It’s been 75 years since American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, in the largest land, sea and air invasion in history. D-Day gave the Allies a long-awaited foothold in Europe, and its success led to the continent’s liberation and the end of World War II.
About 160,000 men took part in the June 6, 1944, invasion, about half of whom were American. The U.S. suffered tremendous casualties that day, but their valor will never be forgotten.
Three-quarters of a century later, a dwindling fraternity of men who survived that day and the rest of the war remain. While they’re in the twilight of their lives, they’re still willing to tell the stories they’ve carried with them all these years. Here are three.
AAt 19, Army Air Corps pilot Richard Heyman was one of the youngest men in the sky on D-Day. Unlike the naval and land forces, they’d been at war over Europe for months. But this day was different.
“This was the first time we had troops on the ground that we could try to protect,” the now-95-year-old Oregon resident said, remembering the day vividly. As a 364th Fighter Group P-38 Lightning fighter pilot, his mission began as an escort for the 101st Airborne Division. “We flew with the C-47s and C-46s and gliders. …They had to make their drops at about midnight.”
It turned out there was little to no opposition from the skies on D-Day. Instead, Heyman and his fellow fighter pilots were forced to watch the battle unfold as paratroopers landed in the dark.
“There was enough light reflected that we could see the white nylon parachutes. There were just thousands of them — they saturated the place. But they suffered terrific casualties,” Heyman said of the paratroopers. “You just can’t describe the valor. … They were dedicated to their mission.”
Hours later, Heyman was in the air again when the seaborne invasion began.
“[There were] these battleships sitting out in the English Channel firing their 16-inch guns, and we’re sitting there, you know, flying back and forth, and you would look over and see this tremendous puff of smoke coming from these battleships. We would look over and see where the one-ton shell was exploding,” Heyman said.
“We were over the beaches. We could see the ships that were going in to land. We could see them blowing up,” he continued. “We could see the troops … running, trying to protect themselves and … trying to approach those cliffs they knew they had to climb.”
“We didn’t dare strafe the beaches,” Heyman said. “We didn’t want to hit our own troops.”
While he didn’t get to engage with any enemy fighters that day, he was proud of the entire mission’s accomplishments.
“If we had not done this terrific thing of freeing Europe, we would still be under a yoke,” he said, referring to the oppression of German rule.
In one word, 94-year-old Navy veteran Vernon Lingle described his experience at D-Day.
“Hell,” he said. “Because that’s what it was.”
Seventy-five years ago, Lingle was a 19-year-old steering one of about 2,700 flat-bottomed landing boats that ferried soldiers to the shores of Omaha Beach, the first stretch of land that troops reached that infamous day.
“It was daybreak, and we were out there cruising down toward the beach, and the bombers and the ships with artillery and all that — you could see the flashes and the bursts of the bombs,” Lingle remembered. “We were supposed to be in the first wave … but there was so much fire, I guess … they called us off and sent us back out.”
That change in orders may have saved his life. Most of the men on the first wave of boats were killed before they even touched sand, slaughtered by German mortars and gunfire. Lingle’s first delivery to shore was not nearly as bad, but it was certainly problematic.
“By that time, the tide wasn’t like they really wanted it, so we got stuck on a little sandbar,” Lingle said. He was tasked with running to the ramp and, with an anchor and shovel, implanting a rope that soldiers could hold on to when they got out. But that plan was quickly nixed. “The water ahead of us was about [4 feet] deep. … I got called back. I know it was a good thing I did because that shell burst was what was killing a bunch of people in the water.”
Many of the early landing craft carrying tanks for troops had the same problem. Most of the critically needed vehicles sank before they reached shore. But eventually Lingle’s boat delivered their first load of troops, then went back for more all day and into the night. He said there wasn’t much time to be scared, although he was.
“We had a job to do, and we was doing it,” he said.
The high price his fellow service members paid that day has never been lost on him.
“Seeing all those guys laying on that beach dead,” he said — that’s what’s stuck with him. Of the roughly 160,000 Allied troops to land at Normandy that day, more than 9,000 of them died or were wounded. Most were Americans.
“I feel lucky every day of my life,” Lingle said. “And I praise God every day that I’m able to stand here in front of you all.”
Army Cpl. Bob Fagan doesn’t like to dwell on his time as a 19-year-old infantryman storming Utah Beach all those years ago.
“I used to not want to think about it,” he said. “If you get it in your mind and keep thinking about it, it will run you crazy.”
But he knows the history is important, so he told it to us. Fagan was part of the Army’s 299th Combat Engineers, a unit tasked with removing underwater obstacles and mines from the beach on D-Day.
“We were trained with explosives to go under the water and tie explosives there and then set them off … so we could get on the beach,” Fagan said.
But when the day came, it didn’t go as planned.
“When we were approaching the beach, one of the guys was seasick” and couldn’t perform his duties, Fagan remembered. “So, they moved me on his side.”
“Our boat was, I would say, 100 yards out when it was hit by German artillery … The guy that I replaced — he was killed,” Fagan said, pausing. “That stuck in my mind. I was lucky there.”
But there was no time to dwell on it. The boat’s ramp failed to open, so they had to bail out.
“We jumped in water neck-deep and lost all our equipment. The water was red with blood,” he remembered. “We were lucky we didn’t get killed because there were bodies floating all around us.”
When the soldiers finally made it to shore, they used their helmets to dig for cover.
“We dug a foxhole, crawled in it and stayed for a day and a half, because the Germans were in a pillbox … where they couldn’t see us,” Fagan said. The soldiers were stuck there without food or water. “Artillery finally knocked the pillbox out where these Germans were hiding, and we manage to get out, so we started drifting on through from one little town to another.”
From that point, Fagan’s job was to clear mines and blow up bridges to keep the Germans off the beaches.
“I remember one time we went to [one town] and there was a church steeple, and there was a paratrooper hanging up there. They shot him as he paratroopered out,” Fagan remembered. “That was terrible to see.”
A few months later, Fagan was captured and spent six months as a German prisoner until the war ended — but that’s a story for another time.
Seventy-five years later, Fagan, Lingle and Heyman spend their days bowling, playing with their grandkids and enjoying the quiet moments.
And they remember those who were lost.
“There was a lot of sadness involved. We recognized it when we came back home and would run into parents of fellas who had been lost there,” Heyman said. “Their sons had done a great job — they had done more than their part. They were heroes.”