On June 6, 2014 it will be seventy years since my father, 1Lt. Roy Connelly, landed on Utah Beach with the other brave men of the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion. My father died in 1987, but in 2005 as I was finishing up my book about the unit, I had the honor of attending the battalion’s final reunion, and meeting with eleven of these remarkable men.
After their banquet, they all sat down with me at a big table in the hotel lounge and I put a small tape recorder in the center of the table and let them talk about their experiences. Now I knew the story of these men through my extensive research of not only the day to day history of the battalion, but each of the four companies.
I also knew the history of the men at the table. I knew which ones had won medals for heroism and which ones had received one or more purple hearts for wounds received in combat. I heard a lot of stories that night and had collected many more through telephone interviews, questionnaires filled out by the unit veterans, and the diaries some of them sent to me. Yet, none of these men would allow me to call them heroes. They would refer to their buddies as heroes, but not themselves, regardless of the facts that I knew about them.
To hear them talk, they were just average GIs who did the job they were told to do. I knew better because as I chronicle in my book “The Mortarmen” these men who fired the 4.2” mortars, the heaviest in the U.S. military were in combat for 326 straight days. They fought on the Cherbourg Peninsula, in the Hurtgen Forest, and in the Battle of the Bulge. They captured the key German City of Cologne, and they liberated the Nazi death camp at Nordhausen.
They fired their mortars in support of the 3rd, 4th, and 75th Infantry divisions, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the 2nd and 5th Armored Divisions, and many other units. Almost every original member of the 87th was killed, wounded, or captured at some point. These men fought for their country and their unit, but mostly they fought for each other. Their loyalty to their fellow warriors was so strong that many hid minor wounds or had more serious wounds treated by the unit medics and refused to be shipped back to a field hospital. Their fear was that they might be reassigned to a unit other than the 87th.
Now, seventy years later only a few of the men of this distinguished unit are still alive and the same is true of the thousands of other soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy. These are the men of the “Longest Day” and they must never be forgotten.