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The Oldest Man on the Longest Day

My wife and I recently returned from a visit to the D-Day beaches in Normandy.

Omaha Beach, one of 5 D-Day beaches.
Omaha Beach today.

The American invasion at Omaha beach was by far the bloodiest. Nobody knows for sure how many Americans died on Omaha but the consensus is that 90% in the first wave were killed or wounded. Same for the second wave.

This was largely because the amphibious tanks the troops relied on to clear the mines and concertina wire capsized in Omaha beach’s furious churn. Additionally, many GI’s drowned, unable to negotiate choppy, waist-high surf while wearing their heavy packs.

The most moving moment for us was seeing the Omaha Beach American Cemetery where over 9000 Yanks are buried, average age, 24.

Omaha Beach American Cemetery
Omaha Beach American Cemetery

Of particular interest was the grave of Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., eldest son of the President and recipient of the Medal of Honor. He is buried next to his brother Quentin, a pilot killed in WWI.

‘The oldest man on the longest day.’

soldier

Teddy Jr. was the only General to lead his troops ashore in the first wave on D-Day and, at 56, was the oldest soldier in the invasion. When he landed at Utah beach he realized that the current had carried the landing crafts more than a mile off course. Dodging hostile fire, he did a quick recon to determine alternate routes inland. He led his men off the beach with great vigor and bravado, then returned to guide the next waves of GIs as bullets and artillery shells continued to rain down.

Following another grueling battle in Normandy two weeks later, Teddy Jr. died of a heart attack. When General Omar Bradley was asked years later to cite the single most heroic action he had seen in combat, he said, “Ted Roosevelt on Utah beach.”

P.S. Code names: The British had a more formal system for choosing code names than the Yanks- the names had to be related to one another. Originally the British invasion beaches were code named Goldfish, Jellyfish and Swordfish. The brass in London said the names should be one syllable, so they were shortened to Gold, Jelly and Sword.

When the commander of the 3rd Canadian Infantry learned that he was going to have to ask his 14,000 young men to risk losing their lives on Jelly beach, he had a fit. The code name was quickly changed to Juno.

Published inD DayNormandy

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© Copyright John Knoerle 2015