Of the 16 million who served, fewer than 500,000 American veterans of World War II are believed to be alive. “D-Day vets would be a small subset of that number,” said John D. Long of the National D-Day Memorial.
The landings were a turning point in World War II. Along with the extensive armies of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, they created the vise that would crush Nazi Germany and end the war in Europe within a year.
A solemn commemoration is scheduled for Thursday in Normandy, France. President Trump and first lady Melania Trump are expected to attend, along with other world leaders, dignitaries and veterans.
Earll, a dairy farmer’s son from northwestern Pennsylvania, was 19 when the ramp on his landing craft went down and he splashed ashore at 7 a.m. with men from the 29th Division’s 116th Regiment.
He still has bits of enemy shrapnel under the wrinkled skin of his right arm. “Souvenirs,” he said. And the day remains vividly etched in his mind.
The 18 men from Company H were among 2,501 Americans killed that day — 381 just from the 116th — along with 1,913 British, Canadian and other allied soldiers and sailors, according to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.
They were part of an allied force of more than 150,000 men, 6,000 ships and 10,000 planes that assaulted the coast of France that June.
It was the greatest invasion armada in history, experts say, and its start, D-Day, occupies a place in the American psyche beside Valley Forge, Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor.
It was the beginning of what American Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the invasion’s supreme commander, called “the Great Crusade” to liberate Western Europe after four years of Nazi domination.
For the Germans, it would be what the defeated Field Marshal Erwin Rommel called “the longest day.”
The grand assault, named Operation Overlord, started on the coast of Normandy. Five beach heads were designated from west to east: Utah and Omaha for the Americans and Gold, Juno and Sword for the British, Canadians and others.
As it turned out, Omaha Beach was the most heavily defended by the Germans and the bloodiest for the Americans. There were 85 enemy machine-gun nests, 35 rocket-launching sites, 18 antitank guns, four artillery batteries and 35 pillboxes, historian Cornelius Ryan wrote.
Near the end of the day, another “dog face” from the 116th, quoted by historian Alex Kershaw, said of Omaha Beach: “Thousands of bodies were lying there. You could walk on the bodies, as far as you could see . . . without touching the ground.”
Earll had placed himself at the front of his landing craft that morning as it plunged through the stormy channel toward the beach, drenching him in seawater.
He was desperately trying to keep himself awake after downing too many seasickness pills. He had never before taken the pills, which were issued by the Army during amphibious drills but could make you drowsy.
“By God, I’m tough,” he said to himself. “I come from a farm. I don’t need any of your d--- pills.”
But in the landing craft that morning, when the pills were passed around, he had second thoughts.
“When we get on dry land again, they’re going to be shooting at me,” he reasoned. “I better be damn sure that I’m not sick.”
When the bottle came around, he took a handful instead of the recommended two or three.
“As you know, D-Day was what they call the longest day,” he said. “Well, on the longest day, I’m going to sleep.”
He placed himself up front, hoping the splashing water would rouse him. “By the time I got very close to land, I was wide-awake again. But I was soaked to the skin.”
Earll had the blue and gray logo of the 29th Division marked on his helmet. He was carrying his full combat kit, plus six rounds of 81-mm mortar ammunition, wrapped in a life preserver so he could float it ashore, and an old 1903 Springfield rifle.
The new .30-caliber carbines he said he and his buddies had been promised never materialized, so they were issued weapons dating from World War I. “We took those Springfields and we cleaned them all up . . . and that’s what we took in on D-Day,” he said.
Barely a year had passed since the troop train from Erie had picked him up in Union City, where he was born, as it wound through Pennsylvania stopping at small town stations to collect GIs headed for the war, Earll said in an interview here May 1.
He spoke as he sat at a table wearing glasses, a tan vest and a short-sleeved gray shirt. His hearing is poor, but his recollections were detailed and sharp.
A wartime photo of him in the American Legion post down the road in Union City shows a handsome man in uniform wearing his Army overseas cap at a jaunty angle.
Drafted after his high school graduation
Earll was the youngest of four children: three boys and a girl. His father had a farm and worked in one of the local factories. Neither job generated much money, he said. (Earll would return to the area after the war and work for the U.S. Postal Service for 40 years.)
He had been drafted upon graduation from Union City High School in 1943. By Dec. 14 of that year, he was heading across the Atlantic aboard the fast ocean liner/troopship Queen Elizabeth.
Six days later, he was in Scotland. By June 1944, he had been assigned to Company H in southern England to await the invasion.
Before the men embarked for France from Weymouth, the Army dug a large burn pit and ordered the GIs to discard any nonessential items, Earll told the Library of Congress Veterans History Project in 2007.
Cartons of cigarettes went in, along with personal items and other things. “I remember one man had a guitar,” he said. “When we were in camp he sat around evenings playing his guitar. The last I saw of that guitar it was down there in that hole . . . burning up.”
He and his comrades started the crossing aboard a large transport ship, the USS Thomas Jefferson, where members of the clergy held services below deck and Eisenhower’s famous D-Day message was read:
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
He had to keep going
By 7 a.m., Earll and his Company H pals had been jammed into the small landing craft for about three hours as it plowed toward Normandy.
Now they were near the beach. Somebody said, “There’s France,” but when Earll took a look all he could see was smoke.
Company A had gone in about 30 minutes earlier, and was being decimated by German fire. One hundred and three men from Company A would be killed — including 22 from the small town of Bedford, Va., about 130 miles west of Richmond.
The 3,400 men of the 116th were assaulting a three-mile stretch of Omaha Beach that was separated by several “draws,” or pathways, leading inland from the water. Earll said his outfit’s target was the draw at a place called Les Moulins, near a subsector of the beach called Dog Red.
Les Moulins was defended by two German strong points with concrete bunkers, a 50-mm cannon, machine guns, mortars and revolving tank turrets, according to historian Peter Caddick-Adams.
When the ramp of Earll’s landing craft went down, the water was knee deep.
“Lets go!” Washburn said.
He was the first one out. “I was right behind him,” Earll said.
They got about 20 or 25 yards when Washburn went down.
“I saw him go into the water,” Earll said. “When he got up, I could see that he was hurt bad. Something had hit him all up and down the front of him. He went back down into the water and never got up.”
Washburn was the son of a carpenter from Martinsville, Va., just above the North Carolina border. He had numerous brothers and sisters. His mother, Dora, who had married at 15, had died in 1936.
“He had found a home in the service,” Earll said. Washburn bragged that he would never be caught with a dirty rifle and had just been promised an officer’s commission. “Well, Washburn just lived for that day, and he never made it,” he said.
Earll couldn’t stop. The men had been told to keep going no matter what. He dropped the mortar ammunition amid the chaos. A sniper took a shot at him and missed. As he crossed the beach, he came across a young soldier crying for his mother.
“He was just a kid,” Earll said. “He didn’t look like he was even old enough to be there. He’d broke. Some of them did break. He was laying there in the sand. . . . He was crying for his mother to come and take him home.
“I tried to talk to him, I said, ‘Buddy, your mother is 6,000 miles away. She will never get here to take you home. Get out of it!’ But we had our orders to keep going. I had to leave him.”
As he slogged forward, he spotted a lone American tank playing cat and mouse with the German defenses. The tank would fire and then move. But it was drawing return fire. As Earll went around it, an artillery shell exploded, peppering his right side with shrapnel.
“I’m hit!” he said as he looked down at his bleeding arm, but he quickly got a grip. “Arden, come on,” he told himself. “You’re not hurt. You can still walk.”
A medic patched him up, and he and others from the 116th fought their way forward throughout the endless day.
“The next morning they had decided that we were shot up so bad, they put another regiment through us . . . and we went back on the beach and reorganized,” he said.
As he walked back across the wreckage of Omaha beach, he saw dead soldiers who had been washed by the incoming tide.
Among the slain was the frightened young man Earll had seen earlier.
“God had come and taken him home,” he said. “His mother could not.”