of thousands of other American GIs were tasked with securing the first two. If you see a WWII vet today, shake his hand and offer a word of thanks.