Seventy years ago this morning, Bill Swanner crawled through hell.
It was still dark when the 19-year-old infantryman joined the more than 150,000 Allied soldiers making the secretive passage out of England for Normandy. Dawn was breaking when he dropped into the water short of Omaha Beach.
Now he was on the sand, in the smoke, crawling past the mines and through the corpses, a 50-pound water-cooled machine gun in his hands, pushing through withering German fire to get to the hedgerows beyond the beach.
D-Day, the long-anticipated Allied invasion of German-occupied France, had begun. All sides understood that the fighting in the weeks and months to come would decide the war in Europe — and the future of the world.
But on the morning of June 6, 1944, Swanner's thoughts were focused on the present.
"I kind of figured this might be my last day," he said this week. "We knew exactly where we were going to land. I figured that not too many people were going to live through that onslaught.
"You've got to make up your mind. You've got to make up your mind that there's only one way to go. You've got to go in, and you've got to do what you're supposed to do."
In Normandy on Friday, President Barack Obama is scheduled to join the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and other European powers to mark the 70th anniversary of the invasion that led to the Allied defeat of the Nazis and victory in World War II.
In Washington, a great-grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a granddaughter of Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower will gather with D-Day veterans and representatives of the Allied nations to lay wreaths at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.
At the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville, Swanner, now 89, will meet with fellow survivors Harper Griswold, Howard McNamara and Harold Rummel to raise a glass of Calvados, the apple brandy native to Normandy. They'll remember what they accomplished — and those they lost.
"If these guys — and all of us together — hadn't done what we did, you guys wouldn't be here today," Griswold told a pair of younger visitors this week.
Griswold, 88, from Winchester, Conn., was a cook on the HMS Ceres, a World War I vessel that directed naval traffic off Omaha Beach.
Rummel, 93, from New Florence, Pa., was a gunner on a B-17 that flew two missions that day, attacking German coastal defenses on one run and rail yards on another.
McNamara, 95, from Halethorpe, was a communications officer aboard an LST, a craft that carried men and tanks to Utah Beach. Officially, the initials stood for Landing Ship, Tank. Their crews joked that they really meant Large, Slow Transport.
McNamara stresses that the fighting at Utah Beach, where Allied deaths numbered in the hundreds, was not as intense as at Omaha Beach, where they were in the thousands. Still, as his LST conveyed troops and equipment to the fighting, the Loyola College graduate wondered: "How in the world did I get into this situation?"
"I was a little apprehensive," he added.
Swanner's commanders had told him to be prepared to die. He spent six months training in Plymouth, England, with 40-mile marches and mock attacks on the moors. As members of his company ran relays, their captain would fire a machine gun a few feet behind them.
"We were told over and over that we had to succeed, because this was the only way we were going to take Europe," he said. "We couldn't fail. They told us we might be a sacrifice in our company, in our regiment. We might be a sacrifice, because the odds are against us. Terrifically against us."
On June 6, Swanner stormed ashore with the Maryland-based 115th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division.
"It was just starting to get light enough," he remembered. "I think the Krauts could see us coming. It must have scared the hell out of them. The water as far as you could see in all directions was ships."
The 115th Regiment was the second to hit Omaha Beach, after the 116th.
"We went in right on top of them," he said. "A lot of them were still in the water or dead on the beach. "They got chopped up real bad."
Baltimore Sun war correspondent Holbrook Bradley surveyed the carnage from a transport ship. "We have heard that most of the men have made high ground immediately behind the shore and hope the report is true, for the stretch between looks like an unhealthy spot," he wrote.
That's how Swanner remembers it.
"You don't walk but maybe a step or two, and you're down with the rest of them," he said. "What you're doing is crawling in the sand. Pushing sand up ahead of you, with a machine gun laying in the cradle of your arms and a belt over your back, trying to fire."
Carrying the heavy machine gun and its tripod was a two-man job — and the weapon made the team a target.
"It sounded like the middle of hell," he said. "The smoke and everything else blowing up around you, it's hard to see what's going on. I think I had guardian angels at times. … Machine gun fire came so close I could hear the bullets pass my ears and feel the air from them on my earlobes."
Swanner kept only sporadic contact with his partner: "You're working together for a couple of minutes, but then for the next 15, 20 minutes, he's on the other side of two or three dead bodies."
The 115th was credited with taking Omaha Beach. Swanner said he was cut by shrapnel several times but didn't report to an aid station because he didn't want his mother to receive a telegram saying he had been wounded in action. He would pour the disinfectant sulfanilamide into the wounds and plow through the hedgerows until his regiment reached its objective, the French town of St. Lo.
Rummel said Swanner "fought a whole different war than I did." The two missions he flew on D-Day were among the easiest of his career — and it got better.
"We were flying long bombing missions without any fighter escort because they didn't have the distance to go with us," he said. "After the invasion, they started setting up fighter fields on the continent. So our missions after that were a lot easier."
After the war, Rummel earned a degree in engineering and worked in sales for Patio Enclosures Inc. Griswold was a grounds supervisor, first at Johns Hopkins Hospital and later at the General Electric plant in Columbia.
McNamara worked for Baltimore City as a budget and management analyst. He retired as the city's insurance manager. Swanner left the Army, served 17 years in the Air Force as a meteorologist, then retired and joined the Defense Intelligence Agency.
All the men married and raised families. And reflected, from time to time, on their service, and D-Day. McNamara describes having participated as a "privilege." Rummel says he looks back with pride.
The government of France is offering knighthoods to veterans who helped to liberate the country. Griswold was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in January.
"The ones that deserve this medal are the guys that never came home," he said. "They are the ones that sacrificed everything so we could be here."
Swanner described the fight as a "job that had to be done."
"There's no good wars," he said. "There's a lot of wars that don't have to be fought. This one had to be fought. You had to go at it with that attitude. I was trained to do a certain job, and I was going to keep doing it as long as I possibly could. I guess a lot of people took that attitude, or we would never have won the thing.
"And we did, finally. It took some doing. And a lot of lives."
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