Of all the places in the world, Omaha Beach, on the Normandy coast, in northern France, was not where young 2nd Lt. Gerald Heaney wanted to be. But there he was, on June 6, 1944, huddled in a landing craft with the rest of his company of U.S. Army Rangers, getting ready to land. In a Library of Congress oral history interview conducted by then Congressman James L. Oberstar in 2007, Heaney recounted the first moments of the battle.

Related content"The door went down on the landing craft, and the captain stood up and said, 'Everyone ashore,' and he was cut down by gunfire," Heaney said. "And the first lieutenant stood up and said, 'Everyone ashore,' and he was cut down by gunfire. And then that left me, 2nd Lt. Gerald Heaney, in charge, and I looked up and said, 'We are not going out that door; everybody over the side.'"

After wading through deep water and enduring deadly machine-gun and mortar fire, only about half of Heaney's unit made it to the relative safety of the cliff that they were supposed to scale. Using their bayonets to climb, the rangers reached the top of the cliff and engaged the German defenders, eventually securing the sector.

Heaney was one of almost 160,000 American, British, and Canadian soldiers who either stormed the beaches of Normandy or landed behind enemy lines.

June 6 has sometimes been called the "Day of Days," a play on its more common name, "D-Day." The code word for the massive operation was "Overlord." Regardless of what one calls the invasion, it was a bloody key turning point in World War II.

And it could have failed. Of the five landing zones - Gold, Sword, and Juno for the British and Canadian forces and Utah and Omaha for the U.S. - it was Omaha where the German resistance was most deadly and the outcome most in doubt. Instead of a single German regiment, elements of the U.S. Army 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ran up against a whole German division.

As was the case all along the five beachheads, the Allies experienced one of Murphy's Laws of military operations: All the months of careful planning get thrown out the window when one meets the enemy. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans themselves fell for the old military cliche of not expecting the enemy to show up where they ended up showing up. Still, they put up a stiff defense, preventing the Allies from achieving their first-day objectives.

But as night fell on June 6, the beaches were secured and expanded. The Allies were there to stay. It took less than a year for the Allies to breakout from Normandy, dash across France, pound their way into Germany, and force its surrender.

The allies suffered more than 10,000 casualties on D-Day and the Germans around 1,000. Young Gerald Heaney survived and fought in many more operations leading up to Germany's surrender in May 1945. Leaving the Army after the war, Heaney eventually became a giant in the United States judicial system and the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party. The strength, leadership, and grit he discovered on Omaha Beach on June 6 served Heaney and, by extension, the American people, well in the decades that followed that "Day of Days" 75 years ago today.

 

Dave Boe of Duluth is a 20-year veteran and military historian who worked for U.S. Rep. James Oberstar from 1998 through 2011.