The Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, was the defining turning point of World War II. Germany had forced the Allies out of France in 1940 and it was necessary to turn this around in order to claim a victory over this Nazi government, one which took place 15 months later.
U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander, saw his troops fight bitterly to re-secure this country. Called Operation Overlord, troops began gliding and parachuting onto the beaches the night of June 5 before the Allied infantry men arrived early the next morning armed with rifles and other gear in amphibious landings. By evening, almost all of the Allied Forces, some 175,000, were on the ground after securing the area. However, the cost was 10,000 casualties.
“We can never underestimate the importance of D-Day,” Carol Denehy, vice-president of the Memorial Military Museum in Bristol, said. “And we can’t overestimate what the men did – especially our two Bristol men – that were in the midst of that ‘Longest Day.’ “
These men were Army Private Ernest R. Blanchard, who served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, and Captain Edward J. Wozenski, who commanded Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Division. They were among a number of soldiers from Bristol who served in the fray.
“There are parallels between Blanchard and Wozenski,” Denehy said. “Both worked in and retired from Bristol’s industries. During the war they both participated in the same battles, North Africa, Sicily and on D-Day. Both of them are written about in Cornelius Ryan’s ‘The Longest Day.’
“They were among the first to serve on D-Day. Blanchard was from a Bristol military family. Charles Blanchard, Ernie’s older brother, was an aid to General Pershing in WWII. Another relative, Erving Mayo Blanchard, was KIA (killed in action) in World War II. Ernie Blanchard’s son, Marine Pfc. Thomas J. Blanchard, was a Vietnam casualty.”
Ernest R. Blanchard survived four combat parachute jumps, as well as duty in North Africa and the Battle of the Bulge. The drop from a C47 transport into the village of Ste. Mere, Eglise, Normany on June 6, 1944, is considered to have been the greatest parachute offensive ever during wartime. According to Denehy, about 30 of his fellow jumpers landed in the same area in the center of town with many being cut down by fire from the awaiting enemy guns.
At one point in the descent, the soldier next to him exploded, according to Blanchard in a later interview, and disappeared from his eyes. This was thought to be from bullets striking the explosives he was carrying. Blanchard would eventually land, getting tangled in a tree while machine guns were moving closer to him. Prior to releasing himself, Blanchard witnessed the soldier next to him taken out by machine gun fire. When Blanchard was able to free himself and get to safety, he did so after falling 25 feet to the ground with 85 pounds of equipment on him. Blanchard would later continue his part in the war and live to tell about it.
Wozenski, prior to Blanchard’s entry from the air, had been preparing for his morning amphibious landing. When the landing craft was ready to off-load he and his men jumped into five feet of water with their gear and rifles. Bullets had been riddling the boat prior to and when the men entered the water a struggle for survival began. Amongst the danger was dealing with extra pounds of sand that filled the pockets of their field jackets when they already had 60-70 pound packs to carry. Wozenski later recalled going under water several times and having to struggle to keep his head above it for air.
Once on shore after a 400-yard struggle to get there, Wozenski sought cover from the enemy guns and tanks shooting down at them from the ridge above. Wozenski was pinned down. He started out with 180 men, and over 50 of his men would eventually be dead and another 50-plus would be wounded, only adding to Wozenski’s woes.
“Where are all of my men,” he yelled out at one point.
While navigating the beach to see which of Company E’s men were dead or alive, Wozenski used his knife to stick the soldiers gently to see if they we would move. Some were so dazed and scared that they thought he was the enemy and didn’t move.
After getting his men to re-group, Wozenski took a machine gun and fired at the ridge, known as Hill 606 and later named after him, with the enemy behind it. Wozenski advanced 100 yards from the enemy and single-handedly fired on them. With this, his men, now more confident from Wozenski’s actions, flanked the enemy and accomplished their mission. For his part, Wozenski would later be presented with the Award of Oak Leaf Cluster to Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts that day.
This was one of several prestigious medals that he received during his career. One in which he truly cherished was the Combat Infantryman’s Badge that he and the others earned. In fact, Wozenski played a key role in having established the badge as a military honor.
The fighting and forward movement of the Allies would continue as Blanchard, Wozenski and the other men from Bristol would continue to see action.
“We can’t over emphasize the impact of this 75th anniversary of D-Day, because this is the last hurrah for these D-Day veterans,” Mike Thomas, president of the Memorial Military Museum of Bristol, said.
Contact Bob Montgomery at email@example.com or by calling 860-973-1808.