- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Retired Maj. Gen. J. Milnor Roberts spent the 56th anniversary of D-Day surrounded by yellowing battle plans, black-and-white photographs and "invasion money" at his Crystal City apartment in Arlington, Va.

The career Army man, now 81, took time to reflect on his role in history's largest sea, air and land invasion while thousands of his fellow veterans were in New Orleans for a parade celebrating the opening of the National D-Day Museum.

With vivid recollection, he talked about the choppy waves off Omaha Beach in northwestern France exactly 56 years earlier. He said he will never forget the moment his landing craft was hit by shellfire and he was forced to jump into the water.

"It was total panic. They just lowered the ramps and said, 'This is where you get off,' " he said.

Gen. Roberts, a direct descendant of one of George Washington's commanders at Valley Forge and the son of a World War I veteran, was 25 on June 6, 1944. He was a captain, and aide to Gen. Leonard T. Gerow in the 29th Infantry Division.

The first American soldiers to land, bleed and die on Omaha Beach in Normandy were the 20,000 men of the 29th Infantry Division, a "citizen soldier" National Guard unit whose members hailed from Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania.

They landed at low tide opposite well-defended steep cliffs opposite the town of Vierville-sur-Mer and faced blistering fire from the German 352nd Division, which was supposed to have been encamped elsewhere.

By midday, about a third of the division were casualties, and some companies of the 29th had almost ceased to exist. It suffered thousands of casualties, including 2,720 dead.

Gen. Roberts' ship headed for shore about 3:30 p.m., long after the first fighting men stormed the coast at dawn. He had heard reports of failure before setting off.

As he approached land, artillery fire rocked his craft, killing the skipper. The vessel hit a sandbar and the 100 or so men had to jump into chest-deep water.

"There was mass confusion and fear and, frankly, I was in a panic," Gen. Roberts was quoted as saying in historian Stephen Ambrose's book, "D-Day."

The author, who founded the new D-Day Museum, titled Chapter 25 after one of the general's phrases: "It was just fantastic."

When Gen. Roberts reached land, "the beach was just a complete shambles," he said in the book. "It was like an inferno. There were bodies everywhere."

Snipers took aim at the men as they scrambled about. Shots rang out over Gen. Roberts' head. He drew his weapon and pulled the trigger, but there was no response.

His carbine was loaded with sand and sea water. The soldier dived into a foxhole and fixed his weapon. By that time, the sniper had run off. Gen. Roberts ran for cover and eventually set up a command post north of St. Laurent. He was 300 yards from the front line.

"That's not exactly where you'd want to be for a corps command post," he said. "Usually, you like to be back about three miles."

Among his most vivid memories was running past an amphibious tank, the only one of 18 that made it to shore without sinking. The vehicle was on fire, and he could hear men inside screaming.

"There wasn't a thing I could do about that," he said. "They were basically burning to death."

The night before the landing, Gen. Roberts met a young soldier about the same age, with similar training and a similar background. The day after D-Day, Gen. Roberts found the man behind a sea wall on his knees. A bullet had pierced his forehead right through his helmet.

"I looked at that guy and said, 'Well, that could have been me.' That event stuck in my mind forever."

These days, Gen. Roberts talks more about missile defense than World War II. He serves as secretary and treasurer of High Frontier, a private organization that supports the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The decorated veteran is legislative director of the Space Transportation Association and chairman of the Eisenhower Society.

He tapes a radio show once a week for active military and veterans called "Front and Center." It is heard on 35 stations from Boston to Los Angeles.

But he makes time to give life to old wartime stories.

"It probably was more sensitive in the early years after the war," he said, referring to his willingness to talk about his D-Day experience. "As time goes by, it begins to mellow a bit, but you never forget it."

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