Liberator testimonies: 75 years after D-Day
In the predawn hours of June 6, 1944 – 75 years ago this week – an armada of Allied ships sailed across the English Channel and began unloading thousands of troops into shallow waters off the shores of Normandy, France. Operation D-Day had begun.
Among them was William Levine, a draftee from a Jewish family in Minnesota, who, while stationed at a base in Southampton, England, learned of his impending departure only hours before his division was to make the 100-mile voyage across the Channel. The landing craft pushed off around 11 p.m. on June 5, he said in the testimony he gave to USC Shoah Foundation.
All that night, Levine lay in a hammock and clutched a bottle of seasickness pills his mother-in-law had given him. The voyage was quiet and smooth.
“I swung a little in the hammock, but didn’t need the seasick pills,” he said in his testimony.
By dawn, Levine and the other soldiers were charging through the Channel onto the beach against heavy enemy fire.
Over the next five weeks, some 156,000 soldiers from the United States, Canada and Britain would storm the beaches in wave after wave, marking the beginning of the end of World War II. It was the largest amphibious attack in world history. About 4,400 Allied fighters and as many as 9,000 Germans were killed during the battle to establish the beachheads.
Levine was one of more than 400 liberators who gave their testimonies to USC Shoah Foundation in the late 1990s. While running through the water, he said in his testimony, he saw bodies, some of them decapitated.
“Somehow I didn't feel that -- oh, I suppose if you know you're going to get killed, you're not going to do something,” said Levine, an intelligence officer who would eventually rise to the rank of major general. “You just don't think you're going to get killed. You don't think you're even going to get wounded. You don't-- you just don't think you are.”
For Ernest James, who enlisted in the California National Guard, getting to the beach was a reality check.
“When I stepped foot on the beach, I saw the first dead man,” he said in his testimony. “And what I can remember is that he was pale white, grayish white, no color. And that showed me that we were in a war. And we saw – we very quickly got almost numbed to this.”
William McKinney, an African American draftee from Pennsylvania who served in a segregated unit, remembers the devastation of the German artillery as Allied men and armored vehicles made their way down the ramps.
“When they’d lower that door, the Germans had that 88,” McKinney said in his testimony, referring to a large cannon. “And they would fire the 88, and you’d see Jeeps and bodies flying in the air.”
Oklahoma native Irvan William Faulkner jumped into the water about 200 feet from shore with a short man who carried ammunition. When the smaller man went under and didn’t emerge – perhaps because he couldn’t swim – Faulkner yanked him up and dragged him to where they could walk through the water.
“And about the time he stepped in front of me, he got a bullet right between the eyes,” Faulkner said in his USC Shoah Foundation testimony. “If he hadn’t been in front of me – and he was a very short man –that bullet would have caught me right in the chest.”
D-Day caught the Germans flat footed, in part due to an elaborate deception campaign using flipped German spies that left the Nazis convinced the invasion would occur farther north – as far as Norway. This, as well as aerial bombardments of key thoroughfares and bridges on the continent, led to delayed reinforcements from Germany. Within three months, the Allies liberated northern France. This enabled the Allies to put a vice grip on Germany with the help of the advancing Soviet forces to the east.
In a little less than a year after D-Day, the Germans would surrender. The war officially ended a few months later.
For more information about liberators, as well as stories about liberation, See USC Shoah Foundation's online exhibit.
USC Shoah Foundation’s newest documentary, “Liberation Heroes: The Last Eyewitnesses,” aired on the Discovery Channel on May 1 and is available for viewing on Discovery.
Go here to read a story about the film.