Well before dawn, 65 years ago Saturday, a storm unlike anything the world had ever seen began to build off the Normandy coast of France.
More than 7,000 ships were on the move. Fast battleships with guns as big as tree trunks. Plodding troopships crammed with more than 150,000 soldiers from a dozen countries.
Roughly 2,300 transport planes and almost 1,000 gliders were in the air, carrying 15,500 paratroopers. Thousands of other warplanes were airborne or about to take off from bases all across England.
Ships, planes and more than 200,000 men, all headed for Normandy.
So began D-day, June 4, 1944, the giant Allied amphibious operation to invade France and open the way to end World War II in Europe.
In this country, the National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Va., will honor the fast-fading generation of soldiers, sailors and airmen who served on D-day.
"We're pulling out all the stops," said Shannon Brooks, associate for research and publications at the memorial. "Part of our motivation is the realization that the youngest D-day veterans are 82, 83 years old. So, mathematically, this is probably the last big anniversary many of them will be able to participate in."
Accordingly, the Herald-Leader remembers the Normandy invasion through the stories of Kentuckians who lived it first hand.
Death stalked paratrooper Robert Williams on D-day before ever he glimpsed Normandy.
As the planes carrying Williams and the rest of the 101st Airborne Division neared France they drew fire from the tiny British channel islands, then in German hands.
"We could hear the boom, boom, and everything got quiet in that airplane," Williams recalled. "It was the first time ... we actually realized somebody was trying to kill us. Paratroopers aren't supposed to be afraid of anything, but the fear started then."
Williams, 21, of Covington, served in Headquarters Co., 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry. He'd never seen combat.
Over Normandy, gunfire and fog forced the transports off their planned courses. The paratroopers jumped into the night, unsure where they'd land.
Williams splashed down in three feet of swampy water behind Utah Beach, in the dark, in enemy territory, alone.
But he soon found three comrades, exchanging stealthy signals with them using the tiny "clicker" toys each paratrooper carried. The four went looking for dry ground.
"We walked into a German machine gun," said Williams, now 86 and living in Kenton County. "Two guys died right there, and 12 bullets went through the side pocket by my jump pants."
Unscathed, Williams joined other paratroopers to secure key road causeways behind Utah Beach, where invasion troops began landing at 6:30 a.m.
"Some B-26 bombers came down Utah, bombing pillboxes and softening up the Germans," Williams said. "It actually was a beautiful sight with those bombs dropping."
But Williams' friend, Sgt. Benjamin Stoney, died the next day in an ambush. Another friend, Joe Slosarczyk, fell on June 14. Two days later Williams was wounded.
"I was leaning against a hedgerow and two 88 shells exploded, one in front and one right behind me," he said.
Seriously wounded, Williams stumbled about in a daze until medics reached him. He was evacuated, hospitalized in England for months, and finally reassigned to drive trucks. The Army never sent him back into combat.
But he did return to Normandy.
On June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-day, he and 18 other veterans parachuted into Normandy, recreating their original jump in honor of the lost.
Williams carried in his pocket a picture of Joe Slosarczyk.
"D-Day," Lexington's Charles Gray says, "was the worst thing in the world."
Gray, now 86, was in the first wave of troops to hit the deadly sands of Omaha Beach. Sixty five years later, he says he survived only because his M-1 rifle took the bullet that was meant for him.
"Going into the beach, we were all seasick," Gray said. "Boats were blowing up right and left. People were yelling and screaming. Bombs and shells were going off. Bullets were hitting those beach hedgehogs ... ping, ping, ping. I can still hear it."
Long afterward, when Gray's son, Phil Gray, saw the movie Saving Private Ryan, he would marvel that the D-day scenes were just as his father described.
Charles Gray was a sergeant and squad leader in Alpha Co., 299th Combat Engineer Battalion, the only outfit to land men on both Omaha and Utah beaches.
They were to arrive ahead of the infantry, then blast pathways through the "hedgehogs," — boobytrapped constructions of steel girders that the Germans had erected in the surf to snag incoming boats.
But the plan quickly fell apart.
Shells fell around Gray's boat when it was still far from shore. According to Gray, the Navy coxwain steering the boat yelled that it was too risky to go any closer, and that the men would have to wade.
"At that point, our platoon leader pulled his pistol on the coxwain and told him to keep going," Gray said.
Even so, the boat couldn't reach land. Gray and his buddies plunged into shoulder-deep water, just before the boat was blown up by a shell.
Gray — carrying a rifle, an 80-pound field pack, and two 20-pound packs of explosives — managed to avoid drowning. He reached shore, where he and other engineers found themselves cowering behind the very beach obstacles they were supposed to blow up. Incoming troops joined them.
"They were hiding behind those hedgehogs; heck, I was hiding behind one myself," Gray said. "So, we couldn't blow them up. You can't blow up your own men."
Gray dashed for a cliff behind the beach, where German soldiers were firing.
"There was an infantryman on either side of me," he said. "The guy on my right fell; the one on my left fell; and I thought, 'I'm next.'"
Instead, a German bullet struck the breech of Gray's M-1 rifle. It shattered, deflecting the bullet that otherwise would have struck Gray in the chest.
He grabbed another rifle someone had dropped, and fired back at the Germans on the cliff.
"This one guy would pop up and shoot and then pop down," Gray said. "I fired and I never saw him anymore, so I must have hit him or something."
Gray finally found cover at the foot of the cliff, thinking for the first time that he might survive.
"I lost half of my squad," he said. "I had a good friend, who was the Golden Gloves champ of Buffalo, N.Y. The day after D-day, we were removing German mines, and one went off ... and killed him instantly.
"Our company had 165 men going in ... and 35 coming out."
Gray went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Bad dreams from his war experiences dogged him for years before fading. Today, he insists that he and his comrades only did their duty on D-day and "weren't heroes any more than any other soldiers."
"I would have gone back to visit Normandy, but I don't like to fly anymore," he said. "You know, you don't have to cross the English Channel now to get to Normandy. You can drive under it though a tunnel. Wouldn't that have been a lot easier in 1944?"
The fighting on Omaha Beach was over when Thurman Wagoner went ashore with the 30th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit. But Normandy was still dangerous.
"I don't know if the others were scared, but I was," Wagoner, now 87, said. "The day I hit that beach and the first shell went off, I was scared. And I was scared for the next 120 days that I was in combat. "
Wagoner, a Bourbon County native, joined the Army in 1940, civilian jobs being scarce. He was a drill instructor before shipping out for Europe. But nothing prepared him for the horrors of Normandy.
"Those people went through hell, there's no question about that," he said. "I grew up with a fellow named Bob George and he was killed on D-day. I don't know what wave he was in. But you lost a lot of friends."
Wagoner's outfit, the 117th Infantry Regiment, fought through the hedgerow country behind the beaches, and in the St. Lo breakout that enabled Allied forces to push out of Normandy toward the interior of France. But the price was dear.
"From June to October, my company changed three times," Wagoner said. "There were just seven of us old people left ... so you know there weren't too many who didn't get hurt or killed."
Wagoner's war ended when an explosion put him in the 49th Army General Hospital in France. He was unconscious for three days, and paralyzed for a while after that.
"When I woke up, I could hear these women talking English ... I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he said.
After months in the hospital, he was shipped home, where his 3-year-old daughter hardly remembered him.
Now living in Lexington, Wagoner doesn't dwell on the war or what he saw.
"I don't talk about combat, because there's no way you can explain it. Why bring up something that's going to make you hurt so that you can't sleep at night?
"There's been some member of my family in every war, I guess, since this country was settled. My father was in World War I; I was in World War II; my son was in Vietnam. I have a grandson who was in Iraq. I hope my great-grandchildren don't have to go. We've had enough war in my family."
Frank Cassidy knew something was up by about 4 a.m. on June 6, 1944, when he noticed armed troops guarding the briefing room at his 95th Bomb Group airbase near Horham, England.
"We all had a feeling ... you couldn't be alive and not know the invasion was coming sooner or later," he said. "But then our commander came in the room and said, 'This is it.'"
Cassidy, a Lexington native, was 21, and the tail gunner on a B-17. He'd been in England only since April, but already had flown several bombing missions over Europe, had been shot at by German planes and had fired back.
He flew two bombing missions on D-day.
As his B-17 neared France the first time early that morning, Cassidy was astounded by the mighty invasion force spread out on and above the English Channel.
"It looked like you could walk across the channel, stepping from ship to ship. Everywhere you looked, it was covered with boats.
"Everything that could fly, everything, was in the air. Heavy bombers, medium bombers, everything we could get up."
Cassidy's plane and swarms of other B-17s bombed targets behind the invasions beaches, then returned to England. They landed, took on more bombs, and did the whole thing over again.
There was little opposition, unlike some of Cassidy's earlier missions, when he saw bombers go down all around him.
"D-day for us was a milk run," he said.
Cassidy says said he didn't really appreciate how desperate the fighting on the beaches had been until he walked those beaches and talked with other veterans in Normandy at the 50th D-day anniversary.
Cassidy flew a total of 35 combat missions and is deeply proud of his D-day service. But he says his hat is off to those who battled on the ground while he flew high above.
"I thought, boy, did I have it nice ... sitting up there in a cozy little plane ... The further away we get from those days, the harder it is to realize what happened. I don't think the American people appreciate what some of those men did ... Those guys, they deserve all the honors."