Fit and spry at the age of 94, Henry Langrehr strode into my house at Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., with all the purpose and vigor he must have exhibited as a teenager on June 6, 1944.
As the modern-day commander of the unit that issued Langrehr’s D-Day orders, I was humbled to meet this incredible veteran. We prayed before lunch, and my words were simple: “Thank God for heroes like this who blessed our nation with the freedoms we still enjoy.”
June 6 marks 75 years since brave Americans stormed the beaches of Normandy to free Europe from Nazi tyranny. Only a fraction of our nation’s Greatest Generation remain with us. Of the 16 million World War II veterans America once had, fewer than 500,000 are still alive; more than 300 die per day.
Langrehr’s story reads like something out of Hollywood. In fact, if you’ve ever watched the beloved D-Day biopic, “The Longest Day,” one scene depicts his terrifying parachute landing deep behind enemy lines.
Under the dark of night, even as an armada of vessels packed the English Channel with an invasion force, Langrehr and several hundred paratroopers jumped into the French countryside to blow up bridges and prevent German forces from mounting a counterattack. The jump devolved into carnage, with planes shot from the sky and others forced to drop soldiers too low for their chutes to open.
Langrehr crashed through the glass roof of a greenhouse on the outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église. His friend John Steele was famously caught on the church steeple, only surviving because he hung there playing dead for hours.
Langrehr ran 5 miles with a small group of survivors and detonated the bridge. “We saw the enemy up close,” he told me, “and we eliminated them.”
Langrehr then joined the frontline fight. He soon found a German tank turret aimed directly at him and woke up days later a prisoner of war.
The Germans forced prisoners to work in dangerous coal mines. Many Americans died, and Langrehr and another soldier decided to run.
They were caught hiding in a barn, and Langrehr’s friend was killed. Langrehr survived mortal combat, escaping with the German’s Luger and ammunition belt, which he still has today.
Langrehr summed up that historic day: “I remember looking out from the plane, seeing the troops ready to take the beaches and the parachutes floating in the air around me, and thinking, ‘Only America could do this.’ ”
During my 34 years in the Army — a significant amount of that time leading soldiers in our nation’s longest war — I often have thought the very same thing.
Gen. Omar Bradley, the man who planned the Normandy invasion, later reflected on what he’d learned from the war. “This nation,” he said, “will always need those who think in terms of service to their country, not in terms of their country’s debt to them.”
Henry Langrehr, a small-town kid from Clinton, Iowa, who jumped into Normandy the day he should have been graduating high school, embodies that sentiment. And he was awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his service — and with six others received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, for their roles in liberating France from the Nazis. But what gives me incredible hope and heart is something he shared near the end of our lunch.
Langrehr’s son went on to serve in uniform. Two grandchildren. And a great-grandson.
The Greatest Generation ensured our nation prevailed on the hellish beaches of Normandy 75 years ago. It is my D-Day prayer that the men and women they raised — and those of us they still inspire — will remain willing to defend this nation for generations to come.
Lt. Gen. James is the commander of First Army, the unit that had been tasked with commanding the entire D-Day landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
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