Thomas Somma said a lot was going through his mind as he climbed out of a troop ship into the icy water and onto the beach at Normandy in 1944.
He had 103-degree fever and felt like he'd been ejected from a washing machine. It was 3 a.m. when he disembarked ? he could barely see his hand in front of his face.
His unit's job in the predawn hours of June 6 was to scale the bluffs in silence, attack a fortress at the top that the German army used as barracks and clear the way for the main landing of American soldiers at Omaha and Utah beaches at sunrise. His unit was the vanguard of the D-Day invasion ? to some, the deciding moment of World War II.
Even arriving under cover of darkness, life expectancy for Somma and his unit that morning was about three minutes. Only 13 of the 40 men in his company would survive. Still, "I wasn't afraid," said Somma, now 87, retired and living in Hollywood, Fla. "I just always had a positive attitude. I had survived the first two D-Days (on North Africa and Sicily), and I had just gotten so inured to it that I didn't think anything bad would happen to me."
It's interesting what people remember of such days. Some remember little beyond the fear; others recall everything else. Thankfully, there are many who didn't let fear stop them from protecting our freedom. That's why over the next week we'll honor these men in a variety of ways.
As I write this, thousands of veterans are descending on Washington for the dedication of the World War II Memorial on the Mall over Memorial Day weekend. And about the time the celebration dies down here, another will begin at the D-Day Museum in New Orleans to mark the 60th anniversary of Somma's cold, dark trip up those bluffs.
I've always been struck by the humility of the men who saved the world from the tyranny of Hitler. When they tell their stories, which is not often, they speak not of themselves and their own courage but of that of others.
It's difficult to understand the enormity and danger of what took place some six decades ago. The invasion was huge ? 150,000 troops, 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 other ships, 500 naval vessels and 13,000 aircraft. But those numbers meant little to most of the men who arrived in Normandy that day.