As a war-weary America contemplates the end of major combat in Afghanistan and a conflict with no certain victory lap, just a political off ramp, we recall a day 70 years ago when the nation was united in purpose and American soldiers led the invasion of Normandy that would ultimately free Europe from the horrors of Nazi tyranny and end the ambitions of Adolf Hitler.
Americans are familiar with the grainy, black-and-white newsreel images of D-Day, June 6, 1944. More than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline. By the end of the day, more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded. The archival footage provides only a glimpse of an experience that few could have contemplated that day without hesitation about the task that lay ahead.
For Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury, a member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, now 91, and Fred “Ted” Morgan of Edgartown, a member of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, now 92, the sights, sounds, and memories of that day so long ago remain strong.
Mr. Bryant, longtime outdoor writer for the New York Times, said that as the years go by his memories of the war consume a larger part of his thoughts. In his memoirs, a draft of which he provided to The Times, he writes, “A month or so before D-Day, I was surprised, delighted and deeply touched to be visited by a fellow paratrooper from the Vineyard, Fred B. (Ted) Morgan, Jr. of Edgartown. Ted, against whom I had played high school football on the Vineyard, had already — with the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment — been in Sicily and Salerno. He was there to wish me well and to give me an idea of what lay ahead.”
Nelson Bryant lunged out the door of a shuddering C-47 at about 2:30 am on D-Day. As he described it, “Curving skeins of tracer bullets were hurtling past and after my ‘chute yanked me upright I heard for the first time the tearing snarl of fully automatic German machine pistols, so unlike the slower thumping of our B.A.R.s (Browning automatic rifles) or other automatic weapons.”
His third day in Normandy, while on patrol, he was shot through the chest with a 52-caliber machine gun bullet. Another member of his patrol was killed. After lying wounded for three days in a hedgerow he was transported to a hospital in the Wales countryside. While healing he learned that his unit had returned to Nottingham, and was soon going to make another jump.
In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Bryant said, “I never thought I would want to pick up a gun or shoot a gun again. But I couldn’t bear the thought of my buddies going into Holland without me.” Without permission, he left the hospital and joined his unit.
“It was a young man steeped in what his notion of patriotism was.”
Nelson Bryant would make the jump in Holland and later fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
Asked about his wartime experience, he said, “I feel that at least once in my life I measured up as a man.”
In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Morgan, retired from a long and distinguished career in public service, said the events of 70 years ago remain vivid in his memory.
Mr. Morgan, who served as a medic, made four combat jumps, experiencing the horrors of war firsthand. “I saw anything and everything that could possibly happen to the human body and did the best I could to take care of people,” he said. “Many of them, of course, couldn’t live but many of them, I figure, medics like myself, saved their lives.”
Medics carried bandages and medicine, not weapons. “Being on the front lines is an experience very few people in a country like ours experience,” Mr. Morgan said. “The thoughts and the accomplishments and the deeds, they stay with you.”
The sheer number of wounded was sometimes overwhelming, he said, “but you had to do the best you could for each one.”
On Friday, Mr. Morgan will spend D-Day with his wife and daughter at The National World War II Museum, formerly known as the National D-Day Museum, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is a frequent volunteer and will spend part of the day speaking to museum visitors and showing them around.
“I am a proud veteran of World War II,” Mr. Morgan said, “and I am fortunate to be alive and to do what I am doing.”
Martha’s Vineyard is fortunate to have Mr. Bryant and Mr. Morgan. Anyone who has the opportunity to speak to either gentleman on D-Day, or any day, may count themselves fortunate as well.