Seventy-five years ago, a courageous battle was fought and won by Allies at the beaches of Normandy.
Its significance cannot be understated; the Allies’ defeat of the German forces at Normandy recast the direction of the war and set forth the campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany.
Texas’ World War II veterans who have spoken about their time in the English Channel remember the invasion as like nothing they’d ever seen. Claude Grisham of Holly Lake Ranch, Texas recalls the many boats stacked with thousands of men funneling equipment towards the beach. Jack Hetzel from Big Sandy, Texas shared that the sky was so thick with military aircraft, not even the sun shone through. Paul Marable of Waco, Texas noted on D-Day’s 70th anniversary five years ago that he could “still hear the gears in that turret [of his tank] turning.”
More than 156,000 Allied troops, including 73,000 Americans, stormed the beaches and cliffs on June 6, 1944 for the largest seaborne invasion in history. While ultimately successful, the operation cost us many lives. American forces suffered about 2,500 fatalities, and the Allied casualties have been estimated to be close to 10,000.
Homer Garrett of Lindale, Texas remembers the victory with a heavy heart: “Ninety-six members of my battalion were killed in a single day, and many were injured” as they hit a German mine approaching Utah Beach. Near Omaha Beach, Henry Willmann of San Antonio witnessed a similar mine strike a ship carrying 3,500 Allied troops. It sank in minutes.
Just up the shore at Pointe du Hoc, a native of Brady, Texas named James Rudder led the U.S. Army’s Second Ranger Battalion up 100-foot cliffs amid heavy gunfire to capture the Germans’ fortified position. The Rudder Rangers saved countless men on the shores below by destroying the German artillery positions ravaging Allied troops on Omaha and Utah beaches. Still today, a modest monument sits atop a beachside cliff commemorating their remarkable contribution to the Allied victory at Normandy and the outsized sacrifice made by the Second Ranger Battalion.
A much larger memorial to our victory at D-Day is docked along the Buffalo Bayou east of Houston. There the Battleship Texas serves as a museum for the vessel’s many heroic adventures, including her voyage in the English Channel in June 1944. As for those beachside cliffs, “there are still basketball-sized craters that she put into the side of the mountains there,” shared ship manager Andy Smith. From Omaha Beach to Pointe du Hoc, USS Texas fired round after round of 14-inch shells to soften German defenses as the Allies invaded. Remarkably, each one of her 1600-man crew survived the battle, and the ship saved additional lives evacuating wounded troops from the beach toward medical care. After D-Day, the USS Texas sailed to the Pacific Theater to finish off the war and returned to the United States with homeward bound troops in tow. Since she was decommissioned in 1948, the Battleship Texas has been open to the public at the San Jacinto Battleground near La Porte, Texas.
On a personal note, the 75th anniversary of D-Day reminds me of my father-in-law, Don Hansen, who bravely stormed Utah Beach on June 7, 1944, and of my own father, a career Air Force officer who served as a bomber pilot in World War II. On his 26th mission, my father was shot down by the Nazis and spent months in a POW camp before General Patton’s troops freed him and his fellow service members. Both men were personal role models and inspired my career in public service, and while both men have deceased, they live on through our family and the stories we tell of their heroism.
All in all, 700,000 Texans served in uniform during World War II. Texas sent the largest percentage of men and women into combat of any state. And 22,000 Texans laid down their lives to protect others – their fellow troops, their countrymen at home, and the many fighting for freedom and peace around the world.
The loss our nation experienced on D-Day is hard to fathom, but thankfully, Texas veterans through their optimism have helped us point out some lessons to share with the next generation. Homer Garrett, who saw 96 fellow soldiers die when his landing craft hit a mine, said that because of his fellow soldiers in the Army’s 300th Combat Engineers Battalion whose remains still lie in Normandy, he “know[s] the price of freedom.” And Paul Marable, who during the invasion woke up to a German soldier poking him with a machine gun and was taken captive as a prisoner of war for seven months, explains: “Because of that, I’ve been able – a little bit better than most maybe who haven’t gone through that – to decide what’s really important. I don’t get disturbed easily at little frets.”
I encourage those of you who are lucky enough to have World War II veterans in your lives to make the time to hear their stories. The Greatest Generation has much to teach us; we need only to listen.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn first appeared in the Senator’s Lonestar Weekly newsletter.