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EDITORIAL: Few D-Day veterans remain, but their memory is immortal

The Herald - 6/6/2024

Jun. 5—D-DAY was a suicide mission for Brig. Gen. Theodore "Ted" Roosevelt Jr. — son and namesake of the 26th president.

Roosevelt, carrying on a family tradition, had requested combat assignments when he could have had a less hazardous stateside posting. At the age of 56, he was the only general to land at Normandy by sea with D-Day's first wave, the oldest man in the Allied operation and the only soldier to have a son in the invasion force.

That, in spite of being afflicted with arthritis that forced him to walk with a cane and a heart ailment that would take his life only five weeks later.

When Roosevelt's 4th Infantry Division units — he was the division's deputy commander — landed at Utah Beach, he quickly discovered that he and his soldiers had been dropped a mile away from their objective, leaving the general with his first and most important command decision of the day.

Instead of moving to the planned objective, Roosevelt gave the order to strike — "We'll start the war from right here!"

Prussian military commander Helmuth von Moltke is reputed to have said, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy," although a similar quote is attributed to an earlier Prussian, Carl von Clausewitz. Boxer Mike Tyson said, "Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time."

Whoever said it, the historical fact that many elements of the D-Day plan of June 6, 1944 — 80 years ago today — didn't survive long enough to make contact with the enemy.

Paratroopers from the U.S. 101st and 82nd airborne divisions, and from the British 1st Airborne landed beyond their designated drop zones, sometimes by miles.

They had to "start the war from right here" where they landed, in many cases with ad hoc arrangements of soldiers from other units, and even mixing the 101st's "Screaming Eagles" with the 82nd's "All-Americans."

Those mistakes weren't just inconvenient. Many of them were tragic.

John Lapikas, a 24-year-old steelworker from Sharpsville, was a corporal in Company A, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne.

Reports assembled by the Stories Behind the Stars website (storiesbehindthestars.org), indicate that Lapikas, who completed one year of high school before going to work at National Malleable Steel Castings in Sharon, joined the Army in 1941 and volunteered for parachute duty.

He trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., and arrived in England during October of 1943. Lapikas didn't live to contact the enemy. His C-47 transport aircraft, confronted with poor weather conditions and anti-aircraft fire, is believed to have dropped some of A Company's soldiers into the English Channel.

Those paratroopers — carrying more than 100 pounds of equipment, including their parachutes — drowned in the Channel before reaching their objective. Lapikas' remains were never recovered.

As we mark the 80th anniversary of what might have been the most complex military operation in history — a massive airborne, amphibious assault — it's easy to look back and see its success as inevitable.

At the time, though, the soldiers, sailors and air personnel were heading off to breach what Nazi Germany billed as Festung Europa — Fortress Europe.

Their mission, especially for paratroopers landing behind enemy lines, was do or be taken prisoner, if they were fortunate.

It's difficult to overstate the courage and — in a characteristic not normally associated with the military — ability to improvise among those who participated in the Normandy invasion.

The youngest surviving Normandy veterans would be in their late 90s. For them, this will be likely their last milestone observance.

Most of them now live only in our memory.

In our memory, though, D-Day's heroes are immortal.

___

(c)2024 The Herald (Sharon,Pa)

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