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Day of Days

It's the seventy-third anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, D-Day. That means it is also the seventy-third anniversary of Bill's death. Bill, of course, is 1st Lt. Edmund William Duckworth.

A map Lauren uncovered in her research. 
To learn about the circumstances of Bill's death, I have done a lot of reading to better understand what led up to and took place on D-Day. I saw a post today on Facebook that discussed, quite well, the anxiety, unease, apprehension, and even frivolity that characterized the soldiers on the night before the invasion. D-Day was months in the making, and the soldiers who landed on those five beaches on June 6 had been preparing for the invasion for weeks or even months. In the immediate week before the invasion, they were queued up in embarkation areas and on ships, awaiting their chance to go. They were penned up for days. Knowing this adds more weight to the very difficult call General Eisenhower had to make, whether or not to go on June 6. D-Day had actually be set for June 5, but weather forced a postponement. Late in the day on June 5 Ike had to decide whether or not to launch the invasion, and he had word of a probable clearing of bad weather that would be long enough for the invasion to successfully take place. Had he postponed it, it would have been another month until the tides were optimal for the assault. Another month of waiting would have seemed interminable.

Most of the American soldiers who landed were green troops. Projected casualties were rather high and Allied planners didn't want to forfeit seasoned troops when they knew so many would perish. So as I think about those troops packed aboard the boats waiting to hit the beaches, I know that uncertainty and exuberance was a large part of what they must have been feeling. For most, they had no idea what the feel of combat would be that next day.

Bill's unit was an exception to this. Rather late in the planning, American commanders decided they wanted some veteran troops in the first wave. Bill's 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Infantry Division, was just that unit. Bill had been decorated once already for bravery (Tunisia). He had been recommended for a second citation for actions in Sicily (that Silver Star was awarded posthumously).

Very little went according to plan on Omaha Beach, the beach where Bill landed, one of two American beaches in the invasion. Tides were higher than expected. The landing craft were launched too far from shore. The preparatory bombardments missed many of their targets. The units, including Bill's, landed far from their intended location (in fact, Bill's unit ended up intermingled with elements of the 116th Infantry who landed even further off course than Bill's regiment). A battle-tested German regiment was there that wasn't supposed to be there. In fact, the first wave of troops had foundered so badly that American General Omar Bradley considered sending his second wave to Utah Beach instead, thus abandoning Omaha.

And it was in that environment that Bill died. His unit was pinned down in an anti-tank trench. Bill was on the beach long enough to enjoy a drink of Scotch with two sergeants in his regiment before he was killed by sniper fire.

We've come across many accounts of Bill's death, some of them erroneous. Actually, his death was mentioned in Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day, though that author was quite a bit more floral than the facts would support. Ryan suggested Bill died immediately upon leaving the boat. A more recent book, The Dead and Those Who are About to Die, gets the details more correct, namely that Bill was felled by sniper fire several minutes after reaching the beach. In fact, in our research we ended up coming upon hand-written testimony from a sergeant and captain who were with Bill at the time of his death.

Each print account of Bill's death mentions that he married Audrey just five days before. This might be the most captivating part of the story for us. Something particularly extraordinary about Bill's story is that he actually left the embarkation area to marry Audrey. His commanding officer and another company officer served as witnesses. Bill's granddaughter recently sent us pictures that included one, we think, is of the couple on their wedding day.  A photo I like even better is the one below, which I think was taken near their wedding but not on the day itself. Bill's hair isn't as neatly combed, and Audrey's dress isn't quite as fancy as the one I think is their wedding photo.

Bill and Audrey.
So on this June 6 I find myself thinking mostly of the two faces I see in that photo. I meant to write this post as a way to talk about the lay of the land (the shingle, the draws) or elaborate more on the adversity Bill and his comrades faced. But as I wrote, I kept looking for a way to put that picture of a charismatic Lancaster County man and a beautiful young English girl in this post. It's the most haunting image for me today, on the anniversary of a day filled with haunting images.


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