Looking fear in the eye

Posted: Jun 03, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

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.