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Local man recalls D-Day invasion

June 06, 2004|By TAMELA BAKER

HAGERSTOWN

It was, in Gulf War parlance, the mother of all gambles.

The sheer enormity and audacity of the battle plan prompted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to dub it "Operation Overlord."

In southern England, the 101st Airborne prepared to embark on the operation's first objective: Breaching Hitler's Atlantic wall by gaining a foothold on the coast of the Normandy region of western France. The date was June 5, 1944. Guy Whidden, a future Hagerstown resident, posed for a photograph with a few of his comrades. "We didn't know where we were going, but we knew something was up," he recalls.

Then "a few of us were taken to the 'marshaling yard' - they take you in to let you know where you're going." There, superior officers drew "a real combat picture" for the young paratroopers. After more than a year of maneuvers in England, "this was the real thing," Whidden says.

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After getting his instructions, Whidden was taken to the airfield at Greenham Common. As the hours ticked by toward D-Day, the supreme allied commander himself paid the 101st Airborne a visit, and stayed with them until it was time for them to take off. A famous photograph shows Gen. Dwight Eisenhower mingling with the troops, and although Whidden isn't in it, he was standing just to the side - close enough to see the general's face as he left them.

"When Eisenhower walked away, there were tears streaming down his face."

And no wonder - Eisenhower knew that according to his battle plan, the 101st would take the brunt of the approaching fight and might suffer up to 70 percent casualties.

By 11 p.m., Whidden was on his way. The planes that headed east in the dark and fog flew low over the English Channel to avoid radar, he said, so low that those planes with their doors open got sea spray.

"I was excited more than anything," he remembers. "It wasn't long before we ran into anti-aircraft fire. The plane was rocking and I could see tracers coming up."

"There was one plane that caught on fire - one of their own grenades went off and killed about a third of them." Of the flock of combat planes that took off that night, Whidden's was the first to reach Normandy. At about 1 a.m. June 6, "they jumped us at 300 feet," he said, giving them barely enough time to engage their parachutes. "Before you know it, you're hitting ground."

Once he landed, he was beaned by an equipment bundle that had been dropped from one of the planes.

"It stunned me," Whidden said. "By the time I came to, I was alone."

The Army had attempted to prepare the troops for just such a problem by providing "crickets," small devices that would allow them to identify each other by clicking out a code. "But they were hard to get out of your pocket," he says. "I heard a guy in the dark - I couldn't find my cricket." He also couldn't remember code words that would have identified him as an American G.I. "I said everything I could think of - I said 'I'm from Pennsylvania, I graduated from Cheltenham High School, I was on the wrestling team "

The other soldier believed him - and they stayed together for a while, until Whidden met up with men from his own unit at about 4:30 or 5 a.m. By that time, his unit already had achieved its initial objective of taking out "big guns" the Germans had trained on the elevated roads at Utah and Omaha Beach.

From Sainte Mere Eglise to Carentan - where he spent his 21st birthday - Whidden witnessed some of the fiercest combat of the invasion. Later in 1944, Whidden was wounded during Operation Market-Garden in Holland.

A few years after the war, Whidden settled in the Pangborn area of Hagerstown. In the 1960s, he moved his family to Frederick, Md., where he still resides.

His memories of D-Day remain as fresh as his conviction that despite the losses on the Normandy beaches, Operation Overlord was necessary. Without it, he estimates, "The war would've been extended at least another year."

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