This week the nation marks the 65th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. It was D-Day — June 6, 1944 — when an armada of Allied ships, planes and men departed the southern coast of England for France. Their goal: Break through Hitler's impenetrable "Atlantic Wall," liberate France and the continent from the Third Reich.
New Jersey native Leonard "Bud" Lomell of the 2nd Ranger Battalion was among those who landed at the steep cliffs of Ponte du Hoc. For many of the young men like Bud, there was a youthful bravado as they invaded the European continent. "We didn't think anybody could lick us," the Ranger recalls. "And certainly not the Germans. There was never a doubt in our mind that we weren't going to be successful."
• Catch the 'War Stories Classic: Normandy!,' Monday, June 8 at 3 a.m. ET
Twice in the past few years, the "War Stories team" has traveled to Normandy to tape segments for episodes on D-Day and the liberation of France. Producer Ayse Wieting remembers her thoughts when she first visited the beaches there: "It was humbling," she said. "Now it looks like a parade ground and a vacation spot. It's difficult to imagine the magnitude of the invasion force 65 years ago and that thousands of people were shedding blood and dying."
California native Angel Garcia returned to France with "War Stories" to visit the battlefields where he fought with the U.S. Army. "When we landed in Omaha far up to the town of Mortain, there were only two guys from the original group that I had," he said. "So every day, every week, we had new men. And sometimes they wouldn't last one day. It's hard to take, but you have to keep going."
Walt Ehlers of Buena Park, California, was a private first class that day, serving in the "Big Red One" — the 1st Infantry Division — on D-Day. He led a squad in the second wave of invading forces and remembers the sacrifice: "The first wave had 50 percent casualties. Some of the companies, it wasn't 50 percent, it was a 100 percent. The second wave had 30 percent casualties."
Just inland from the cliffs, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in the small village of Colleville-sur-Mer is a testament to the sacrifices made in the liberation of France. There, 9,387 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice are buried.
For the "War Stories" team, it was an unforgettable visit. "It was heartbreaking and somber," Wieting recalls.
The men who fought in Normandy share an experience and a unique bond that is unbreakable even 65 years later: "We're still in touch to this day. I get at least three phone calls or letters per week," said Bud Lommell. "We know what's going on in everybody else's family all the time. We're closer than blood brothers. I have great brothers, but none like the Rangers."
— Gregory Johnson is a producer for "War Stories"