If people remember only one or two dates from World War II, one of them will be June 6, 1944.
Today marks the 68th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of German-occupied France, the largest amphibious landing in history and a turning point in the protracted effort to free Europe.
The brutality of the fighting and courage required by the landing forces has been highlighted in award-winning Hollywood movies such as “The Longest Day” in 1962 and “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, and in the 2001 television miniseries “Band of Brothers.”
But it’s now three generations since the massive invasion that planners dubbed Operation Overlord. While some people work to keep the memories of the military operation alive, for a dwindling number of aging veterans, those memories are with them every day.
“I remember the beach and the shellacking those poor guys took, and they never complained,” said Anthony Lucca of Schenectady, at the time a 22-year-old junior lieutenant serving in the naval armada off Omaha Beach.
Lucca was an engineering officer aboard the USS Rockaway, a seaplane tender and one of the fleet’s flagships, used by one of the admirals overseeing the invasion. During the landings, Lucca’s duties included using a small boat to shuttle troops and VIPs to the beach.
“We were shot at. We were hit once. I saw bodies floating around in the water and all that,” recalled Lucca, now 90, a retired facilities and transportation director for the Mohonasen Central School District. “The guys who didn’t make it, that’s what gets to me.”
Nearly 7,000 ships supported the D-Day invasion, which involved more than 150,000 Allied troops landing on five beaches across a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. Ships like the USS Rockaway picked up troops in England, steamed across the English Channel to launch them toward the beaches, then would return to England for more soldiers, Lucca said.
Thousands more Allied troops parachuted into the countryside miles inland and hours before the boats hit the beaches, while others silently coasted down in gliders. The airborne troops also suffered heavy casualties, but succeeded in many cases in hindering the German response to the main invasion on the beaches.
To Allied war planners, the Normandy invasion — coming after years of planning and months of intense preparation — opened a critical third front against the Nazis, who were already seeing the tide turn against them on the Russian front and in Italy. The war in Europe would be over in less than a year, but nobody knew it as German machine gun fire and artillery ripped around them that morning.
Dave Sexton, 91, of South Glens Falls, was a staff sergeant and infantry squad leader who landed on Utah Beach as part of the 90th Infantry Division, arriving on the beachhead in the second wave of landings.
Of much of what he saw, he said, “I try to blank it out, to be honest with you. It’s not a pleasant thing. I stay away from the bad stuff.”
Sexton said what he recalls is the noise and confusion. At Utah Beach, strong ocean currents caused troops to land in the wrong place — a lucky break, since it was actually less-defended than the original landing site. Those who landed at Utah Beach took far fewer casualties than those who landed at the other American-assigned landing point, Omaha Beach.
“The noise — the aircraft, the battleships banging away,” he said, “it feels like confusion, but everybody had their purpose.”
Sexton would sustain a wound that ended his war a month later, on July 3, in the French countryside. He spent a year in the hospital; after the war, he would be sergeant-at-arms in the state Assembly and then sealer of weights and measures for Saratoga County.
“Normandy was hedgerow country. That’s where the most severe fighting took place,” he said.
The youngest veterans of D-Day would now be 86. Despite their age, about 30 surviving veterans attended the D-Day Revisited Association’s annual ceremony in Latham last Saturday, at which U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, an Iraq war veteran, was one of the speakers.
The event was about showing appreciation to the veterans who fought at Normandy then battled their way across northern Europe, facing stiff German resistance most of the way.
“I can’t think of better people to thank,” said D-Day Revisited Association President Frank DeSorbo of Delmar.
DeSorbo, a retired school business administrator, said he formed the association in 2010 after the invasion’s anniversary passed with no public ceremonies or recognitions.
“People will remember Dec. 7, 1941, the date the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,” DeSorbo said. “The other important date of the war is June 6, 1944.”
There were 12,000 American, British and Canadian casualties on the first day alone, he said, including 2,500 killed or wounded at Omaha Beach.
“I think this kind of has a tendency to fade away, and I’m trying to keep it from fading away,” said DeSorbo, who continues to search for surviving veterans.
There are no official state ceremonies scheduled for today in the Capital Region, but ceremonies will be held on the Normandy beaches and at memorial sites around the United States.
Today’s military members recognize the sacrifices of those who fought on D-Day, said Lt. Col. Richard Goldenberg, chief spokesman for the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs in Albany and an Iraq War veteran.
“Like so many Americans, we’ll pause and reflect on the sacrifice made so many years ago to turn the tide in Europe during World War II,” he said.
“Today’s Army, today’s military, is their direct legacy,” he said. “Everything we do today is based on what we learned about them. The way they faced their challenges puts the standard on the wall that we all try to live up to.”
In Troy today, Boy Scout Troop 502 will hold a rededication ceremony at 5 p.m. at the war memorial on Division Street. The monument has been refurbished and re-landscaped as troop member Matt Donnelly’s Eagle Scout project.
Donnelly, 17, just graduated from LaSalle Institute in Troy and plans to attend Siena College, participate in its ROTC program and pursue a military career.
He said he was well aware of the D-Day anniversary when he picked the date for the monument rededication ceremony.
“I think it was a brave thing people did to try to end the war,” Donnelly said.