By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary.com and InCyberDefense.com. U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Veteran.
This week sees the 75th anniversary of the now-legendary Allied invasion of Fortress Europe. While incredible movies like “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” do justice to the heroic acts of that fateful day, the real heroes were unassuming Americans, Canadians, Brits and Australians who answered their nation’s call to push back against tyranny.
We live in an extremely fortunate time in which we are still able to shake the hands of men who waded ashore amidst what was hell on earth. Some of those men who survived went on to use their Montgomery G.I. Bill for college or farming. Many World War II veterans started businesses, including my own grandfather.
We remember the 160,000 Allied troops who fought on D-Day for their valor, while other D-Day veterans achieved a degree of celebrity in literature, entertainment and sports after the war. So who were these now-famous D-Day veterans?
The author of the classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” is rumored to have had several unfinished chapters with hin as he stormed Utah Beach on D-Day. He would go on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. Assigned to a counterintelligence unit, Salinger used his proficiency in German and French to interrogate prisoners of war.
Published as a novel in 1951, “The Catcher in the Rye” would go on to sell 65 million copies.
The beloved character Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in “Star Trek” once stormed Juno Beach as a member of the Royal Canadian Artillery. Upon landing, Doohan killed two enemy snipers. That night, while crossing between command posts, Doohan was hit with six bullets from a nervous Canadian sentry.
The bullets struck his legs, chest and right hand, causing the amputation of his middle finger. The bullet to his chest was stopped by a silver cigarette case given to him by his brother.
Beyond “Star Trek,” Doohan would go on to become an accomplished author, voice actor and speaker.
Beloved baseball catcher Yogi Berra also served on D-Day by manning a 50-foot rocket-launcher boat that sat 60 feet from shore. Berra provided machine-gun fire to cover the advancing troops.
Before the war, Berra was a hot prospect with scouts from the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. After the war’s end, Berra played his first game for the Yankees in September of 1946. He would go on to play in 14 World Series, including 10 World Series championships, both of which are records.
The legendary John Wayne collaborator and director of epic westerns like “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers” was present at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Already an award-winning director by the time war broke out, Ford crossed the English Channel on the USS Plunkett (DD-431), which anchored off Omaha Beach at 0600. He observed the first wave land on the beach from the ship, landing on the beach himself later with a team of Coast Guard cameramen who filmed the battle from behind beach obstacles, with Ford directing operations.
Take Some Time to Talk with Our WWII Heroes
It’s easy to celebrate the men of D-Day who went on to find fame and success after the war. But the true heroes are the countless men from Allied nations who faced a battle-hardened, heavily fortified enemy and still chose to move forward.
Time is the great equalizer of human beings and our World War II veterans are passing on at a rate of 348 per day. Of the 16 million American WWII veterans, only 496,777 are alive today.
This year, resolve to seek out a WWII veteran. Talk with him or her so that the sights, sounds and triumphs of the Greatest Generation continue to survive through human memory.