The approval to commence the liberation of Europe rested entirely on his shoulders. For a brief moment in history, one man controlled the leash restraining an invasion fleet of 5,000 warships jam-packed with 170,000 Allied soldiers; many vessels were already at sea. Over 10,500 aircraft poised on runways all over England waited impatiently for the word “go.” Tensions were high, morale at risk if another ‘stand down’ delay was issued.
One of the frustrated commanders was the Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, not to mention his Headquarters Staff of Admirals, Air Marshals, and Army Generals. Already disappointed by the briefing at 4:15 a.m. on Sunday, June 5, 1944, the pessimistic leaders met again at 9:30 p.m. to hopefully obtain a required favorable weather report from the straightlaced Scottish meteorologist, Royal Air Force Group-Captain J.M. Stagg. With thousands of lives at stake, Captain Stagg uttered the now famous statement, “.....rapid and unexpected developments have occurred over the North Atlantic.”
Mother Nature had opened a two-day window of opportunity. General Eisenhower made the decision: “Okay, we’ll go.” Operation Overlord, the Invasion of Normandy, was on. In the shadowy predawn light, an English coastguardsman on the Dorset cliffs watched in amazement as thousands of warships disappeared over the horizon. Returning home, he told his wife, “A lot of men are going to die today. We should pray for them.”
A lot of men did die on June 6, 1944, on both sides of the conflict, as did thousands of French citizens. The messy, bloody and uncompromising mission of ‘liberation’ would continue to pilfer lives and maim civilians and soldiers alike. Some heroics are common knowledge, repeated on the anniversary of D-Day each year, and this year, the 70th Anniversary, will be no exception. But most of the heroics and sacrifices will never be known nor reported. Yet among the suffering and horrors of D-Day there were stories of compassion and evidence of the good in man.
On the night of June 5 and into the early morning hours of June 6, units of the 101st Airborne Division parachuted into Drop Zone D, behind the exits to Utah Beach. One of their vital objectives was cutting the main Cherbourg/Paris road near the tiny village of Angoville-au-Plain. As the paratroopers dug in, two medics of the 501st Regiment, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, set up an aid station in the village’s 12th century church.
Wright and Moore, with a Lieutenant named Allworth, searched the surrounding fields for the wounded and dying. Soon the church was more than an aid station, with Wright and Moore caring for seriously wounded soldiers on the threshold of death. Stabilizing the soldiers, Wright and Moore left the church to scour the area for more injured men, including German soldiers.
American and German soldiers were treated with equal compassion. A few soldiers died, but Wright and Moore continued to rescue and treat soldiers from both sides as the war raged around the tiny church. The Americans, finally overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers, retreated from Angoville-au-Plain. Wright and Moore refused to leave, staying in the church to care for the wounded and dying.
As the town changed hands, German soldiers stormed the church and kicked the doors opened. In the ensuing silence, the Germans lowered their weapons upon seeing German soldiers as well as American troops under the medical care of Wright and Moore. A German officer arrived and asked if his wounded could also be treated. Without hesitation or fear, Wright and Moore offered their assistance. The German officer even called in his own doctor to assist the American medics. Leaving the tiny historic church, German soldiers posted a Red Cross flag on its doors to properly identify the emergency medical facility.
The battle raged on. Bitter fighting continued in and around Angoville-au-Plain for three days. The small village changed hands several times as Wright and Moore tirelessly aided the injured combatants. A mortar round struck the church and re-wounded many of the wounded. The American medics never missed a beat.
Dying soldiers were placed at the front of the church near the Alter; the aisles were crowded with injured, blood soaked the wooden pews, the injured and fatally wounded continued to arrive. A seriously injured French child was brought into the church – Wright and Moore received credit for saving the child’s life.
In the midst of the battle, two armed German soldiers, having escaped initial capture by the Americans, descended from the church tower and surrendered to Wright and Moore. None of the American medics, nor any of the wounded soldiers being treated, knew the Germans were hiding in the church tower.
On June 8, a concentrated attack by the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division pushed the Germans out of Angoville-au-Plain for the last time. The village was firmly in Allied control.
Medics Wright and Moore had treated over 80 combatants and one child. Both medics are commemorated in stained glass windows in the church and the cracked flag-stone floor in the center of the church, shattered by the mortar round, can still be seen. The bloodstained pews are still in use. A Memorial in the town square honors the two American medics. The town square, incidentally, is now named “Place Toccoa” in honor of where the 101st Airborne Division was trained in the United States.
Medics Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore received the Silver Star for benevolent service at Angoville-au-Plain. Wright later received a Purple Heart for wounds received in Holland and earned two Purple Hearts at Bastogne.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.