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by William H. Benson

June 3, 2004

     It was 60 years ago this Sunday—on June 6, 1944—that D-Day for Operation Overlord began.  From 600 warships and 4000 smaller vessels poured 176,000 troops onto the beaches at Normandy called Utah and Omaha.  Like a bell gonging, that day sent a loud message all the way to Berlin to Hitler and his gang of imbeciles and thugs that the hours and minutes and seconds were ticking away and that soon his vision of reconstructing Germany in tune with the Nazi party platform would end, forever.

     From a distance of sixty years, there seems now to be a return to the idea of military romanticism, that war is a good thing because it brings out certain virtues among the soldiers—the ability to focus on the job, learning to trust your fellow soldiers, and accomplishing together worthwhile goals.  The reality of what happened after D-Day was different, messier.

     In a new book, The Boys Crusade, Paul Fussell describes what it was really like to be in the U.S. Army from June of 1944 until May of 1945 when the war in Europe ended.  These infantrymen endured “bad planning, inadequate training, poor weapons, uninspiring superiors, desertions, self-inflicted wounds, and ever-present fear.”

     Many of these boy soldiers, still in their late teens, suffered from culture shock because they knew little about France, other than the wine and the women.  And then they were not told why they were fighting.  To them it was just another European war that chewed up young men.  One soldier said, “A thousand years of unending quarrels behind them, and they are still fighting.”

     Much went wrong.  On July 25, 1944 Allied troops were pinned down at Normandy, and then American bombers bombed and killed 111 American G.I.’s, wounding almost 500 more, by mistake.  Then, 40,000 of the 100,000 German soldiers at Normandy somehow escaped deeper into Europe through the Falaise Pocket in northern Normandy, even though the accompanying battle was especially vicious.

     General Eisenhower surveyed the damage afterwards at that Pocket and said, “It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but the dead.”  Many were German soldiers, but many were American boys.

     Even worse was the November of 1944 Battle of Hurtgen Forest where 120,000 American soldiers fought, and 33,000 were killed or wounded or went mad.  Fussell described the “unmanly” battle scene: “unordered flight and even rout; flagrant disobedience; bursting into tears; faking illness; and self-inflicted wounds.”

     Then, the dreadful winter of 1944-1945 meant one thing for 45,000 American soldiers—trench foot.  If they recovered from that, they then faced Germany’s counteroffensive—the Battle of the Bulge—which claimed an additional 19,000 American lives.

     But to be most pitied were the troop replacements—bright, young, college students who were dumped onto the front lines into battle-hardened platoons.  “In their infantry companies, they were buddy-less and shunned as almost dangerous strangers.  These embittered replacements were a pitiable group, lonely, despised and untrained, deeply shocked by the unexpected brutalities of the front line and often virtually useless.”  Frightened, friendless, and unprepared, they were often killed in their first battle.

     From the ground, the war looked hopeless, pointless, never-ending, a comedy of errors, without any justifiable reasons for fighting.  And then those boy soldiers from points all across America walked into the Nazi slave camps and stared at the scrawny people and the ovens, and suddenly they knew the significance of their mission.  They were on the side of right, of justice and morality.  An American major said, “Now I know why I am here.”

     D-Day is now synonymous with righting wrongs, with a change in the tide of affairs, and with a correcting swing of the pendulum.  But to get from D-Day to Hitler’s suicide meant a year of death, carnage, overpowering fear, and human sacrifice for thousands of American boys.