Rusty McGuire: Heroes by air and by sea
Last week, while discussing Memorial Day, a cable news anchor stated he was “uncomfortable” calling the combat fallen heroes. A few days later, a woman contacted me after reading my Memorial Day column where I wrote about the heroic actions of Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. on D-Day.
Her father landed with Roosevelt and was with Roosevelt the day he died. After talking to her father and a friend who jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne on D-Day I knew their heroic stories needed to be told.
On June 5, 1944, over 100,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen prepared to liberate Europe. Their target was Nazi-occupied France. Nazis defeated France in 1940 and built a complex defensive wall of pillboxes, artillery and over 6,000,000 mines. Allied forces assembled an armada of 5,000 ships to transport the troops by sea and 800 aircraft to deliver 13,000 paratroopers by air. Staff suggested that the Nazis would kill 50% of the paratroopers before they landed.
Just before they boarded the planes, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower spoke to members of the 101st Airborne Division. A photographer captured a picture of this talk, which resulted in one of the most iconic images of the war. In the picture, Eisenhower is talking to 1st Sgt.William “Bill” Odom and others. Standing outside the range of the camera was PFC John Hubbard. John listened to Gen. Eisenhower that night but he was focused on his mission. At the same time PVT James Williams, 21, loaded his transport to cross the English Channel and he was also ready to do his job.
When Hubbard was assigned to Bravo Company, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, he knew he would some day jump into harms way. He jumped out of his plane, just after midnight, behind enemy lines. German tracer bullets filled the air. He believes he landed around Neuville and there was not a soul in sight. For hours, he searched for a friend hoping not to find an enemy soldier. John said “it was the loneliest feeling you could ever imagine.” His sergeant taught him to use the challenge “flash” when he saw somebody and that person needed to respond with “thunder.” The German vocabulary does not have the “th” sound so it would be easy to know if a German learned the password. Just before dawn John said “flash,” and his first sergeant, Bill Odom, responded with “thunder.” Together they headed toward Utah Beach to attack the Germans from the rear before the 4th Infantry Division landed that morning.
As Hubbard and Odom moved toward Utah Beach, PVT James Williams and his 8th Regiment, 4th Division assaulted Utah Beach. Williams was the demolition man on his team. He wore a vest with explosives on the front and back and carried a bandolier. He was to follow two flame throwing soldiers and bazooka soldier out of the craft with the plan of blowing up an enemy pillbox. As the boat sped toward the beach, smacks of bullets and whizzing of friendly rockets filled the air around the craft.
When the front gate dropped, the men charged toward the beach, but Jim ended up underwater. The weight of the explosives took him straight to the bottom. He ditched the explosives and his swimming skills saved his life. He exited the water but there were no pillboxes. Roosevelt, who Williams described as the finest officer he ever served under, organized the men and they headed in land.
Williams landed with over 100 men in his unit on D-Day but when they reached Cherbourg a few weeks later only 9 of the men that landed at Utah Beach still fought. While the 101st sustained serious casualties on D-Day, Hubbard said “they went into the Battle of Bastogne as an over strength company of 150 men. When the battle was over just over a dozen remained in the fight.”
The Army decorated both of these men. PFC John Hubbard earned the bronze star for his actions on D-Day and PVT James F. Williams was promoted to sergeant and earned our nations’ third highest award for valor, the Silver Star, on his way to Cherbourg.
These men are not just heroes for the medals on their chest but they are heroes for their willingness to serve. The allied forces on D-Day faced uncertainty and death to preserve freedom. They are heroes because they shed their blood to liberate oppressed people – not as conquers. They are heroes because they re-ignited the torch of freedom that Hitler attempted to extinguish. Not only are the fallen heroes, but all who served by air and by sea on June 6, 1944 are heroes!
Rusty E. McGuire is Louisa County commonwealth’s attorney and a major in the Virginia Army National Guard. He served in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.