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They were there on D-Day, on the beaches and in the skies. This is what they saw

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Eighty years ago this week, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Nazi-occupied Normandy, France, during World War II. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed Allied troops.

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DWIGHT D EISENHOWER: Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, you are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.

CHANG: Over the years, NPR has interviewed D-Day veterans. NPR's Jack Mitchell searched our archives to share their voices.

JACK MITCHELL, BYLINE: For Army Sergeant Thelma Jester, D-Day began with a knock.

THELMA JESTER: Some of the guys came and rapped on our doors, and we went out, and the whole sky was filled with lights from the planes and the gliders taking the troops over to the invasion.

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RICHARD DIMBLEBY: This is Richard Dimbleby speaking from an aerodome in England on the night of June 5 and reporting the fact that the first aircraft carrying the first parachutists who are going to land on the fortress of Europe in the beginning of our great attack tomorrow morning are taking up from this air station at this moment quite fast.

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MITCHELL: More than 11,000 planes filled the skies on June 6, 1944. Before dawn, Allied gliders and paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines. Bombers weakened German defenses from above, and at sea, more than 6,000 ships and landing craft sailed toward the French coast. Jim McLaughlin saw the invasion unfold from inside the turret of a B-26 bomber.

JIM MCLAUGHLIN: I couldn't believe that there were that many ships in the whole world, all headed in the same direction - and then a few moments later to see that beach.

MITCHELL: Troops were crowded into small, narrow landing craft. Captain Frank Walk remembers being caught in strong winds and rough seas.

FRANK WALK: It was bouncing around. Waves are blowing over the side. Wasn't long before all of us aboard that little boat were seasick.

MITCHELL: The landing craft dropped their ramps, and more than 150,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops charged head-on into Nazi gunfire, land mines and barbed wire.

HAROLD BAUMGARTEN: We finally got into a point where they lowered the ramp and let us out in neck-deep water.

WILLIAM DABNEY: We were scared, I think was actually too frightened, probably, to be frightened. We saw guys crying. We saw guys after we got off they was throwing up.

WALK: Some of those who came out with me actually were hit before they got ashore. I managed to find the colonel who was my boss, and he had landed a little earlier. He was no longer capable of functioning. He had been shell-shocked.

MCLAUGHLIN: I had a bullet that hit my rifle. I twisted it around, and I saw the clean hole in front of the trigger guard. A half inch to either side would have gone through my chest.

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MITCHELL: Those are the voices of U.S. Army veterans private Harold Baumgarten and Corporal William Dabney. There were also reporters covering the invasion. Larry LeSueur from CBS landed at Utah Beach with the Army's 4th Infantry Division. He was carrying a typewriter. He spoke with NPR's Noah Adams in 1994.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: Did you find yourself backing away from the truth and the horror of what you saw because it was, at that time, too terrible to tell the American people about?

LARRY LESUEUR: Well, yes, I guess so because it never occurred to me to tell them about certain things that I had witnessed. It wasn't my place to do so. I mean, everybody would think it was their own son. I didn't have his name. Next of kin had to be notified anyway, if a man were wounded or dead. And it wasn't my place.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And now we have taken the most decisive step of the war, invasion of Western Europe.

MITCHELL: D-Day was an Allied victory and a crucial turning point during World War II, but it came at enormous cost. More than 4,000 Allied troops were killed during the invasion, including 2,501 Americans. Several thousand Germans were killed or wounded. D-Day remains the largest amphibious invasion in history. Jack Mitchell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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