Thursday, August 20, 2009

The 65th anniversary of another D-Day — that of the Allied landings in southern France called Operation Dragoon — occurred Aug. 15. It is our country’s “Forgotten D-Day,” say many of the veterans who participated in the mission. The operation resulted in a rapid retreat of the occupying German forces from French soil and was among the most successful campaigns of World War II.

Earlier this month, Outpost Europe of the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division, with the support of U.S. Army Freedom Team Salute and the Army Historical Foundation, hosted a ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery honoring the veterans of Operation Dragoon.

The Allied mission has been hailed as a model amphibious operation. It is “an example of an almost perfect amphibious landing from the point of view of training, timing, Army-Navy-Air Force cooperation, performance, and results,” states the Navy’s “History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II” in a volume called “The Invasion of France and Germany 1944-1945.”

Yet, the soldiers, sailors and airmen who participated in the event have been overshadowed for 65 years by the great landings in Normandy in June 1944. The ferocity of the fighting there and the importance of that first entry into France have captured the attention of America and have held it ever since.

However, two months after the offensive, by blasting open the back door of southern France, Operation Dragoon brought decisive strategic benefits to the Allies in their fight to free Europe. After 30 days of battle, the German Nineteenth Army retreated almost 500 miles all the way to the foothills of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace and Lorraine — one of the swiftest advances for the Allied forces during World War II.

Veteran soldiers such as then 26-year-old Major and Battalion Commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment Lloyd Ramsey, now 91 and a retired major general residing in Roanoke, recalls how he waded ashore and stormed the beach that day. Then 27-year-old Lt. Col. Richard Seitz, Battalion Commander of the 2nd Battalion, 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, now 92 and a retired lieutenant general living in Kansas, said that as a result of the operation, he saw that the end of the German occupation of southern France was near.

Thirty-five veterans of the airborne and beach landings were present at the ceremony, along with their family members and the children of veterans unable to attend, or families of soldiers already deceased. These veterans traveled from California, Kansas, Illinois, Georgia and North Dakota, as well as Ontario, Canada. Charles Phallen, who served with the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion in southern France, was the oldest veteran present, at the age of 92. He traveled to the ceremony the evening before after having undergone a chemotherapy treatment at his home in Oswego, N.Y., earlier that day.

The event was supported by the Army Band’s Brass Quintet, a color guard from the garrison at Fort Belvoir and Boy Scouts of America troops from Northern Virginia. Each Boy Scout, a future leader of America, escorted a veteran of the ‘greatest generation’ into the amphitheater.

Attaches from each of the allied nations who participated in the invasion — Canada, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom — were present, as well as an attache from Germany, now an American ally for more than 50 years. The deputy mayor of the French town of Vesoul, Alain Chretien, traveled from France for this day. Vesoul was liberated Sept. 12, 1944, by the 3rd Infantry Division. 1st Lt. John L. Tominac of the 15th Infantry Regiment was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.

Despite the best efforts of the organizers, not many Americans attended, or were even aware of the ceremony. In addition, many veterans invited to the event were not in sufficient health to travel to Washington. While they are very grateful for the recognition, they said it is just too late as they are now too old and frail to travel.

Veterans from each of the units that participated in Operation Dragoon were present at the ceremony, which included laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, followed by a wreath laying at the 3rd Infantry Division monument.

There was also a remembrance at the grave of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated combat soldier of WWII, who landed in the south of France with the 15th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division on Aug. 15. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his valorous actions that day, near the French town of Ramatuelle. He is probably the best known hero of Operation Dragoon, but most certainly not the only one. Sgt. James P. Connor of the 3rd Infantry Division was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Cavalaire.

The observance continued with a luncheon honoring the veterans, where certificates of appreciation and commemorative medallions specially minted for the event were presented. Freedom Team Salute certificates signed by the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff were also distributed. A panel discussion, including noted historians and with several veterans who relayed their experiences in southern France and during the war, marked the final afternoon event.

Operation Dragoon had initially been canceled in early 1944 because of disagreement between Britain and the United States on the direction of the war in the Mediterranean. The mission was resurrected by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Though smaller than the assault at Normandy, Operation Dragoon was nevertheless a masterpiece of interservice and international cooperation. The Army Air Forces’ XIIth Tactical Air Command formed the core of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, and the Navy’s 8th Fleet, along with the allies in the Western Naval Task Force, provided support to the ground forces. Greek, Dutch, Polish, French, British and Canadian ships supported the landings, while British and Canadian forces formed parts of the Airborne Task Force and the Special Service Force. The D-Day convoys comprised 885 ships and landing craft and 1,375 smaller landing craft were loaded on decks. These ships carried over 150,000 troops, 21,400 trucks, tanks, tank destroyers, bulldozers, tractors and other vehicles.

The successful landings introduced the First French Army into the fight. Seven divisions landed in the early days of the campaign, and seized the critical ports of Toulon and Marseilles, weeks ahead of schedule. Their seizure and quick rehabilitation resulted in indispensable supplies being provided to all the Allied armies operating in France. The French Resistance also provided critical intelligence on enemy movements and fought doggedly alongside the Allied forces to drive the occupier from their native land.

Retired Army Capt. Monika Stoy is a military sociologist. Her husband, Lt. Col. Tim Stoy, is a historian for the 3rd Infantry Division.

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