June is a busy month of historical and family anniversaries … today is a day on which the two converge … as one of the American soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach at Normandy on D-Day was my father-in-law, Joe Marion “Pappaw” Douglas, of Senatobia, Mississippi.
In all the years I knew him, Joe Douglas talked about D-Day only once, describing for me what happened to him and others on his craft … a member of the venerated Big Red One … the 1st Infantry Division … he recalled nervously anticipating his first combat as his landing craft headed toward the beach.
He described feeling seasick as the landing craft bounced across the waves … and then the ramp dropped … and “all hell broke loose”.
His was one of the landing craft immediately taken under heavy fire from the Germans defending Normandy … several members of his platoon were killed in the first few seconds and those toward the rear of the craft, including Pappaw, had to either climb over their bodies and into the line of fire … or jump over the side into the breakers.
Although not much of a swimmer, Joe Douglas chose to jump … and nearly drowned himself in the process … to survive, he shed his pack and dropped his rifle … and then, once ashore, picked up another rifle and ammunition from a dead comrade … and joined the attack on the German defenses.
Several years after Pappaw described his experience to me, Steven Spielberg directed his Oscar-winning depiction of the invasion … Saving Private Ryan … and Pappaw went to see it with my sister-in-law, Penny Douglas.
He broke into tears during the opening scenes, one of the few times any of us had ever known him to cry. Joe Douglas was a gentle man in his personal life … but a tough one in combat. By April of 1945, he had fought with the 1st Infantry Division in all of its major battles … as the allies drove across Europe and into Germany.
Pappaw gave his imprimatur of historical accuracy … and emotional impact … to Spielberg’s recreation of the D-Day invasion … as it brought back memories he had long sought to keep hidden deep inside.
On this very special anniversary day, I salute Joe Douglas and all of the other men who made this momentous invasion an Allied success. Pappaw died on July 7, 2000, at the age of 76. He never considered himself a hero; the rest of our family knows better.
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For the Army.mil website about D-Day, complete with a detailed history, videos and photos, see:
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