June 6 Remembering D-Day: Well done, Great Uncle Gerald

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On June 22 2010, (Ret.) U.S. 8th Circuit Justice Gerald R. Heaney passed away.  A Silver and Bronze Star recipient from D Day and WWII, this humble public servant went on to preside over important civil rights cases including; the desegregation of the St. Louis School district, illegal search and seizure and the protection of mentally incompetent defendents in death row.  His public service led to the naming of the Federal Courthouse in Duluth, MN in his honor.  A friend and collegue of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, he was honored by his committment to service with these simple words from V.P. Mondale:  

“He should have been on the Supreme Court.”  

Many personal lessons about life, liberty and equality would undoubtedly come from his dedicated service, culminating on that day of June 6, 1944.

Recounted beautifully from Wikipedia, here’s a little known story from that fateful time:

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“In 1942, at age 24, Heaney enlisted. After the United States Marines rejected him due to color blindness, he enlisted as a private in the United States Army.[2] He then volunteered for the U.S. Rangers, and would soon be commissioned as a second lieutenant in Company C of the Second Ranger Battalion, then in intense training to serve as a spearhead in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of western Europe.

Organizers of Operation Overlord decided that Ranger Company C would constitute Ranger “Task Force B.”[6] Unlike Ranger Task Force A (which scaled Pointe du Hoc, as depicted in “The Longest Day”) and Ranger Task Force C (which landed in Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach as depicted at the outset of “Saving Private Ryan”), the story of Task Force B on D-Day is lesser-known. In the first minutes of the invasion’s amphibious landing, Task Force B disembarked in “Charlie” sector of Omaha Beach. That sector was located at Omaha Beach’s far western end, where the beach abruptly terminates in a rocky promontory of 100-foot cliffs called Pointe de la Percee.[7] The Task Force’s mission included taking out the four German pillboxes at the top of the cliffs, as part of coordinated actions with Rangers’ efforts to take the Vierville draw (to the east) and Pointe du Hoc (to the west).[7]

In a Library of Congress oral history interview conducted by Congressman James Oberstar, Heaney recounted the first moments of the battle: “At 6:30 we arrived close to the beach. We could not quite get into the beach because of the obstacles that the Germans had placed under water and also had proximity bombs that would blow up ships. They were having trouble getting the vessels in, so they could not get to the beach, but they got into relatively shallow water. And the door went down on the landing craft, and the captain stood up and said, everyone ashore, and he was cut down by gunfire. And the first lieutenant stood up and said, everyone ashore, and he was cut down by gunfire. And then that left me, Second Lieutenant Gerald Heaney, in charge, and I looked up and said, we are not going out that door; everybody over the side.”[1] Unfortunately, the landing craft had stopped in water over the heads of the soldiers, most of whom were burdened down by packs and equipment. Only by cutting loose their equipment and then swimming to shore could most of them avoid drowning.

Only half of the members of Task Force B reached the relative safety at the foot of the cliff.[8] The Task Force’s preferred route to the high ground – through the Vierville draw in Dog Green sector – had quickly become a killing zone, forcing Task Force B to find a route directly up the face of the cliff.[8] Without the London fire ladders that helped Task Force A to take Pointe du Hoc, and with most of their other climbing equipment at the bottom of the Channel, Task Force B’s surviving Rangers used bayonets thrust into the cliffs as footholds, and eventually reached the crest of Pointe de la Percee. There, control of the trenches surrounding the pillboxes switched back and forth between German and American forces for hours, further depleting the Company’s ammunition and manpower. By the end of the battle, Task Force B secured Charlie sector, but at great cost in lives. For his heroism on D-Day, Second Lieutenant Heaney was awarded the Silver Star.[1]

After D-Day, the Second Ranger Battalion served alongside regular infantry units in areas such as the Cherbourg peninsula (in June–July 1944), Brest (in August–September 1944), the Crozon peninsula (September 1944), LeFret (September 1944) and the Hürtgen Forest (in December 1944).[9] For his courage in battles after D-Day, Heaney was awarded a Bronze Star.[6]

By May 1945, Heaney’s unit had reached so deeply into Axis-held territory that it crossed Germany’s pre-1938 eastern border, entering areas of Bohemia that later would be turned over to Soviet control and become a part of Czechoslovakia (now a part of the Czech Republic).[6] There, as Germany’s surrender was imminent, Heaney – now a captain—was responsible for a poignant moment. American, British, and Soviet forces had met and were preparing for a flag-raising ceremony, when Heaney recognized that no American flag was available. Heaney went into a nearby village, found swatches of red, white and blue cloth, and seamstresses, and convinced them to create a 48-star U.S. flag in time for the ceremony.[1] That impromptu flag returned home with Captain Heaney, and serves as a cherished feature of many patriotic events in Duluth.

Because of the Second Ranger Battalion’s extraordinary service, General Omar Bradley permitted them to return home as a group.[6] Before returning, however, Heaney assisted the new government of Bavaria in West Germany to revise its labor laws, helping to organize a free trade movement.[2] Heaney left the service in 1946.[5]”

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Many Heroes lost their lives in WWII.  Few remain to recount the stories first hand, and fewer still became known for their personal stories and battles in The Great War.  But for families of those that served, we are compelled with pride to share their sacrifice, committment and heroism against horrific circumstances on this day 70 years ago.  

We thank you all that were there; our retired Heroes today, and those that continually serve.  God Bless you all… ~~Seano

 

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