The enemy was hunkered down at Normandy as the fog began to clear. Appearing on the horizon, were the Allies who had summoned the greatest invasion force in the history of warfare. They were determined that the tyranny of the Nazi’s would not be allowed to stand. While the Fuhrer was focusing on Pas de Calais, more than 160,000 troops landed further south on that fateful morning along the French coastline. Names of those beaches would be seared into the memory of every soldier, airman and sailor that struck the field of battle. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword would live as a testimony to the Allies strength that would turn the tide of the War on June 6, 1944.
Among the soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division that morning who would face the 12,000 Germans of the 352nd Infantry at Omaha, was a 23 year-old corporal named Ernest “Jim” Gile. Jim had enlisted on December 8, 1941, the Monday morning after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. He wanted to go to the Pacific and fight the people that had perpetrated that unprecedented act of war against the land he loved. Nearing the completion of his training at Ft. Dix, he developed pneumonia and his unit moved out without him. He was reassigned to the North Carolina National Guard troops that were stationed in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, and would join them for a trip across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary to begin training for the invasion of Europe.
It was on a Tuesday morning at 0330 when they boarded the LCVP landing craft armed with grenades, bayonets and M1 carbines. The rough seas that morning caused many battle-ready soldiers to abandon the rations they had consumed earlier into the waters of the English Channel. Jim found himself on the first LCVP to unload its cargo of America’s Best on the beach. At 0600 they would begin to embark on The Longest Day.
The landing craft door opened and began to unload their cargo of GIs about 300 feet from shore in waist-high salt water. The rough seas behind them pushed them forward only to face barbed wire and sections of railroad tracks that had been welded together to form barriers. The skies filled with mortar rounds and rifle fire and rained down like brimstone as the water around them began to turn red. They could see the cliffs beyond the beach which would prove to be the next obstacle between them and their ability to secure the beachhead. Later that morning, a few of their brave comrades scaled the cliffs on rope ladders and would get close enough to drop grenades into the front gun-turrets of the pillboxes.
Jim approached the barriers and spotted a small building to his right, about 200 yards from his position, thinking it might be a good spot to seek cover. It was not to be. It would become an inch by inch belly-crawl to reach the base of the cliffs and no chance to reach the outbuilding. The day would be filled with taking enemy fire and digging foxholes, an arduous task in the mud, until they pushed the enemy back from the concrete pillboxes. Once there, he would move slowly to the far side of the cliffs where he would ascend to the top, flanking the enemy and seizing their holds before nightfall.
They would move from Normandy to engage the enemy at the decisive battles of St. Lo, then through France and ending the war on German soil. He was never seriously wounded during Operation Overlord nor the remainder of war. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, he would always assert that “the bullets flew right over his head”. I hunted game with dad when I was growing up and can tell you first-hand that he was a ghost in the woods. He walked, never made a sound and could hide himself in an open field while wearing hunter-red. Today’s stealth technology had nothing on him.
Among many of his combat citations, was one for Outstanding Performance of Military Duty for his service as a “Message Center Agent”, which was his duty as a forward scout for the artillery, mostly moving in the hedgerows behind enemy lines, during the post-invasion months.
We all should mourn the passing of these great Americans who answered their Nation’s call. Borrowing part of a quote from Gen. George Patton who said “We should thank God that such men lived”, may I add that we should never forget these brave men like my dad, who unselfishly served to protect the freedoms that we enjoy.