D-Day landing on Omaha Beach

U.S. Army troops wade ashore on Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

”You found out just how much strength you possess, you found out that you were capable of much more than you ever thought.” — Harold Bauer, Normandy Campaign, 1944.

He never wanted to be a soldier. Never wanted to fight a war or to be a hero. Harold Bauer, a young man from Brownton, only wanted one thing: a life, a family, and the chance for happiness — the American dream.

Fate had something different in store. The world was at war, and its fate would fall into the hands of the 156,000 Americans who landed on the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.

World War II and D-Day trace their roots back to the close of the First Great War. Kaiser Wilhelm II, leader of the German Empire, abdicated his throne. The Weimar Republic, the German government that emerged, surrendered to the Allies every wish and signed away their future through the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty ordered Germany to disarm, to cede territorial holdings, and to pay $31 billion in reparations, an equivalent of $444 billion in 2019.

Germany struggled immediately. Hefty reparations were nearly impossible to pay and inflation followed. To make matters worse, the nation had split socially and created two factions that appealed to the outer fringes of political ideology: communism and totalitarianism. In the end, it was the totalitarians, led by the National Socialists Workers Party, Nazis for short, which won a majority in German Parliament.

The Nazis were led by a charismatic leader named Adolph Hitler. He declared Germany a reborn nation — a phoenix rising from the ashes caused by the defeat in World War I. He denounced the Treaty of Versailles, rebuilt the military and effectively ended the economic depression in Germany. Hitler didn’t stop there. His popularity soared as he expanded German borders to what they were prior to WWI.

The Allies looked on with worry. Not only Germany, but Italy and Japan were becoming increasingly aggressive. Yet the western Allies — Britain, France and the United States — did nothing and would continue to do nothing until the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. France and England declared war and blockaded Germany, but it didn’t stop the Nazis from invading Denmark, Norway and France. By the end of 1940, the Nazis controlled nearly all of Western Europe and were on a bombing campaign of Britain. By 1941, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. That same year, on Dec. 7, Japanese bombers attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The U.S. declared war on Japan, resulting in Germany declaring war on the U.S.

By 1942 it was clear that the only way to end the war was to destroy the Nazi war machine. In 1943, the Allies invaded Nazi holdings in North Africa, effectively cutting off Germany’s main source of oil. Next they invaded Sicily and Italy and eliminated German and Italian resistance there. In the meantime, the Allies began planning an invasion, one so large that it would be referred to as the “Day of Days.”

They called it Operation Overlord — the Invasion of Normandy. The goal was to establish a foothold in Northern France where the Allies could push into the heart of Europe and drive the Nazis over the Rhine. In the months leading to the invasion, Allied Forces embarked on an air campaign that targeted German aircraft production, fuel and airfields in order to gain air superiority. In addition, elaborate deceptions were undertaken that prevented the Germans from learning the timing and location of the invasion.

Droves of Americans were ushered into military service, young men who a year prior had been cab drivers, construction workers, farmers, teachers, bellboys, salesmen and college students — young men who were now training for the largest invasion in the history of mankind.

Harold Bauer was one of those men.

Harold Bauer

Harold Bauer

On June 6, 1944, the invasion of Normandy commenced with an airborne assault. Thirteen-thousand paratroopers from the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions jumped from C-47 transports at 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., but because of heavy cloud cover, the planes were forced to fly low and took on heavy flak and machine gun fire. Many were killed on impact as their parachutes did not have time to open before hitting the ground. Because of the confusion caused by the cloud cover and German fire, a good number of paratroopers missed their jump zones, forcing them to band into small groups of mixed units and to proceed to nearby objectives.

Naval and air bombardments of the beaches began at 5:45 a.m. and were followed by the largest amphibious assault in the history of humankind. Some of the beaches were heavily guarded by German units and high casualties were expected.

Bauer recounted the briefing soldiers were given before boarding the ships.

“They told us that we would feel the boat pulling up on the sand, and as soon as the gate dropped, to run for the beach,” he said. “They said we probably wouldn’t make it, but to try to reach the beach because we’d be easier to find.”

In some cases, the landings were a bloodbath. Many young Americans were killed before exiting their landing crafts. Those who were able to escape the boats did so under heavy fire as they ran for the seawall. Bauer remembered his own experiences.

“There were many times I thought I was about to draw my last breath, and I’m no religious fanatic, but I’ve come to truly believe that there was an angel watching over me,” he said. “There was a reason I made it when so many others didn’t.”

Though not all of the objectives on D-Day were met, the operation’s main goal of establishing an Allied presence in Europe was accomplished. As the days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months, Allied troops crept further and further into France. Though they had setbacks along the way, they eventually gained a solid footing in the continent. It happened at a large cost, however, as many American lives were lost during the advance.

“We trained together, we ate together, we slept together,” Bauer said. “There was no time to keep track of injured buddies. You couldn’t stop and cry, you had to keep moving.”

In May of 1945, the war in Europe came to a close. The Russians had taken control of Berlin, and Hitler was reported to have committed suicide in his bunker.

For men such as Bauer, and for every American who played a role in winning the war, sacrifice was the word of the day. The men who fought on the fronts were forced to sacrifice their dreams. The men who died on the fronts were forced to sacrifice their lives. Yet it didn’t stop there. Sacrifices were made at home as well. Lives, families, grandparents, friends and neighbors that should have been, never were.

Fallen heroes would never know what their futures could have been. For them, their dreams and the dreams of their loved ones stopped on the beaches of Normandy. It was those sacrifices that truly made June 6, 1944, a Day of Days.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. Do you have a historical anecdote to share? Haines can be reached at 320-587-2109 or by email at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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