Among the 73,000 American troops who landed on the Normandy coast on D-Day 70 years ago Friday -- men who rode toward destiny amid the din of cannon and the gurgling of fear in their gut -- fate's hand seemed particularly random in deciding who would live or die.
As time has begun taking the last of those who made it home, some among the dwindling ranks of D-Day veterans are breaking decades-long silences to speak movingly about what they endured.
They marvel at the bravery witnessed seven decades ago, grieve for strangers killed before their eyes and still wonder why they were spared when so many were not.
"Guys were dropping like flies to the left and right of me," said Walter Blum of Great Neck, who was just 18 years old when he took part in the largest sea invasion in history. "We were fodder. The chances of survival were very slim." Blum, who waded ashore just after dawn, was among the first GIs on the beach. "I was just lucky I didn't get it," he said.
June 6, 1944 -- D-Day -- began the Allied invasion of France that forced Nazi Germany to defend a western front and led to its World War II defeat less than a year later.
Beginning in the pre-dawn hours, 160,000 American, British and Canadian troops crossed the English Channel, landing along a 50-mile stretch of beaches heavily fortified by mines, artillery emplacements and German troops who fired from concrete bunkers hidden amid bluffs that overlooked the wide sand.
Within hours, more than 4,000 Allied troops were killed, according to the National D-Day Memorial, most of them as they waded ashore and were met instantly by withering German fire. Thousands more suffered severe wounds.
"I still get visions of the beach, the torn-up bodies, the bodies strewn all over," said Jacob Cutler, 90, of Valley Stream, a Brooklyn College sophomore in 1942 who enlisted rather than wait to be drafted in hope of avoiding the worst of war. Eighteen months later, he found himself skirting bodies in the landing area designated Omaha Beach and witnessing war's surreal brutality.
"Up to then, we had no idea of what awaited us," said Cutler, one of a handful of D-Day survivors who are scheduled to appear at Friday's opening of the Museum of American Armor on the grounds of the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. "But when we got to the beach and saw the bodies, we knew how awful it would be."
"We ran across the beach while they were still shelling," Cutler said. "I saw a guy get blown up. I don't know if the shell hit him or landed at his feet, but the whole bottom half of his body just disappeared."
Bertrand Dolan was a witness to the slaughter as a crew member aboard LST 498, a 330-foot troop carrier that ferried foot soldiers toward the embattled coastline, then put them into plywood "Higgins" landing craft to go ashore.
Dolan remembers being full of enthusiasm for the fight. Then the coastline emerged from the gathering dawn and the shooting began.
"As a 19-year-old, there was a sense of exhilaration -- we wanted to give them a whack," said Dolan, 89, a Flatbush native who moved to Merrick in 1960. "But I could see the small boats and they were getting cut to shreds," he said. "That was the most heart-rending experience I've ever had."
"When I saw the bodies of four Americans floating in the sea below us, with their Navy jackets on, I finally knew what this was going to be about," he said. "I knew there would be many more."
Many of the D-Day veterans still living today were mere teenagers when they took part in the invasion.
Blum had been president of the model airplane club and a track team co-captain at Great Neck Junior-Senior High School before graduating in 1942. He was an Army soldier months later, at 17.
Blum was among the first Americans to reach Normandy's shore about 6 a.m. With some 800 World War II GIs dying every day, he is among the last D-Day veterans left.
His unit of amphibious engineers was sent to clear Utah Beach of water mines and metal obstructions laid by the enemy to trap the Allies at the water's edge, in the gunsights of German soldiers.
But there were many more obstructions than the engineers could possibly clear. As a consequence, Allied boats dropped troops in deeper water than had been planned.
"A lot of the guys drowned as soon as they stepped off of the boat," Blum said grimly. "We had wounded lying on the beach under blankets for days. There was nothing easy about that invasion."
To this day, Blum wonders whether his work that day made much of a difference.
"How do you measure success when so many were killed?" he observed.
But the Normandy invasion provided the Allies with a secure foothold on the continent by which to pour men and equipment onto Germany's western flank, breaking the Nazis' grip on Europe. Paris was liberated in 10 weeks, after having been under Nazi occupation for more than four years.
And it brought hope.
In her June 6, 1944, diary entry, Anne Frank wrote: "Oh, Kitty, the best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way." She died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp two months before Germany's May 8, 1945, surrender.Blum said that although he considers more recent wars to have been costly, ill-advised mistakes, the defeat of Nazi Germany justified America's D-Day sacrifice.
"I wouldn't go for some of the tinker-toy engagements we have now," he said. "But if I had to do D-Day over again, and it had that meaning, I would go again."
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