(USA TODAY) - The pilot jerked the plane violently, attempting to avoid flak from German gunners. Pvt. Ken Moore, a paratrooper back in the cargo hold, was praying.
The plane's small windows were blacked out, but Moore and more than a dozen fellow paratroopers heard explosions as gunners on the ground trained in on the sluggish C-47 aircraft.
"I was praying at the top of my voice," Moore recalls. "I was asking for help."
Eventually, a small, red light went on, signaling the men to stand up and hook their static lines to a cable running the length of the aircraft. They grabbed one another and the anchor line in a futile effort to stand as the pilot desperately tried to evade anti-aircraft fire. The light switched from red to green: time for the paratroopers to exit the aircraft.
Moore jumped into the black night.
"We were scared," says Moore, who was then a gangly 19-year-old from California.
This June 6 marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, when Allied troops landed in Nazi-occupied France and began the push toward Germany. It was an event that changed not only the course of World War II, but also America's role in the world. "This is when America goes from being a power to a superpower," says Michael Neiberg, a professor at the U.S. Army War College. "It happened on those beaches."
Today, it is hard to fathom the power and triumph of the Normandy invasion and how it lifted the spirits of Americans huddled around radios and reading dispatches filtering back to the USA.
Looking back, the leaders seem larger and the rhetoric more soaring. "You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months," Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander, told his troops on the eve of the invasion. "The eyes of the world are upon you."
"If ever America was on the side of angels, it was this," Neiberg says.
It was a massive undertaking. On June6, 1944, Germans defending the beaches and French civilians awoke to the sight of thousands of ships and landing craft crowding the horizon. More than 156,000 troops in the initial invasion landed along a 50-mile stretch of coastline. About 11,000 aircraft were flown in support of the landing force.
By Aug. 25, Paris was liberated. The following May, Germany surrendered.
Evaluating the implications
The Allies paid a tremendous price. Thousands of U.S. and Allied troops were killed and wounded on the first day of the invasion, though historians have not agreed on precise numbers.
The landing wasn't flawless by any measure, and an American historical bias may have overstated its impact: A massive ground attack by the Russians in the east, known as Operation Bagration and conducted at about the same time, may have done more to weaken the Nazi war machine than the Normandy landings, Neiberg says. The Russian offensive inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Germans and sent their army reeling.
History has often glossed over the thousands of civilian casualties caused by Allied bombing. Eisenhower's decision to bomb transportation hubs and other infrastructure before the invasion killed and wounded thousands of French civilians. Eisenhower wanted to ensure that the Germans couldn't quickly reinforce defenses in Normandy, but British leader Winston Churchill was uncomfortable with the plan, fearing it would alienate the French.
Logistical problems bogged down soldiers on the beach longer than anticipated, and the soldiers weren't adequately trained for fighting amid the thick hedgerows that made a patchwork of the Norman countryside.
"It was a hard and tough fight to get off the beaches," Neiberg says.
Moore says the intelligence his unit received before jumping was lousy. Moore, now, 89, recalls that as his unit stood around a sand table getting briefed before the invasion, an officer talked about encountering a single squad of Germans at a specific target.
The reality was different. "There were 2,000 Germans scattered around," he says.
Yet for all that, it was still a major turning point in the war and a psychological victory for the free world. "The success of Overlord means the Germans will lose," Neiberg says, referring to the code name for the coordinated D-Day assault. "If Overlord had failed, you are looking at an entirely different war."
Herald Mehner, 90, was a young German artillery officer in Normandy. He recalls looking at the thousands of Allied ships approaching off the coast. "It was frightening," says Mehner, who was taken prisoner by the Americans and later settled in the USA.
"I had the feeling (then) we would lose the war," he says.
'We were just kids'
The young Americans faced battle-hardened Germans. At a position around Cherbourg, Mehner recalls, the Americans attacked across open terrain without seeking cover or concealment.
"They had no fighting experience that we could see," says Mehner, who had been wounded twice on the Russian front before arriving at Normandy.
For all the planning, resources and strategy that went into an operation this critical, its success or failure rested largely on the shoulders of young men like paratrooper Ken Moore.
"We were just kids," Moore says.
Raised in Southern California by a young single mother, Moore and his buddies rushed to the recruiters as soon as they heard news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
"We didn't want to miss the excitement," Moore says. "We assumed it would take a few weeks to finish off the Japanese, and we didn't want to miss it."
At the processing center, a fellow recruit said he planned to join the paratroopers because they got extra money, and the uniforms would attract women. "I said, 'That's for me,'" Moore recalls.
He was assigned to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, which was then part of the 101st Airborne Division, and trained as a medic.
After basic training and parachute training, his unit sailed to England and was later placed in an assembly area. The unit's mission on D-Day was to jump into Normandy and seize a number of objectives hours before the landing force was to come ashore.
The men were fed a meal of steak and eggs and moved to the airfield to board the C-47s for the flight across the English Channel. A fellow medic, John O'Callahan, pulled Moore aside before they climbed aboard the plane. "I don't think I'm going to make it," he told Moore. Moore tried to set his mind at ease, but his friend was insistent.
"No, I mean it," he told Moore.
On the flight over, Moore thought about his mother. "She didn't have much confidence in me," Moore recalls.
"I was thinking all the way across the channel: If my mother could see me now," he says.
When the war was over, his mother told him that one night she awakened with a start, dreaming that her son had shouted her name. The next morning, she read in the newspapers about the invasion.
A number of aircraft were shot down, and their paratroopers never made it to Normandy. Some units that did jump as planned wound up scattered all over Normandy, making it difficult for the men to assemble and fight.
Moore's aircraft had descended to several hundred feet by the time he jumped, barely enough height for his parachute to deploy. He landed in a field that had been flooded by the Germans in anticipation of the Allied attack.
Two days after they landed, a soldier approached Moore and said there was a medic — identified by the red cross on his arm band — hanging from a tree. He had been shot up by the Germans and was barely recognizable. Moore climbed the tree and cut him down. The dead man was his friend O'Callahan.
Moore and another medic, Bob Wright, quickly set up an aid station in an ancient church in the tiny village of Angoville-au-Plain. Dozens of wounded men staggered in. Moore used a large wheelbarrow to bring others to the church.
Moore and Wright were unable to link up with their battalion's two doctors, but the men had morphine to ease the men's pain and bandages to stem bleeding. The pews were soon packed with injured soldiers, their blood soaking into the wood benches. They patched up about 80 soldiers in the first hours of the invasion.
Treating both sides
When wounded German soldiers started staggering in, the American medics treated their injuries as well. "It just sort of happened," Moore says. "They made their way in, or their buddies brought them in."
Moore recalls one wounded German soldier who appeared to be the same age as Moore — and just as scared as he was. Moore gave him a shot of morphine and placed a compress bandage on his wound. The German soldier lay down on the pew.
That night, the Germans pushed the Americans back, putting Moore and Wright in German-controlled territory. A German officer and two enlisted men stormed into the church. "They looked around and saw the Germans we were taking care of," Moore recalls.
The Germans said they would try to locate a doctor and let the two Americans continue to treat both Americans and Germans in the tiny church.
"Stay inside, and we won't bother you," the German officer told Moore and Wright. "They put German guards around the church," Moore says.
Their exploits in the church earned both medics a Silver Star and were later detailed in a documentary by the World War II Foundation and a book called Angels of Mercyby Paul Woodadge.
For Moore, the intense fighting was over within days. He would later go on to participate in the Battle of the Bulge, where he survived the German siege of the key Belgian town of Bastogne.
In 1945, Moore mustered out of the Army. He was 20.
"I was awfully glad to be home."