Whenever June 6 falls on a Sunday, my column subject will most likely be that longest of days in 1944 when Allied forces assaulted Nazi Germany’s "Fortress Europe." Operation Overlord, history’s largest naval invasion, still staggers the mind when considering logistics, alone.
The temptation is to recite details to establish credibility. But what’s important about D-day isn’t found in statistics, nor in academic expertise. It’s not about knowing of the creation of a fake army under General George Patton designed to confuse the Germans, nor about political pressures exerted upon Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. It’s not about cataloging years of stockpiling supplies and munitions, of turning Britain into an aircraft carrier, or billeting so many American troops in every nook and cranny that Brits complained of G.I.s being "overpaid, over-sexed, and over here!"
No. What’s important boils down, as it always does, to what mere mortals of tender flesh and precious blood did when faced with almost certain death. What did they do when action required surrender to duty even as every sinew quivered for self-preservation and every synapse begged to remain sheltered in relative safety?
That brings us to a place called Currahee and a group of men forever linked in nomenclature as Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Our grateful nation knows them, simply, as a "Band of Brothers."
Easy’s story begins in the little town of Toccoa, Ga. That’s where Mount Currahee is located, where Camp Toccoa was built and the 506th trained, and where today a remarkable museum makes it possible for contemporary citizens to literally touch the lives of those who did the impossible on June 6, 1944.
Those Easy men, at 1:30 a.m. on this date 66 years ago, parachuted into a maelstrom of anti-aircraft and machine gun fire behind enemy lines. Following Lt. Richard Winters, they destroyed an entrenched three-gun battery of German artillery, which had been wreaking havoc on Utah Beach. Winters, elevated to command of Easy by attrition, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for leading the assault, which today still serves as West Point’s textbook example for eliminating such an emplacement.
Easy, and Winters, fought their way through the rest of what author Cornelius Ryan called, in his epic work, "the longest day." The story of the 506th through June 6 and beyond, including Operation Market Garden, defending Bastogne in "the Battle of the Bulge," and capturing Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Bertesgarten, has been memorialized by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in their "Band of Brothers" mini-series.
Halfway around the world, on another day, at another battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz would say of the courage exhibited by everyday Americans on the sands of Iwo Jima:
"Uncommon valor was a common virtue."
Similarly, the men of Easy Company weren’t the only heroes in Normandy 66 years ago. The U. S. Navy had its share, though they’re hardly household names. There were the skippers of four destroyers — Doyle, Emmons, Frankford and Harding — who, witnessing the plight of the 29th Infantry’s "Bedford Boys" on Omaha Beach and the Rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc, conned their tin cans into waters so shallow the keels nearly scraped as they fired, point blank, covering the troopers.
And a grand old battlewagon, USS Nevada, resurrected from her heroic sprint at Pearl Harbor, earned a battle star on D-Day with pinpoint shelling in support of the paratroops inland.
In 2004 some everyday heroes in Toccoa decided to go extra miles to memorialize the legacy of the Currahee men and the 506th. Expanding the Stephens County Historical Society’s museum, these volunteers built the Currahee Military Museum inside the town’s old train depot. The centerpiece is the actual horse stable which housed Easy Company in England, carefully disassembled, shipped and rebuilt on site. The walls of the last home many of the Toccoa men would know still bear their carved names, a tactile connection spanning time.
The numbers of surviving World War II heroes are dwindling now, seemingly faster each year. Some still walk among us, lead our church services, and set standards for the rest of us while forming the bedrock for communities across America. They ask little, and count each day as the blessing they know it to be. They’re mostly quiet, selfless seniors, too often overlooked by the young as just another elderly person.
But they’re so much more than that...
Not long ago, during the filming of "Band of Brothers," the modest Richard Winters held his granddaughter in his lap.
"Grandpa," she asked, "were you a hero in the war?"
"No," he began, but as a thought formed his voice caught, and he had to pause. Gathering himself, even as a tear traced down his cheek, Winters continued.
"But I served in a company of them."
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.