History remembers it as the “Longest Day” – D-Day, June 6, 1944, the beginning of the end for Hitler’s “1,000-Year Reich.”
According to historian Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the first definitive account of the landings, one American general on the morning of the invasion predicted that people would be talking about this day “long after we are dead and buried.”
He wasn’t far off. Seventy-five years after American, British and Canadian troops waded ashore on the coast of Normandy, we continue to honor the bravery of the men and women who took the first steps in repaving Liberty Road.
The troops came ashore on five beaches – names that have gone down in history: Gold, Sword, Juno, Utah and Omaha.
It was tough going at first, especially on Omaha, where the American 1st and 49th Infantry divisions were penned in by heavily fortified Germans dug in on the hills surrounding the beach.
The carnage and the bravery of these troops are accurately portrayed in the opening moments of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” which combat vets have told me is the most realistic combat scene ever re-created on the big screen.
Just to the west was Utah Beach, where the American 4th Infantry Division came ashore. Among those troops was John Santillo, now of Brick Township.
Last year Santillo was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for his courage in liberating that nation. This year, thanks to an outstanding fundraising effort, Santillo is returning to France and the 75th D-Day Anniversary Commemoration.
Another Ocean County resident arrived in France hours before the troops hit the beaches.
Sgt. John Gutbrod, now of Surf City, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, which landed in occupied France before dawn on June 6, 1944. These vanguard paratroopers fought a series of skirmishes overnight to protect the landing zones for the thousands of U.S. soldiers who came ashore on the “Longest Day.”
For his efforts, Gutbrod was also awarded the French Legion of Honor.
These brave men are among only a handful of D-Day survivors living in Ocean County.
We also remember the men and women who are no longer with us. Men like 2nd Lt. Bud Lomell of Toms River, whose daring exploits on the battlefields of France saved countless American lives.
On D-Day, Lomell was among the rangers who scaled the cliffs overlooking the American landing beaches. Their objective was a battery of huge German cannons that could have targeted the invasion troops about to come ashore. Finding the bunkers that had housed the artillery empty, Lomell searched the countryside, found the huge guns and disabled them.
Noted historian Stephen Ambrose said that aside from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lomell was the single man most responsible for the success of the Normandy landings.
For his bravery he was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.
Lomell, 91, died on March 1, 2011.
As liaison to the Ocean County Veterans Service Bureau, I’m proud to say Ocean County is home to more veterans than any other county in New Jersey. I’m also proud to say Ocean County never forgets it veterans.
From the skirmishes of the Revolutionary War, through the battlefields of the Civil War, World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and today’s ongoing War on Terror, we thank all of our brave men and women who have worn, and who continue to wear, the uniform of the U.S. Armed Services.
Editor’s Note: Ocean County will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day with a special ceremony at the Ocean County Courthouse in downtown Toms River at noon on Thursday, June 6.
Gerry P. Little of Surf City is an Ocean County freeholder.