Troops stationed at Fort Riley joined the rest of the free world Thursday in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the daring D-Day invasion that led to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The Fort Riley-based First Infantry Division, also known as the Big Red One, led the assault on German forces on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Abilene, Kan., native, future president and supreme commander of Allied forces, conceived the invasion.
Six World War II veterans attended the ceremony at Fort Riley, which included a recitation of names of the 316 1st Infantry soldiers who died on D-Day. The ceremony was punctuated by a 21-gun salute.
Brig. Gen. Todd Wasmund addressed those gathered at Fort Riley to honor the legacy of the "greatest generation, on whose shoulders we stand."
"D-Day isn’t a story from history books," Wasmund said. "It isn’t facts and figures, numbers of ships and troops and tanks and jeeps. D-Day was real soldiers, most drafted, many afraid, who nonetheless embarked upon this great crusade, as Eisenhower called it, to bring about security in a free world."
About 4,400 soldiers died in the largest seaborne invasion in world history, giving Allied forces a foothold in France.
Weather was less than ideal for the amphibious landing of 24,000 troops, which began shortly after midnight. Strong winds redirected landing craft, and the troops arrived under heavy fire from encampments overlooking the shore.
The coast of Normandy was divided into five regions, and casualties were highest at Omaha.
On the eve of the invasion, Eisenhower addressed troops in a now-famous letter expressing confidence in their courage, devotion and skill against the well-equipped, battle-hardened, savage enemy.
"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months," Eisenhower said. "The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you."
The 1st Infantry Division shared a video for the anniversary that details the experience of Frank DeVita, a 19-year-old Cost Guardsman in June 1944 whose Higgins boat brought soldiers ashore on D-Day and returned the wounded and dead.
Before the invasion, DeVita said, they practiced landing on a beach, day and night, for four or five weeks.
"The word went around — do not get too friendly with the 1st Division guys, because tomorrow they may be dead," DeVita said.
DeVita dropped the ramp of his boat to release the soldiers, who immediately found themselves under machine gun fire.
"Some of them were wounded, and they were crying, 'Momma, momma, momma,' and we couldn't do anything about it," DeVita said.
By 10 p.m. on the first night of the invasion, about 2,000 of the 20- to 22-year-old "kids" he helped deliver were dead on the beach, DeVita said.
On Thursday, the 1st Infantry's commanding general, Maj. Gen. John S. Kolasheski, represented the division at the ceremony at the American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer near Normandy, France. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican, also attended the ceremony.
“I’m honored to visit Normandy and pay tribute to the brave service members who lost their lives during this operation that changed the course of WWII,” Roberts said. “Without their bravery and sacrifice, the world might be a very different place today.”