70 years ago today, Allied Forces invaded France to free it, and Europe, from Nazi occupation. Among the thousands of American, British, and Canadian soldiers who participated in the Normandy landings was an lieutenant in the Army Rangers named Gerald Heaney. After the war Lieutenant Heaney went back home to Duluth, Minnesota where he practiced law until President Lyndon Johnson named him as judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Many would say that Judge Heaney was one of the greatest judges to serve on the Eighth Circuit. In 2007, Congress named the federal courthouse in Duluth after him.
Some of Judge Heaney's exploits during the landings are mentioned in Stephen Ambrose's book D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Battle for Normandy Beaches. Judge Heaney was awarded the Silver Star Medal for valor for his actions. Last year, Judge Richard Kopf quoted Judge Heaney's medal citation on his blog, Hercules and the Umpire. The citation reads,
FIRST LIEUTENANT WILLIAM G. HEANEY, 01309733, Infantry, United States Army, for gallantry in action in connection with military operations against the enemy on 6-7 June 1944 in France. Upon landing at Omaha Dog Green Beach, Vier Ville-sur-Mer, Lieutenant Heaney and his men were pinned down by heavy enemy machine gun,mortar, and artillery fire. With utter disregard for his personal safety, Lieutenant Heaney stood up, induced his men to continue the attack and led them across the beach to accomplish their mission in due operational time. The undaunted courage and leadership demonstrated by Lieutenant Heaney reflect great credit upon himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.What is not mentioned in the citation is that Judge Heaney and his men were the first soldiers to land on that particular section of beach and that to get off the beach, they had to scale a 100-foot cliff while the Nazi soldiers at the top of the cliff were shooting at them from the relative saftey of pillboxes. You can see a clip of former Minnesota Congressperson Jim Oberstar discussing his interview with Judge Heaney about the landings here.
When I was a kid there were a lot of World War II veterans around. Virtually every kid I knew had a grandfather (in few cases father) in "the War." With the passage of time, most of those men are dead. But it is safe to say that without those men, life in Europe, Asia, and maybe even here in the USA would be vastly different (and worse) than it has been due to their service.
UPDATE: In a coincidental underscoring of the passage of time, today's New York Times has the obituary of Chester Nez. Mr. Nez was the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers. The Navajo Code Talkers were used in the Pacific Theater during World War II. An important battle in the Pacific Theater also occurred on June 6. In addition to today being the 70th anniversary of D-Day, it is also the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway.