On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord by invading German-occupied France along the coast of Normandy, the largest amphibious invasion in history more popularly known as D-Day. This massive scale operation, which ultimately enabled the liberation of Paris, would not have been possible without the devoted service of Allied service members from all backgrounds in every role imaginable.

 

A platoon of black troops surrounds a farm house in a town in France, as they prepare to eliminate a German sniper holding up an advance. Omaha Beachhead, near Vierville-sur-Mer, France. June 10, 1944.

 

Despite Allied success in the Mediterranean and along the Eastern Front through 1943, German forces still controlled a formidable “Fortress Europe,” and France was still under their occupation. In December 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, and he and his staff immediately took charge of others in Great Britain already planning an assault aimed to liberate France and beyond. Planning the operation, however, would not prove an easy task. German leaders in France, well aware of its impending invasion, had fortified the Atlantic coastline into a formidable defensive line known as the “Atlantic Wall.” In the face of this obstacle, Allied planners selected the Normandy coastline just east of the Cherbourg Peninsula as the site of a large-scale amphibious invasion, codenamed Operation Overlord.

While battle plans for the Normandy invasion were drawn, the Allies began to mobilize the troops that would fight there. Southern England became a military camp as hundreds of thousands of assault troops joined millions of support personnel – secretaries, engineers, codebreakers, quartermasters, cooks, nurses, weathermen, and countless more. Each service member was trained for the ways in which their specific roles would help bring about victory. While portrayals of D-Day often depict an all-white male cast, the invasion force in fact included men and women from a diverse set of backgrounds, and each of their roles was no less essential. Some minority troops, including Chinese Americans and Hispanic Americans, served in military units alongside white service members, while African Americans served in segregated units. Women, meanwhile, served in the Army or Navy Nurse Corps or in the Women’s Army Corps, each of which had huge roles to play in the operation. Nevertheless, when the day of the invasion came, all Americans in service, regardless of their roles, had an important job to do to achieve victory. By June 6, 1944, the chosen day of invasion, Allied forces were ready.

 

Nurses of the 13th Field Hospital, first to land in Normandy to tend the wounded, take time out for a meal on Omaha Beach.

 

Shortly after midnight on the first day of the operation, or D-Day, American, British, and Canadian paratroopers jumped from transport planes onto landing zones deep behind the landing beaches. Their mission was to capture German-held crossroads, towns, and positions from which they could secure routes off the beaches, disrupt enemy activity, and alleviate pressure on the landings. The American 101st Airborne Division was tasked with the areas surrounding Carentan, while the 82nd Airborne Division was charged with capturing the town of St. Mere Eglise. However, heavy antiaircraft fire as the transport planes neared their drop zones caused confusion and disarray and scattered paratroopers across the countryside, many of whom lost equipment in the drop. Some dropped on top of buildings, into flooded fields, and even onto enemy positions, causing high casualties. From this chaotic start, the scattered paratroopers, including Private First Class Leon Yee, a Chinese-American paratrooper of the 82nd from San Francisco, reorganized into their own ad-hoc units and began capturing objectives. Soon, these bands of paratroopers captured St. Mere Eglise and other small towns and crossroads nearby. Meanwhile, the British paratroopers, who encountered less resistance, captured their objectives quickly.

As daylight broke, the Allied fleet crossed the English Channel and made its way to the Normandy coastline. After a thunderous naval bombardment, the landings took place at 6:30 AM, H-Hour, along a 50-mile stretch featuring five designated beaches from west to east: Utah, Omaha (both to be secured by American forces), Gold (spearheaded by troops from the United Kingdom), Juno (to be taken by Canadian troops), and Sword (to be in the hands of the United Kingdom forces). In the early waves of the invasion, Code Talkers from the Comanche tribe exchanged radio messages detailing exact Allied landing locations for troop landing craft coming ashore. Meanwhile, soldiers of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, an all-black unit who also hit the beaches early, began their mission: to raise hydrogen balloons laden with explosives above Omaha and Utah Beaches with heavy steel cables as a defense against strafing German aircraft. To complete this task, the 320th first had to clear the beaches under enemy fire as infantry with other troops coming ashore.

 

Soldiers of the all-black 320th Very Low Altitude Battalion prepare a barrage balloon for launch on Omaha Beach during D-Day, June 6, 1944. The battalion was the only black combat unit to take part in the invasion. Some 700 black Soldiers served in this unit.

 

Of the five beaches, Omaha Beach was the most heavily defended. Fierce and unrelenting enemy fire tore the landing craft teams apart before some could even disembark and picked off other soldiers struggling to swim ashore with their heavy equipment. Troops of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions desperately took cover behind the German beach defenses meant to halt their movement forward. Medics on Omaha, like Pvt. Charles Norman Shay, a Penobscot Indian serving with the 1st Infantry Division, had their hands full as casualties mounted. Despite the devastating enemy fire, surviving American troops on the beach formed small courageous bands that pushed into the enemy positions. After several hours of bitter fighting, American forces on Omaha pushed the German defenders out of their established defenses. On Utah Beach, landing craft hit the beaches in the wrong locations, pushed off-course by the Channel’s rough currents. Nevertheless, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division landing on Utah Beach experienced comparatively less opposition. It secured the beaches and pushed inland ahead of schedule. American engineers, including Pvt. Andrew Ortega, a Latino soldier from Anaheim, got to work under enemy fire clearing the beach of obstacles and mines to allow additional waves of vehicles to come ashore unimpeded. By the afternoon, British and Canadian forces had secured Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches and were advancing inland. By the end of D-Day, Allied forces had established crucial, if still precarious, positions on the coastline. Approximately 156,000 Allied soldiers had landed, including 73,000 Americans.

 

Army 4th Signal Corps Comanche Code Talkers, Fort Benning, Ga. 1941.

 

In the days and weeks following D-Day, reinforcements and supplies continued to land on the beaches, and the Allies pushed the Germans further inland. Just four days after D-Day, the first nurses hit the beaches. These women, assigned to the 42nd and 45th Field Hospitals and the 91st and 128th Evacuation Hospitals, were immediately tasked with treating the many troops wounded on and near the American beachheads. First priorities for infantry units, meanwhile, were to link up the beachheads, clear and secure supply roads, and push through to the paratroopers already behind enemy lines. All beaches were secured by June 11. Soon, Allied forces secured key crossroads and towns behind the beachheads, neutralized German strongholds and gun positions scattered throughout the hedgerow-divided countryside, and continued their push inland. By the end of June, the Cherbourg Peninsula was in American hands, allowing American forces to continue to push through the hedgerows towards the town of St. Lo. By mid-July, the first women of the Women’s Army Corps landed in Normandy to work as telephone operators, typists, and clerks. Before long, many more women would come to Normandy to serve in more diverse support roles, from weather observers and mechanics to translators and analysts, all to support the advance inland. On July 19, St. Lo was captured, marking a dramatic breakthrough beyond the Normandy beaches. Six days later, the Allies launched Operation Cobra, with the ultimate goal of reaching Paris. As Allied troops advanced, supply lines stretched thin, and an inadequate flow of resources threatened to undermine progress. To overcome these challenges, Allied service units, nearly a quarter of which were all-black units, worked around the clock to ensure supplies flowed freely. The most notable effort was known as the Red Ball Express, in which Allied quartermasters used two highways exclusively to ferry gasoline, ammunition, food, and other supplies. The vast majority of the drivers who made this long drive were African American, and their deliveries were essential to keep Allied progress moving. Finally, on August 25, Paris was liberated, marking the dramatic conclusion of the mission begun with the D-Day invasion – a direct result of the devoted and heroic service of Americans and their Allies from all backgrounds and service roles.

 

African American members of the World War II Red Ball Express repair a 2.5-ton truck while a crewman at a machine gun keeps watch for the enemy.

 

With the victory of the Normandy Campaign, the Allies achieved a monumental triumph against Nazi Germany and significantly reduced its control over Europe, making an eventual Allied victory in Europe seem attainable. This success, however, came at a high cost of more than 200,000 Allied casualties, with almost 73,000 killed. D-Day itself saw 10,000 Allied troop casualties, among them 6,603 Americans. Allied success would not have been achievable without the devotion to duty that all Allied service members, regardless of gender or background, demonstrated throughout this campaign. Without the heroic service of these brave men and women, victory in the Battle of Normandy, and in the war in Europe for that matter, surely would not have been possible.

 

Originally Published: June 2, 2020

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