D-Day, June 6, 1944
Operation Overlord. The push for Berlin was no longer an if, but a when. When would the Allied Forces reach Berlin and defeat the Third Reich? In a single day, over 150,000 Allied soldiers either stormed the beaches of Normandy or were dropped behind enemy lines. More than 5,000 of these soldiers were either killed or wounded before nightfall. This extraordinary sacrifice was felt across the homelands of the Allied Forces, as so many sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers never made it home again. Bob Feller, the first professional athlete in the United States to volunteer for military service during World War II, doing so days after Pearl Harbor, put it simply and perfectly, “The heroes didn’t come back”. The sacrificing of one’s self in order to rescue others from the grasps of evil is true heroism.
The Greatest Generation, so aptly named by Tom Brokaw, fought Nazi Germany and won. The men and women who served their country in the military, both on and off the battlefield, did so selflessly. It did not matter who you were. You could be a young man from tiny Allatoona, Georgia and had only been to three counties in your entire life before leaving for the Army (my maternal grandfather). You could be a newlywed from Stone Mountain, Georgia who after being told he was not physically fit for the military, moved with his new bride to Mobile, Alabama so he could work as a welder in the shipyards (my paternal grandfather). You could be a kid from St. Louis, Missouri playing in the Class D Virginia League for the Norfolk Tars, who would go on to win 13 World Series Championships as a player and manager (Yogi Berra). You could be a four-time All Star pitcher with 107 career wins in only six seasons (Bob Feller). It did not matter; you gave of yourself for your country.
D-Day saw plenty of scared young men going into battle, many for the first time. There was, nor is, any shame in their fear, something is probably wrong if they were not scared. If ever there was a time for fear it was during the storming of the beaches in Normandy. The Atlantic Wall was formidable, and the Nazi’s hoped it would repel any attempted invasion, which it failed to do. However, despite their fears they knew they had a job that had to be done, and they did it. These sentiments resonated from the top of the Allied Forces:
“This operation is not being planned with any alternatives. This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.”
Every man who risked, or gave, his life on and around the beaches of Normandy put their hopes and dreams aside to be a part of something greater than themselves. All of them had a different story that made them the man they had become prior to June 6, 1944. Each and every one of them would have their own story from that day. Thousands and thousands of stories from that single day. Among the thousands of young men were Larry “Yogi” Berra and Leon Day. Both men would go on to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but on this day they were just men with a mission to complete. Berra was aboard a LST (Landing Ship, Tank) and later a rocket-launching boat, during the landing. Day was landing on Utah Beach with an Army amphibious unit. Both men did their jobs and helped gain a foothold for the Allies in Normandy. Both their heroism was normal on June 6, 1944, a day filled with extraordinary heroism.
Berra and Day were not the only baseball players at Normandy that day. Many soldiers that day would return home after the end of World War II to play on a diamond, from the Major Leagues down to local sandlots. These soldiers were not treated any differently than the other soldiers. Everyone was relying on one another to make it into France safely. It is for that reason, that it does not seem proper to fully recount the actions of these soldiers, who also happen to be baseball players, because it could in some way suggest that the actions and sacrifices of the other soldiers on D-Day, and beyond, are somehow less important.
D-Day was the overwhelming response needed to help end the suffering and killing at the hands of the Nazis. There are no words to adequately thank those brave men who stormed the beaches or were dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy 71 years ago today. We are all forever indebted to them for the actions and their sacrifice. To those who did return home, regardless if you returned home to an office, factory, or baseball diamond, we will never be able to properly express our gratitude. To those who did not return home, your sacrifice was not in vain, and we seek to honor your sacrifice every day as best we can, knowing that it will never be enough.