Seventy years ago today, more than 100,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed on a fortified section of French beach as they began what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called "a great crusade" to liberate France and the rest of occupied Europe from the Germans.
The invasion touched many Harford County residents then and now, including men who directly participated in the bloody Normandy beach landings or the paratrooper jumps behind enemy lines in the hours leading to the beach landings.
"The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you," Eisenhower said in his recorded message to the sailors, soldiers and pilots who made up the massive invasion force that steamed across the English Channel and deposited the troops on the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944.
"In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world," Eisenhower continued.
Other Harford residents who fought in the war were not direct participants in D-Day, but they were affected by the invasion that signaled the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, with the liberation of areas Hitler's war machine had overrun prior to 1944.
The D-Day invasion, known as Operation Overlord, cleared the way for the liberation of occupied France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and Germany's surrender in May of 1945, less than a year later.
'We did a good job'
James Bradley Sr., of Pylesville, who turns 90 today (Friday), celebrated his 20th birthday crossing the English Channel toward northern France.
His Army unit, Troop B of the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, was behind the main invasion force that landed on June 6. Bradley landed on the beach on June 9, according to a history prepared by his Pylesville friend and neighbor Bill Ward.
In an interview Thursday, Bradley noted the celebration of his 20th birthday was muted among his fellow troops.
"You don't celebrate something like that," he said. "Everybody was hoping that they didn't get killed."
Bradley was a private with the 38th Cavalry, which was attached to the Army's 1st Infantry Division as its soldiers fought through northern France on the drive to liberate Paris.
His mechanized cavalry unit served as a "spearhead" of the main body of troops.
"We'd go up front and find where the enemy was, then [the infantry] went in," Bradley recalled.
The 38th was also the first Allied unit into the French capital of Paris, according to Ward and Bradley.
"They came with wine bottles, everything," Bradley said of the Parisians. "They were so happy to see us; they really gave us a big celebration."
The celebration of Bradley's 90th birthday is expected to be much more festive. Ward said he and his neighbors plan to honor Bradley for his service when they celebrate his birthday Saturday, as well as the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Bradley's service included the liberation of Paris, fighting in the Ardennes Forest in eastern Belgium to stop the last major German counterattack of the war, a campaign commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge, and fighting in Germany.
"You might say his service was extraordinary, but it really wasn't," Ward explained. "It was typical of a young man at that point in our history; Jim is a member of the greatest generation."
The title "Greatest Generation" has been given to those who grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and fought in World War II.
"We did the best we could," Bradley said. "We couldn't do any better."
Bradley is married to Lillian, whom he met while stationed in Czechoslovakia after Germany's surrender. He has three children, one of whom is deceased, and three grandchildren.
He is a native of Baltimore and has lived in Pylesville for about 29 years.
From trainers to fighters
Milton W. Leigh, 89, of Aberdeen, was a sergeant technician with the Army's 351st Field Artillery Battalion; he was a forward observer and radio operator responsible for spotting the enemy targets and reporting their locations to headquarters.
"We had to sneak as far forward as we possibly could and report back to headquarters and help to direct fire in on the enemy positions," Leigh explained in an interview Wednesday.
His unit was made up of African-American enlisted soldiers and mostly white officers. Leigh and his fellow African-American soldiers were at Fort Sill in Oklahoma by the time of the D-Day invasion, serving as "school troops" helping to train white officers on how to work with artillery units.
Leigh said the black school troops were told that they would not be sent to fight in Europe "because you don't have what it takes, so you'll stay here and train officers for the white units."
"Shortly after [D-Day] happened, that idea was bunked and we were sent overseas," Leigh recalled.
Much of Leigh's service in Europe took place in 1945 during the Allied invasion of western Germany, pushing the enemy forces back to their capital of Berlin.
He was stationed in England before his unit shipped out to mainland Europe, and he recalled witnessing London being bombed.
"We were glad that it was another phase of a big war," Leigh said of D-Day. "It was taking on a new importance."
Leigh, a native of Columbus, Miss., returned to the U.S. after the war, and struggled to find employment for some time, so he rejoined the service.
He ended up being assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he became an engineering technician, specializing in ballistics research.
He retired from APG in 1981; he is married to his wife Genevieve, has five children and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Leigh recalled being on the outskirts of Berlin, as millions of refugees fled the Soviet troops attacking the city from the east.
He said he was one of the first "25 to 40 people in the world who knew that the war ended," because the news of Germany's surrender went out over his radio from his corps command.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun