According to the General William C. Lee Airborne Museum:
“Major General William C. Lee, Dunn, North Carolina’s famous airborne hero, was a North Carolina State University ROTC graduate who stayed in the Army after World War I, and was assigned as a peace-time observer in Germany. In this position, Lee took note of Hitler’s development of his airborne troops.”
“The Dunn man became the “Father of the American Airborne.” Lee had seen a parachute drop at the World’s Fair in New York that lifted customers by pulley and dropped them to the ground by parachute. He ordered two of the lift towers erected at the parachute school at Fort Benning, Georgia, where they are still being used. This was the beginning of America’s airborne forces, which were credited a short time later in shortening World War II by years and saving countless lives.”
By August of 1942, Lee was the first commander of the new 101st Airborne Division based at Camp Claiborne in central Louisiana. He promised his new recruits, “The 101st has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny.”
“General Lee developed the plans for the air invasion of Normandy on D-Day and had trained to jump with his men, but was sent back to the states a few months before the battle due to a heart attack. To honor their “father”, the paratroopers yelled out “Bill Lee!” as they made their jump on D-Day. He listened to the invasion by radio in his Dunn home on Divine Street, the current site of the General William C. Lee Airborne Museum.”
MG Lee would leave a legacy beyond belief for the US Army, and for the greatest military operation known to man. The first airborne command was organized with, then-Major Lee as the commander.
Today, June 6, is the 75th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe, in Normandy . . . D-Day. If there are any words to describe the heroic actions of those men, young men, Americans, Brits, Canadians, and French, the words of MG “Bill Lee” are the best, “A Rendezvous with Destiny.”
As a soldier of 22 years myself, and son of a World War II veteran, I am ever amazed at what these phenomenal men accomplished in both the European and Pacific theaters of war. Especially on this day, 75 years ago.
I served in units that have a historic legacy, combat tradition, tied to “The Longest Day.” On my chest are the Army Master Parachutist wings, a living testimony to the brilliant innovation of MG Lee. I also have the Air Assault wings, which are the modern-day equivalent to the Glider Paratroopers. On my right shoulder sleeve, I wear the combat patches of the First Infantry Division, “The Big Red One” and the Fourth Infantry Division, “The Ivy Division,” whose motto, “Steadfast and Loyal” is tattooed on my left inner forearm.
I have had the honor of meeting many of the Men who jumped in or landed on those beaches, like Ray Lambert, a combat medic with the 16th Infantry Regiment of the First Infantry Division.
These men, just everyday Americans, did the unimaginable, and we must “Earn This” as a means to demonstrate our increased devotion to those who gave the last full measure of devotion 75 years ago.
Just think, the evening prior to the landings, the men who jumped from airplanes to secure key road networks and bridges and silence German-supporting artillery, they leaped into the dark night full of anti-aircraft guns and bullet tracers. Many of them were the victims of misdrops, landing far away from their intended drop zones, some without their weapons, but they fought. They fought wherever they landed because they knew their mission. Because of their commitment, their training, their dedication, names such as St. Mere Eglise and Carentan will live forever in our minds, and hearts.
Consider those brave Rangers who shot their catapults upon the heights of Pont du Hoc, scaled the cliffs, and engaged the Germans there. The Rangers who also supported them landed to secure their flank and pin down any reinforcements that could shift against them.
On bloody Omaha Beach there landed the men of Virginia’s 29th Infantry Division and the famed First Infantry Division . . . heroes of North Africa and Sicily, “The Big Red One,” whose motto is, “No Mission Too Difficult. No Sacrifice Too Great. Duty First!”
Facing withering enemy fire, they did not retreat, they pressed on, finding their courage as their fellow soldiers were dying, and being wounded all around. They got off the beaches and seized the bluffs overlooking Normandy beach, securing the beachhead, enabling the follow-on forces to land.
The 4th Infantry Division was at Utah Beach. It was on June 6, 2002, the 58th anniversary of D-Day, when I took command of an Artillery Battalion in the Steadfast and Loyal Division. In the stands were those men, the men who had landed on Utah Beach and fought. I will never forget the words of the 4ID Assistant Division Commander, BG Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. on that day, 6 June 1944. The 4th Infantry was actually put ashore off from their intended landing zone on Utah Beach. Famously, BG Roosevelt Jr., who suffered from arthritis, and landed carrying his walking stick, said, “We are going to start the war from right here.” BG Roosevelt would be awarded the Medal of Honor. He died later from a heart attack.
We have seen the movies, “The Longest Day,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers.” We have seen the documentaries. We have heard the stories from those men who still walk on this side of the grass. However, they are leaving us each day. Many may not be around for the 80th anniversary, certainly not the 100th anniversary. We, then, have a commitment: they may pass on from this earth, but they must never grow old, never be forgotten. There are generations alive today because of their courage, their heroism, their bravery. If we deem them no longer necessary to be taught in our history books, then we, in the long-run, have failed them. If we are more concerned with revisionist history, then we have not earned their supreme sacrifices.
As well, when we begin to accept the type of ideologies and tyranny that they fought to liberate oppressed people from, we demean and denigrate their service.
These men fought to liberate, free, an entire continent, and then they came home and built this great nation we call home, America. Some of them continued to serve in our Army in places like Korea, and Vietnam. One of those rare breeds was a man named Command Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, who made all four major combat parachute jumps in World War II, served in Korea, and was immortalized by actor Sam Elliott in the movie “We Were Soldiers.”
Ask yourselves: does America still produce men like this? I say yes, it does, and always will. But the real question to be asked on this 75th Anniversary of D-Day, Operation Overlord, are you one of those men? Even more so, do you seek to be one of those men?
I leave you with President Ronald Reagan’s 40th Anniversary speech, given in 1984, “The Boys of Pont du Hoc.”
God bless those incredible men, like my dad, Army Corporal Herman West Sr., who were part of our Greatest Generation, the men of D-Day.
This column was originally published at The Old School Patriot.
The views expressed in CCNS member articles are not necessarily the views or positions of the entire CCNS. They are the views of the authors, who are members of the CCNS.