Most of the Allied soldiers arrived in transport boats that look like short, fat open-top train cars. When they neared the coast and received the signal, an end of the boats flipped open like those big industrial trash receptacles do now, and out went the men into the cold sea carrying 70 or more pounds of gear each and usually something, such as mortars, needed for the group effort. Often, the boats leaked or water crashed over the edges, soaking the soldiers even before they disembarked.
Overhead, the enemy rained heavy, deadly fire down to the beaches and boats where our soldiers were struggling with their equipment, their instructions and their fear. Hundreds of Allied soldiers died before they even reached the beach. Hundreds more fell in the sand.
Harold Baumgarten, then a 19-year-old rifleman in the 116th Infantry, was wounded five times trying to get onto the beach. More than 30 men in his 40-man unit died that day. "The 1st Battalion of the 116th Infantry was more or less sacrificed to achieve the landing," he told Time magazine. "It was a total sacrifice."
Harry Parley, now 84, landed at Omaha beach with a flamethrower. When he stepped off the ramp of the boat, his feet sank into the sand. He would've drowned, except another G.I. ? he'll never know who ? grabbed his arm and pulled him back up. "To this day," he told Time, "I don't know why I didn't dump the flamethrower and run for shelter. But I didn't."
Many escaped the chaotic scene on the beaches by climbing up paths marked with white tape to indicate they were safe from mines. Along the way, they maneuvered past the bodies of the men who had found those mines ... the hard way. Others arrived from above, by parachute.
To Thomas Somma, Harold Baumgarten and Harry Parley and the thousands of other brave vets whose company we are privileged to share, we owe our undying gratitude. Let us join in spirit with these men and women as our entire nation honors their fallen comrades. And, if I may, issue a personal message to my new friend Mr. Somma: Thank you for looking fear in the eye and calling her bluff ? and thank you for securing my freedom. You will always be my hero.