On Friday, June 6, 1944, thousands of men died on the beaches of Normandy, France. Allies that reached land alive clambered up sandy beaches through machine gunfire, mortars and dead comrades.
Veteran and Manhattan resident Wallace Jeffrey landed on Omaha Beach on “D-Day,” a term which signifies the day on which a combat attack or operation is to be initiated. He said the fighting started before he even got to the beach.
“We pulled into the water off Omaha Beach,” Jeffrey said. “While we were anchored there, a ship just behind us hit a mine, and a ship just in front of us hit a mine. We were already involved.”
Jeffrey was part of the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force.
“My job was to help locate and control fighter planes,” Jeffrey said.
The Big Red One and D-Day
Jeffrey fought alongside the 1st Infantry Division, also known as the “Big Red One,” which is currently based at Fort Riley.
“Our division was the one that landed on Omaha Beach,” said Maj. Martin O’Donnell, deputy public affairs director for the 1st Infantry Division. “Here at Fort Riley, that part of D-Day really resonates with us.”
Fort Riley sent a group of 25 soldiers to Normandy for the D-Day ceremonies that are being held in the region.
“They’ve been there almost a week now,” O’Donnell said. “They get around into the towns and meet veterans there, and they also certainly meet a bunch of people who were impacted by that day.”
Fort Riley also sent roughly 100 soldiers to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. to help with battle reenactments.
“Every brigade at Fort Riley was represented there,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell was dressed as Gen. Eisenhower and gave Eisenhower’s D-Day address.
“I tried to match his tempo and style,” O’Donnell said. “Some people even told me that I had done him justice. That’s all I wanted to do.”
The museum also hosted several talks and showed films on Friday and Saturday to showcase the events of D-Day and Abilene native Eisenhower’s role in the operation. The museum’s events culminated with several C-47 cargo planes flying over the museum and a concert featuring the 1st Infantry Division Band and the Salina Symphony Orchestra.
A historical remembrance, not a celebration
Although America celebrates a number of military anniversaries, veterans have very different perspectives on how D-Day should be recognized today. World War II veteran Jim Sharp said he believes this is due to cultural context.
“We are talking about 70 years ago.” Sharp said. “Now, people think differently. Most people don’t even know what was going on. They don’t understand what a gigantic operation it was. It took hundreds of thousands of people.”
Sharp said the only way to incorrectly remember D-Day is to celebrate its anniversary.
“You don’t celebrate thousands of lives being lost and thousands more being wounded,” Sharp said. “You just don’t. To me, it’s a historic remembrance.”
Sharp said he understands why later generations don’t have the same respect for D-Day he does, saying that years later, people don’t have the same contextual understanding of the true nature of the events .
“Nobody can fathom what I’m talking about unless you’ve been there,” he said.
A disappearing bunch
The number of those alive who have that firsthand experience is dwindling. According to a National World War II Museum fact sheet, approximately 555 World War II veterans die every day. At that rate, the last World War II veteran will die in five years and a little over a month.
“We are a disappearing bunch,” Jeffrey said. “Everyone is, sooner or later.”
Though Jeffrey said he doesn’t do anything special for the occasion, that doesn’t mean he has forgotten the comrades he fought beside that day.
“I can’t ever forget it,” Jeffrey said. “There’s things that you see that you’ll never forget. You’ll wish you hadn’t seen them.”