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Commentary: D-Day anniversary reminds us we uphold a legacy of peace

William Hering during WWII. (Photo courtesy of the Hering family)

William Hering during WWII. (Photo courtesy of the Hering family)

William Turner during WWII. (Photo courtesy of the Turner family)

William Turner during WWII. (Photo courtesy of the Turner family)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the Allied forces of World War II launched a massive amphibious invasion of Nazi-occupied France in a desperate bid to gain a foothold in Western Europe. The largest armada ever assembled--5,000 ships and landing craft transporting 156,000 men and 50,000 vehicles--crossed the churning English Channel and began the assault on Adolph Hitler's 'Atlantic Wall' of concrete bunkers, iron barricades and ubiquitous land mines defending the Normandy coast.

Both of my grandfathers were American soldiers in that invasion force. For each man, it would be his first test of combat.

1st Lt. William Hering, 27, from St. Louis, Missouri, waded onto UTAH beach with the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment in the early hours of the assault. His unit's initial objective was to clear a path through the German mines and obstacles, under fire, using bulldozers and explosives, so that infantry and vehicles could move inland. Once a beachhead was established, the regiment built a makeshift port. Through the summer, Hering oversaw of a supply transfer point that brought thousands of tons of food, ammunition, fuel and materiel onto the beach, supplies dearly needed to sustain an army in action. He would serve as a combat engineer in Holland, Belgium and Germany until the war's end.

Cpl. William 'Bud' Turner, 20, a dairy farmer and steelworker from Titusville, Pennsylvania, was assigned to Troop A of the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. The young cavalryman arrived on the carnage and debris-littered OMAHA beach only two days after the assault had secured that sector. Turner's war would begin in the farmlands of France as his unit scouted ahead of the main advance force in halftracks and armored cars. Often he would find himself in direct combat, fighting dismounted against a stubborn enemy that exacted a terrible price for every hill, every town, every road and every yard of hedgerows that the Allies gained. As the squadron took casualties, Turner was soon promoted to sergeant. His troop would be the first Allied unit to roll into liberated Paris in August, and his squadron would successfully repel the German offensive at Monschau, Germany at the start of the Battle of the Bulge in December.

In my earliest childhood memories my grandfathers are already middle-aged men with their Army days long behind them. I knew from an early age that each had been 'in the war' even if I could not put into context what that meant exactly. As a boy I listened to their stories, thumbed through their photo albums, and I even wore my grandfather Hering's old field jacket to school every day. And when I was a young man, they began to confide some of their darkest memories--and nightmares--to me as well.

My grandfathers' wartime service is more than my personal heritage. They represent the 16 million men and women who served in the U.S. military during WWII, and who fought not only in Europe but on battlegrounds all over the globe. They helped to restore peace and order on a planet that had erupted into total war for the second time in less than thirty years. And they knew that despite the terrible loss and suffering the war had caused, there were nations that had not yet exhausted their capacities and desire for conquest.

When I came of age and decided to join the Air Force, my grandfathers were both very encouraging of my decision. They had seen the worst that humanity could inflict on itself, yet I think they bore that with pride because the world had lifted itself from the ashes of the war and had somehow managed to keep a tenuous peace throughout the remainder of their lifetimes. America's strong military lent its weight to our allies during the Cold War and kept Communism in check. The strategic deterrent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and submarines was accepted as part of that formula.

It is with perhaps some irony that I was assigned to the 341st Missile Wing as a young Airman. Grandfather Hering believed that the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 had spared his life; his unit began to train for the assault on the Japanese mainland before the bombs hastened the end of the war. This nuclear payload was delivered by B-29 Stratofortresses of the 20th Air Force.

As I age, my shifting perspective of time allows me to clearly see my grandfathers as young men, fresh into the Army and in the prime of their lives instead of as withering seniors enjoying their final years. Sometimes, when I watch one of our security forces flights preparing for duty, I can easily imagine a teenaged Bud Turner arming up with them and giving me a wave and a lopsided grin as his Humvee rolls off to defend the missile field. I can also very easily imagine Bill Hering--tall, gregarious and inquisitive--as a bright-eyed lieutenant in our 341st Civil Engineer Squadron, or as a junior officer in any of our squadrons for that matter. I see their faces reflected in all of the Airmen of this wing.

In 1996, I gave Grandfather Hering a ball cap with the 341st MW patch sewn on the front. He proudly wore it every day, I was later told, because it was 'his grandson's unit.' I would argue instead that we are his unit, because we protect the peace that his generation sacrificed to give to us. We preserve their legacy every day.