Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

Guest Columnist

Marking 75 years since D-Day

263,000 Iowans were activated for service in World War II

The hearse carrying former President George H.W. Bush casket travels by the World War II memorial, en route to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
The hearse carrying former President George H.W. Bush casket travels by the World War II memorial, en route to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landing on the shores of Normandy, France, to insert mass numbers of U.S., British, and Canadian troops into the heart of Europe and bring defeat to the Nazi empire. D-Day, itself, stood for nothing (grammatically), “D” was simply the monogram for the word “Day.” It might, however, just as well stood for “daring,” “devotion,” or for nearly 10,000 intrepid Allied warriors, “doomsday.”

Operation Overlord was the name for the Allied assault, which would include a combined attack by air and sea. The airborne missions began in England, crossing the English Channel, dropping soldiers a few miles inland from the beaches, with a total of 1,087 aircraft. Due to cloud cover and the darkness of night, two thirds of the 82nd and 101st Airborne units descended by parachute off target, sinking into marshes intentionally flooded by the Nazi armies as a defensive barrier. The units, by the end of the day, reported a loss of more than 2,500 paratroopers.

The attack by sea was even more massive and daunting.

A fleet of seven battleships, 128 destroyers and cruisers, and 4,000 landing craft (including Landing Ship Tank transports that carried tanks and troops, the cargo doors of which were built in Iowa), delivered 156,000 men into battle.

The landings would take place on five separate beaches, stretching sixty miles from St. Germain to Caen, France. The intent was to unite the airborne forces with the amphibious assault troops to form a solid line 10 miles inland. It would not work out that way.

The Nazi army had constructed a line of defensive bunkers and pillboxes along the coastline, forming what Hitler termed “The Atlantic Wall.” Seventeen million tons of concrete was poured and supported by 1.5 million tons of steel. These impenetrable structures were covered with soil as an earthen berm on one side, leaving the other exposed as a concrete wall. From it, facing the beaches, heavy 105 mm howitzer artillery guns faced any oncoming enemy. Between the beaches and these cannon, the Nazi Panzer Divisions had laid 4 million land mines. It was through this intimidating line that the Allied warriors would have to pass before they could secure the 10-mile perimeter.

Five landing zones were to be assaulted and captured in the amphibious attack, Utah and Omaha to the west, by U.S. troops, and Sword, Juno, and Gold, to the east, by a coalition of British, Australian, and Canadian troops. The first American troops stepped off their landing craft and onto French sand at 6:30 a.m. By sundown, 58,000 men had hit the beaches bringing 5,150 vehicles, including tanks and trucks to provide supplies and armor. They could not get far after claiming the beachhead at Omaha because they faced a nearly vertical cliff of stone extending much of the length of the landing zone. It was scaled by Special Forces of the 5th and 2nd Rangers in two hours, but slowed by reinforcements from the Nazi 352nd Division.

At the same time, 25 miles to the east, 75,000 troops led by the British were wading ashore onto barbed wire covered beaches that rolled gently into a flat land of marsh and meadow. Seeing reports of the U.S. and European troops being mowed down on all fronts, but knowing this was the only way to penetrate into Germany, General Charles Canham ordered the men “let’s move forward and get murdered.” His German counterpart, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, also experiencing a high rate of losses, pronounced of the battle, “This will be the longest day.”

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Fighting continued into the darkness At Omaha Beach, U.S. divisions had encountered such impermeable obstacles they could only advance 1,000 yards into the Nazi held countryside. Those at Utah fared much better. Combined with the paratroopers, they controlled pockets of ground more than five miles inland. The same could be said of the British and Canadian forces. It had, indeed, been a long day, with Allied armies reaching half of their objective.

The Nazi forces had suffered severely as well, with its 21st Panzer Division nearly destroyed. It would be three months before what remained of it, along with later reinforcements, could be pushed back across the Seine River. By that important hallmark, the liberation of Paris, the Allies had seen the loss of 210,000 of its finest, the German army, 215,000, for a total of nearly half million casualties in ten weeks.

Sixteen million Americans were activated for service in World War II, and 263,000 were Iowans. Let us remember them all on this historic date of the first step, and the longest day, in assuring freedom throughout Europe and around the world.

l David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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