It’s been 75 years since Allied forces launched the largest military invasion in history. As is the tradition, dignitaries, an ever-diminishing number of World War II veterans and citizens from across the world will join together to commemorate that nearly miraculous feat, which began on June 6, 1944, and is known forever as D-Day.
There will be ceremonies at sites throughout the European battlegrounds. Thousands will visit such
sacred and iconic places as France’s Normandy American Cemetery, where men who fought and died as they dropped from the sky or during the beach landings are buried. Among those are Arkansans, including Harold Eugene “Gene” Sellers. He found himself a long way from his northeast Arkansas home on the evening of June 5, 1944, as he and his fellow 101st Airborne paratroopers boarded C-47s to cross the English Channel to Normandy, France.
Earlier in the day, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had struggled with the decision of whether to launch the invasion. Intense storms with gale-force winds across the English Channel had already forced him to postpone the invasion for 24 hours. But on the morning of June 5, forecasts were calling for the weather to clear by that afternoon. Eisenhower made the decision: the invasion was on.
The Invasion Begins
Sellers, a star athlete in football and basketball at Jonesboro High School, joined the Army at age 20 in March 1943, forgoing his football scholarship at the University of Arkansas. He chose the 101st Airborne Division, where he trained to not only be a paratrooper, but a pathfinder, the elite of the elite.
As a pathfinder, Pfc. Sellers’ job was to mark out drop zones with lights to help the rest of the paratroopers better see their drop zones in the dark of night. In an article “Normandy Visitor Center, Inside Look,” author Stephanie Le Bris wrote that 30% of the pathfinders were killed. Sellers was one of them. In fact, Le Bris said Sellers was one of the first two men to die on D-Day. The other was Herbert “Den” Brotheridge, a British paratrooper.
Shortly after midnight on June 6, Sellers jumped from his plane and landed near the village of Saint Come du Mont, not far from Utah Beach. He landed in a tree and became entangled in his parachute. German soldiers who were camped nearby and armed with the dreaded MG-42 machine guns saw him and shot him, killing him before he touched the ground. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star posthumously.
Sellers’ story, and those of others who sacrificed their lives on D-Day, are told in exhibits and films at the Visitor Center of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial where he is buried.
Arkansas Veterans Remember D-Day
John H. Shields of Little Rock had his bags packed and ready to go when Sellers and other paratroopers began landing in Normandy. He and his Army Air Corps unit were at Ashford, England, on the coast, preparing to head to Normandy. He was part of a support unit for a squadron of P-47 fighter planes. It was a mobile unit that handled supplies such as fuel for vehicles and planes, as well as equipment for protection from a possible chemical warfare attack.
‘’We knew something was on,” Shields, now 95, recalled in a recent interview. “On June 4, the guys in the fighter squadron came over and said, ‘We want all the black and white paint you have.’” Shields’ unit gave it to them and saw that the next day, the planes had been painted with black and white stripes. The stripes indicated that they were Allied planes and were added in an effort to avoid friendly fire.
Not long after the invasion began, Shields was assigned to a section with 10 jeeps and a squadron ambulance for the trip to Normandy. There were two men to a jeep with a medical officer and two medics in the ambulance. They, along with their vehicles, were loaded on a ship known as an LST, landing ship tank. Their destination: Omaha Beach, “Easy Red Sector.”
Shields isn’t sure exactly when he landed on Omaha Beach, but it appears it was within the first 48 hours, considering that infantry troops who were also aboard his ship were still being shot at by German troops as they went ashore.
“We lucked out because that LST just pulled right up on the shore, opened the door and we went rolling out,” Shields said. “We didn’t get shot at.” He added that he recalls seeing “a lot of sand and troops everywhere. A lot of vehicles were starting to hit the beach.”
His unit went on to support the P-47s, which provided air support for ground troops, at a hastily built
airfield near Utah Beach and at other locations. Eventually, he made his way across Europe into Belgium, even helping oversee a German prisoner-of-war camp. During that time, he said his unit occasionally drew enemy fire, the worst being from a German plane that strafed a truck he was riding in. He was not injured.
Charles A. Dumas of Heber Springs also recalled the D-Day invasion when he and members of his Army combat engineer battalion landed on
the beaches of Normandy. Soon after their landing, Dumas’ unit encountered German troops. “After we got off the ship, it got pretty tight, and I jumped into a foxhole,” Dumas said in a 2018 Arkansas Living interview. “This German kid jumped right on top of me, and my bayonet went right through him. This was the first time I came to grips with what was going on.”
Dumas said he figured that the German soldier was disoriented and did not realize he was behind American lines. The experience haunted Dumas from that day forward.
“All I could see were these big blue eyes staring at me,” Dumas said. “I couldn’t get that out of my mind. For a long time after the army, I would go to bed at night and all I could see was this kid. It was terrible.”
Once the fighting stopped, Dumas became an engineer as his battalion moved on through France and into Belgium.
USS Arkansas and D-Day
Arkansas’ connection to D-Day goes even further than the brave men who fought at that time.
The USS Arkansas B-33 ship, commissioned in 1912 and already battle-tested in World War I, was back on duty for the June 6, 1944, invasion. The ship was 4,000 yards off shore of Omaha Beach, firing its 12-inch, .50-caliber guns against German batteries and aerial assaults.
Later, the USS Arkansas was transferred to the Pacific, where it also participated in the bombardment of Iwo Jima, one of the deadliest WWII battles. The ship received four battle stars for its service in WWII.
As WWII veterans continue to pass away, it is expected that this year’s anniversary commemoration at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, will be the last large official commemoration of the D-Day invasion.
“The importance of the 75th anniversary has given extra bite this year,” Michael Dodds, director
of Normandy Tourism, told The Guardian in an April article. “I think this will be the last time there will be a large number of veterans. So, Normandy is making a big effort. They never get blasé about arriving British, American and Canadian veterans coming over.”
Arkansas will commemorate the anniversary as well. Among those events will be programs at the Arkansas Air and Military Museum in Fayetteville on June 6-8, including a special D-Day ceremony at 2 p.m. June 8, featuring comments by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack and a special D-Day video. For more information, visit arkansasairandmilitary.com. In addition, the Wings of Honor Museum in Walnut Ridge will have a program at 6 p.m. June 6 featuring D-Day veteran D.J. Lawson. The museum will also host its annual airfield reunion dinner on June 7 and additional programs on June 8 starting at 5:30 p.m. with comments from WWII and Vietnam veteran Robert Puckett of Bono. For more information, visit wingsofhonor.org.
A Monumental Act
After 75 years, the importance of the D-Day invasion has dimmed for many. But, WWII historian and author Alex Kershaw, whose latest book The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II, chronicles the harrowing first hours of the invasion, said the 75th anniversary is an opportunity to bring it back into view.
Speaking to a group at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans last month, Kershaw, a British native, said the D-Day invasion was America’s “finest hour.”
“They gave Europe a future,” Kershaw said. “I grew up in a unified, peaceful Europe. … It was an act, I believe, of monumental altruism, an enormous act of sacrifice and generosity.”