June 6, 2019 –
The largest amphibious invasion force in the history of the world waited anxiously on the southern coast of Great Britain for days for the go-ahead of Operation Overlord, a daring frontal assault on the heavily defended coasts of Nazi-occupied Normandy. In the months leading up to the attack, military logistical efforts had reached a fever pitch as systems were established to move over 175,000 men to the beach on June 6, 1944. 75 years later at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, La., the men who were there looked back in disbelief at the scale of the undertaking.
“I thought England was going to sink from everything that was going on over there,” chuckled former U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate Third Class Tolley Fletcher, as he reflected on the time leading up to the invasion. “All the Soldiers and equipment were stacked everywhere you could see. There was a lot of excitement, and people were curious as to when and how effective the attack would be and we wanted to know what part we were going to take in it.”
With the invasion amounting to the equivalent of moving a small city, a massive support infrastructure was created for the coordinated strike. The plans for the invasion required not just an established beachhead on the ferociously fortified Normandy coast, but a sustained push to the interior of France and ultimately into the heart of the Third Reich. Within 5 days of landing, over 325,000 troops had landed on the beaches. Within a month, that number rose to over a million. The U.S Army Reserve supplied and coordinated a large portion of these units.
“Everything that we needed to supply those troops that were doing the fighting had to come from the support services to push forward against the Germans and that’s how we did it,” said Dr. Keith Huxen, Senior Director of Research and History at the National WWII Museum. “The Army Reserve made an invaluable contribution that can never be overestimated in Operation Overlord.”
WWII veterans from across the country convened in New Orleans for the 75th D-Day Anniversary, which offered unique events ranging from 1940s era vocal groups performing in front of specialized D-Day art exhibits to a film screening of the classic 1962 film that portrays the invasion, The Longest Day. The largest crowds, however, gathered for the panel of veterans who spoke to museum-goers about their experience that historic day.
Staff Sergeant Vito Mastrangelo, a squad leader in the 607th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company, sat on the panel and recounted his unsung mission of burying the dead from the first day of the invasion through the subsequent push into Paris and Belgium. “There’s a famous cemetery on the hill above where we landed now, but we couldn’t get up there for a week,” he said. “So we buried 468 right there on the beach. Three months later, in early September, we had buried 18,000.”
With the crushing death toll rising during the push into occupied France, Staff Sgt. Mastrangelo was forced to bury up to 150 Soldiers a day. Despite the carnage, the 607th demonstrated a sense of humanity rare in the chaos of war.
“When the Battle of the Bulge started we had to beautify the American cemetery because they were just simple wooden crosses,” he said. “But we also beautified the German cemetery in case the Germans broke through our lines, they would see that we also cared for the German dead.”
The event drew veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror, who all gave a standing ovation to honor their combat predecessors on the panel. Contemplating this generational gap, Airman Henry DuBay of the 12th Air Force, U.S. Army Air Corps looked back on a similar experience from his past.
“When I was a kid, I was introduced to some Civil War veterans, I knew about 20 of them,” he said to the hushed crowd. “It was a long time ago, and I hope the children in the audience will say when they’re 95 years old ‘I used to know WWII veterans.’”
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the veterans who were honored on the 75th Anniversary of the day they staked their lives in the defense of the free peoples of the world is the humble simplicity through which they viewed their gallantry. Now, Americans look back in awe at the Herculean strength and resolve they demonstrated that day and in the bloody conflicts that ensued afterwards during the final thrust to Berlin.
Gunner’s Mate Fletcher had a much more reserved take on that matter. “That was our job that day, and I suppose you can say we just did it.”