On June 5th, 1944, Allied forces set out to invade Nazi occupied France on the beaches of Normandy. But bad weather and high seas would delay the invasion for another day.
US Navy Seaman, Charles "Buster" Shaeff remembers when the order came. "They put us in at Weymouth, England, for overnight. By the time we were moving the second time, we had a pretty good idea where we were going."
Further east, Royal Navy Able Seaman, John Robb, piloted a British Landing Craft Flack (LCF) out of South Hampton. The LCF was loaded with Canadian infantry and it was designed to put troops, then tanks, on the beaches while providing cover against low-flying enemy aircraft. They were underway far into the English Channel when his captain addressed the crew.
Seaman Robb says the captain told them, "'I've got sealed orders here.' He says, 'Now I've been told to open them.' Then he opened them up and said, 'This is it, lads, we are on our way.'"
Across the English Channel lay Hitler's heavily fortified Atlantic wall. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had built defenses to crush an Allied invasion on the beaches. On Normandy alone 6 million mines, hedgehogs, and Rommel's so-called "asparagus" carpeted the beach.
"Which is one reason the troops had to land at low tide; the problem with that, of course, is being you have twice as much wide-open beach to cross as a result," historical expert April Cheek-Messier explains.
Cheek-Messier is president of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. "These German bunkers with German machine guns and weapons that could reach far out into the beaches. They overlapped every single inch of beach. Those guns could reach ten miles out into the (English) Channel."
As the commanders readied their troops for the invasion, prayer was a vital part of the mission.
Robb recalls, "The Captain prayed for us when he opened the sealed orders, he said, 'We're going off to Normandy.' He prayed for the crew and for the ship that we'd get through it."
"Many of them were certainly thinking of their faith and were certainly saying their prayers to God that they would make it through this," April Cheek-Messier says.
H-hour, the 6th of June. D-Day. The Allied invasion begins.
"If you were to look up in the skies on D-Day, you would've seen airplanes flying wing tip to wing tip: 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft, and 150,000 troops just on D-Day," Cheek-Messier says.
Ten miles off the coast of Normandy, 30 soldiers from the 2nd Ranger Battalion boarded Seaman Shaeff's assault landing craft. They were headed for Omaha beach.
Shaeff remembers, "They were anxious to get to the beach. It became daylight on the way in. And we hit the beach about 5 minutes after H-hour and dropped those men."
"They called it 'bloody Omaha'. The terrain was just a natural defense there with the Germans on these cliffs. They were 100 feet up. They had a direct line of fire as these troops were coming in on their landing craft," Cheek-Messier says.
But, the soldiers kept going.
Seaman Shaeff: "They had their orders as to what they were going to do. They had to climb the cliffs at Point du Hoc and get at the Germans that way."
April Cheek-Messier: "Those large guns had to be found and destroyed for the invasion to succeed. So they had to climb those cliffs using ropes and disable those weapons."
Due east at Juno Beach, two German battalions defended the shoreline. Canadian casualties reached almost 50% in the first assault wave. Able Seaman Robb remembers intense fire coming from seaside houses and German bunkers. His Royal Navy LCF opened fire on a hotel that housed a Nazi sniper nest.
Robb remembers, "We used our anti-aircraft guns on the hotel. No one can describe what went into the hotel, what we sent forth there."
Thereafter at Juno, the 3rd Canadian infantry pushed further inland on D-Day than any other Allied landing force. The invasion stretched across 50 miles of the French coastline. Seaman Shaeff and crew carried three groups of army rangers from ship to shore. Each round trip took about six hours.
Senior 700 Club Producer David Kithcart asked Shaeff, "So, you were a slow moving target."
"Very slow moving," Seaman Shaeff says. "We basically ignored the difficulties. And we had a job to do and we worked on it. It was one of those things that you just stayed with it."
On their 3rd and final trip to Omaha, Shaeff's landing craft hit a hedgehog (military obstacle). The boat sank, but was in shallow water. All four crewmen made it to safety.
Afterwards, the beaches called Juno, Sword, Gold and Omaha, names that are familiar to us now, were awash in metal and blood. Victory came a high price: 4,413 Allied troops were lost.
The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia was erected with private funds in honor of the fallen. The waterspouts in the memorial are symbolic of the gunfire the Allies faced as they stormed the beaches of Normandy.
April Cheek-Messier: "D-Day was the watershed event of WWII, and it was the turning point. It was the beginning of the end of Hitler's dreams of Nazi domination.
But what if D-Day had failed?
April Cheek-Messier: "Certainly Hitler's final solution would have been complete. Hitler would've developed more technology: His V-1 rockets, his new jet aircrafts that he was developing, and even the atomic weapons. Any way you look at it, the consequences would have been dire. That's why it's so critical that we pay tribute and historically remember on these occasions why we're here today."
Seaman Shaeff and Able Seaman Robb want the world to remember that D-Day marks the start where freedom was reclaimed for generations yet to come.
David Kithcart: "That was a day of days."
Seaman Shaeff: "It was a busy day."
Able Seaman John Robb: "We just did what we had to do."
The National D-Day Memorial stands as a reminder of the sacrifices given by a humble few for so many.