They were unimaginably young, exchanging high school for the horrors of war. These are the soldiers' stories.
At 0227 Hours, June 6, 1944, Lt. Bob Mathias, a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, was riding in a C-47 Dakota over the English Channel, headed towards Normandy. The red light, the signal to get ready, went on over the open door of the plane. "Stand up and hook up!" Mathias called out to the 16 men behind him as he stepped up to the door, ready to jump into the night. German antiaircraft shells were bursting all around him and German machine-gun fire -- green, yellow, red, blue, white -- arched through the sky. Below him, Mathias could see a hay barn burning just outside the village of Ste-Mère-Eglise. Behind him, Mathias could hear his men calling out, "Let's go, for God's sake, let's go!" As the machine-gun bullets came through the fuselage, they instinctively put their hands over their crotches.
A shell burst in Mathias's face, and the blast and shrapnel knocked him off his feet. With a mighty effort, he began to pull himself back up. The green light went on -- the signal to jump. He had enough strength to push himself out of the way and forgo the battle. Had he done so, the crew of the airplane could have applied first-aid and gotten him back to England in time for a life-saving operation. Instead, he raised his right arm, called out "Follow me!" and jumped into the night. Whether from the shock of his opening parachute, or the force of hitting the ground, or the bleeding from his multiple wounds -- when his men found him later that morning he was still in his chute, dead. He was the first American officer killed by German fire on D-Day.
The cause for which Mathias gave his life was nothing less than civilization. This isn't sentimentality; this is fact. When General Eisenhower ordered the C-47s into the night skies over Normandy on June 6, inaugurating the climatic battle of World War II, it remained very much in doubt who would prevail in the titanic struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. Hitler was certain that the Nazi youth would outfight the Boy Scouts. The Führer believed that while the Third Reich's teenage boys were imbued with fanaticism and taught that they belonged to conquer the world, the spoiled sons of democracy had been reading cynical, post-World War I antiwar literature that sometimes portrayed patriots as suckers, slackers as heroes. And Hitler knew that American kids wanted no part of another war. They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-1s at other young men.
Hitler was aware of American industrial capacity. He understood that the United States could put a mighty fleet into the battle, along with thousands of bombers and fighter aircraft, tanks, trucks, jeeps, and artillery pieces, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers. But he also knew that despite all that equipment, despite the intricate plans, preparations, intelligence gathering and deception schemes, in the end success or failure in D-Day would come down to a relatively small number of junior officers, noncoms and privates. If the paratroopers cowered behind hedgerows or hid out in barns rather than actively seeking out the enemy, if the men coming in over the beaches flopped down behind the sea wall and refused to advance, if the noncoms and junior officers failed to lead their men up and over the sea wall to move inland in the face of enemy fire -- why, then, the Germans would win battle and thus the war.
To make certain that the Americans were immobilized by fear and fire, Hitler had built the Atlantic Wall, which was capable of blasting the invading troops with tremendous firepower -- bursting artillery and mortar shells, machine-gun and rifle bullets, hand grenades and land and sea mines. It is impossible to exaggerate the force of this explosion of fire. Consider the cataclysm of Omaha Beach, which Steven Spielberg, in the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan," captures so exactly. The companies in the first wave at Omaha were, in many cases, wiped out within seconds of the dropping of the ramp. The 116th Regiment, 29th Division, took 90% casualties in the lead companies without getting one shot off in return; in many cases, no one even made it off the boat.
Still they came on. Their leaders were young men like Mathias, in their early 20s, citizen soldiers. They were the ones Hitler was certain would be unable to rise to the challenge. All around them were disorganized, confused, frightened men whose every instinct was to press their bodies to the sand and pray. But over here a sergeant, over there a lieutenant, took command, calling out, "Let's go! Move out!" and leading the way up the bluff. Ernie Pyle said it was a miracle that the American troops took the high ground. It wasn't a miracle. It was infantry, led by young heroes who didn't want to be there.
They kept leading, through the hedgerow battles of June and July, across France in August and September, over the Rhine in March 1945, and on into Germany and the final surrender. The leaders took fearful casualties -- it was almost certain that a junior officer or NCO in the rifle companies could not make it through the 11-month campaign without getting wounded or killed (the turnover ratio was well over 200%) -- and as the war wore on they got younger. I know men who were 20 years old when they came in as replacement lieutenants to lead platoons (30-plus men) or companies (up to 200 men) in battle -- not just for an hour a day or week, but months. Until they got hit, or the war ended, they carried the load. One of the unique things about war is the way it thrusts ultimate responsibility onto the very young. In World War II, on the American side, the kids accepted it, endured and prevailed. They were the sons of democracy, and they saved democracy. We owe them a debt we can never repay.