The Landing Zone | 6.15.10

It was a day when “men who thought themselves ordinary found it within themselves to do the extraordinary,” as President Barack Obama put it.

It was a day, as President George W. Bush observed, that ended with bodies and blood and Bibles on the beaches. “Our boys carried in their pockets the book that brought into the world this message,” he reported. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

It was a day when “the pride of our nation” began a battle that would “set free a suffering humanity,” in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt.

It was D-Day. And the more time that separates us from that pivot-point moment in history, the clearer it becomes how unique that day and the men who lived it were.

Gen. Marshall’s orders to Gen. Eisenhower were at once simple and yet staggering: “Cross the channel, enter the heartland of Germany and free the continent of Europe.”

It’s been 65 years since Ike and his men completed that mission. But there would be no V-E Day without D-Day. 

I knew two of Ike’s men, two who helped liberate Normandy and France and Europe. Together, they embodied the American fighting man of World War II, giving flesh and bone to Churchill’s desperate dream after Dunkirk—that “in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, will step forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”

One was the son of a physician, a city boy who grew up in the middle class of Middle America. In keeping with his family’s Irish roots, he was a devout Catholic and a lifelong Democrat. He attended the University of Notre Dame but had to leave school and a promising golf career to take care of his family after his father passed away. When war came, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. On D-Day, he was in a C-47, towing gliders over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.  

He never cussed. In fact, when someone said something off-color, he would leave the room. He had a childlike innocence about him always. He used to quip that he didn’t find out the big secret about Santa Claus until he was deployed to England. 

Like so many of his generation, he was optimistic and patriotic, stoic and humble. There wasn’t a trace of pride in him. In fact, when friends and family would ask what he did to earn the Silver Star his wife kept on display in the living room, he would always say, “The Army gave me that for being first in the chow line 30 days in a row.” Then he’d take a sip of beer and change the subject. No one ever pried the secret from him.  

Modesty, patriotism and optimism seemed hardwired into the other D-Day Everyman as well. But the similarities would end there. He was a dirt-poor farm boy from rural Texas. He could cuss with worst of them. He was anything but stoic. He wasn’t much for religion. And he was a lifelong Republican.

He entered the Army Air Force just out of high school and became a radio operator for a signals-intelligence unit. He was a radioman on 13 B-26 missions leading up to D-Day.

He brought back more nightmares than medals—images of Dachau and dead buddies, starving civilians and crash landings. But the nightmares didn’t poison him. Or more accurately, he somehow learned to cope with the poison.

On D-Day, he punched through Fortress Europe in a glider, courtesy of a C-47.

No one knows if it was Al Dowd’s plane towing Bill Eason’s glider in the predawn darkness of June 6. But I like to think that these men were tethered together, if only for a moment, as they stormed into the unknown. That’s because these D-Day Everymen were my grandfathers. I get my first name from Grandpa Dowd and my middle name from Grandpa Eason.

Like so many of their generation—1,200 World War II vets die each day—both have passed from this life to the next. But their story lives, and it has some resonance beyond my family because of what these men were and what they became.

Some 405,000 of their buddies never had a chance to become grandpas, never started a family or finished college. FDR called them heaven’s “heroic servants.”

But those who survived would create a new and better world for us.

My Grandpa Eason, for instance, built a global company—literally from scratch, out of his garage—that merged with a German company. Think about that. He and his generation changed the world so much that after fighting and killing each other—in two world wars—American and German vets were doing business together.

Ike’s men (and MacArthur’s men over in the Pacific theater) were extraordinary people not only because of what they accomplished, but because they “thought themselves ordinary,” as President Obama put it. Like silver-haired Clark Kents, they rescued civilization and then returned home to walk among us without pretense.

“The day will come when no one is left who knew them,” as President Bush observed. “The day will never come when America forgets them.”

I knew two of them, and I will never forget.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.