75 Years Later: The Lasting Impact of D-Day, From France to the Forty Acres

A pivotal moment in the Allied success in World War II, the offensive known as D-Day still reverberates in American culture. Seventy-five years after the largest waterborne assault in history, the stories of UT alumni who witnessed the conflict, and those who carry their torch today, still hold lessons for the future.

The mass of men and armaments was now poised on a sword’s edge, anxiously awaiting the call to action, the signal that would send them on a heretofore inconceivable crusade. But they were forced to wait. It was shaping up to be a cool, wet summer, and the great commander, his world-breaking armada ready to cross the English Channel, could not help but wonder if his extraordinary ambitions would be dashed onto the rocks of failure by the indifference of an angry sea.

This was the quandary facing William, Duke of Normandy, in the summer of 1066. His infantry, cavalry, and archer were delayed for weeks, and William, who would come to be known as the Conqueror, was forced to cool his heels.

Nearly 900 years later, on the opposite side of the Channel, another great commander readied his force for a formidable invasion—one that, like William’s, would define the course of history. But Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, was also worried about the weather. Years of planning and the effort of millions of Americans already stationed in England could be squashed by the choppy seas and poor visibility of a stormy crossing. On June 5, 1944, a low pressure system was pushing south into Normandy. The Allies had a valiant plan to pinch the forces of Nazi Germany between the Americans, French, the British and their colonial forces on the western front, and the Soviet war machine from the east, but Eisenhower, like his martial predecessor, was at the mercy of nature.

The Allies waited a tense 24 hours. June 6 was better, and the next window to move the assembled fleet of 5,333 ships carrying almost 175,000 fighters would be in another two weeks. Eisenhower, the lanky, avuncular future president, decided to move. That morning was dubbed D-Day, a term meant to indicate the day of an action, “D” standing in for the date. Now it is a singular event: the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Like Eisenhower, the weather eventually broke for William, too, a divine intervention that allowed his force to set out on their own great crusade. Both invasions would succeed, and in doing so change the world.

***

When reports of the Normandy invasion crackled over the radio, Thomas Hatfield was only 9 years old. “I clearly remember the day,” he says. “A quiet day of reverence. People were worried, as most everyone had a loved one who might be in it.”

But Hatfield, the erstwhile dean of UT’s continuing education division and current director of the Military History Institute at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, wouldn’t see the hallowed ground of northern France until a decade later, when he visited during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. He returned almost yearly after that, piloting his bicycle through ancient villages and across the battle scars left by the wars of the 20th century. By 1986, he began leading tours to Normandy, pointing out grand churches and sleepy farms, all of which had witnessed a millennia of conflict, from the clash of knightly swords to the whistle of Allied bombs.

Hatfield says the memory of World War II remains fresh for the people of Normandy. The boxy landing craft and their drop-down bows, the vicious nests of German machine guns, the overcast beaches thick with the bodies of the fallen, and the long march to Paris—it’s all seared into the collective memory and culture of both the U.S. and France.
Seventy-five years later, French people tend to individual graves in the American cemetery. Some take photos and write letters to the associated American families. France has awarded D-Day survivors the nation’s highest honor, and small memorials dot the map of the Norman countryside.

At UT, the responsibility to preserve the memory and lessons of the great invasion continues, supported over the years by the very people who participated. Among the many who made the harrowing crossing in the stormy summer of 1944 was an elfin-faced 19-year-old private with sandy hair and shimmering eyes from the quiet East Texas town of Athens. In time, his name would become synonymous with The University of Texas. But on D-Day, the late Frank Wofford Denius, LLB ’49, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, was just one of many Texans and Longhorns setting out on a journey that would not only change them as individuals forever, but would transform UT into a modern university, shape the politics of a nation, and make an impact that is still felt today, from the grassy lawns of the Forty Acres to the ancientcobblestones of France.

***

“Total war” was the term that stuck.

World War II was a new kind of war, broader and more aggressive than even the so-called War to End All Wars which had preceded it. Every part of American society was mobilized, and eventually, the civilian populations of all combatant nations were considered part of the war effort (and sometimes justified targets of the violence of war). Texas alone sent 750,000 troops, including 12,000 women, into service. Universities were no exception. In the fall of 1942, 80 faculty members of The University of Texas had traded their academic maces for M1 carbines, their tasseled mortarboards for garrison caps. The university’s institutional support for the war effort grew during the war. According to The Daily Texan, by late 1945 philosophy professors had taken to teaching physics and math—vital fields for the war effort—while engineering and physics professors had taken to working on war-related research projects, including 22 UT scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb.

The Forty Acres was a buzzing hive of homefront activity. A campus building boom coincided with the growth of war-related research, and by 1943, the university was turning out naval midshipmen as part of the V-12 Navy College Training Program. Air raid sirens were installed, their klaxons rattling the windows on the South Mall during siren tests. Classes were held on first aid and bandage-rolling. A recruitment center emerged in the Texas Union. TheTexan upbraided co-eds for not donating their silk shirts and stockings to the war effort. The “Longhorn Room” was christened, where a hoedown-themed dance was hosted each weekend throughout the war, raising money for the war effort and attracting headliners like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington to a Union Ballroom bedecked with wagon wheels, hay bales, and red gingham tablecloths.

In 1942, the same semester that 80 professors resigned to take on the fight, Mel Kusin, an indefatigable 16-year-old freshman from Texarkana, arrived at UT.

“He was a young pup,” says Geof Sloan, ’84, Life Member, current president of the Longhorn Alumni Band. “He walked straight over to the bandhall and signed up to join the Longhorn Band.” Kusin, ’43, played baritone for the Showband of the Southwest for a year before the Army began accepting 17-year-olds with parental consent. Kusin signed up immediately. He played in Army bands in the European theater, eventually marching down the Champs-Élysées behind Eisenhower and French leader Charles de Gaulle, celebrating the first anniversary of the liberation of Paris. When the Alumni Band was given the opportunity to participate in the 75th anniversary commemorations this summer, Kusin was a driving force.

Paul Marable, BJ ’42, was a journalism major at UT when Pearl Harbor was attacked. After graduation, he signed on to a field artillery unit and was trained as an officer. Marable was the first officer to step off his boat and onto Utah Beach on D-Day plus-two. Once ashore, his orders changed, and after days of battling through hedgerows, his unit was captured. Despite warnings to the contrary, one of Marable’s soldiers referred to him by his rank, lieutenant, a word their German captors recognized. Marable spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in Poland. He emerged, in January 1945, 42 pounds lighter, but still alive. He returned to Texas after the war, working for the Waco Chamber of Commerce and helping establish McLennan Community College, before dying in 2013.

While some, like Kusin and Marable, left UT to join the great civilizational odyssey, others, like Frank Denius, only found their place at UT after the transformative events of the war.

***

Frank Denius hols a picture of himself during his time at the Schreiner Military Institute in Kerrville, Texas. Credit: The Veterans Project

Hatfield identifies tenacious loyalty and unswerving determination as defining characteristics nurtured during the Normandy campaign that would later make Denius, who died in July 2018, a hugely influential UT booster, and a respected lawyer and philanthropist. In 2016, a series of conversations between Hatfield and Denius led to the publication of Denius’ autobiography, On the Way, My Life and Times.

“Frank was brave, determined, very much in control of his emotions. He was someone who was going to see a job through to the end,” Hatfield says. “The war confirmed the extraordinary person that he was. It is the ultimate challenge, over and over again.”

Over the years, Denius became a fixture on Longhorn practice fields, a personal friend of both Darrell K Royal and Mack Brown. Once, while regaling the team with his story of storming the beaches of Normandy just hours after the initial landing, he quipped: “Coach, if you’d seen me run across that beach, you’d have offered me a scholarship as a wide receiver.”

But the blood-soaked scramble up a beach the Americans dubbed Omaha was not Denius’ greatest challenge during the war. After the invasion had begun, the push inland would prove its success or failure. After weeks of continuous fighting, pushing Axis forces deeper into Normandy, Denius’ battalion was relieved from the front.

“It was the first time I’d had a bath or brushed my teeth in two and a half months,” Denius recalled in a 2017 interview with The Veterans Project. He also caught a USO show featuring starlet Dinah Shore, who planted a good-luck kiss on Denius’ cheek as he watched from the front row, just before his 230th Field Artillery Battalion was sent back into the fight. They took position on a high vantage point near the French town of Mortain, a spot known to the U.S. forces as Hill 314. The unit being relieved assured Denius’ group that the duty would be little more than improving entrenchments.

“They told us, ‘We haven’t seen a German or fired our rifles in three days. You guys will have it easy,’” Denius remembered. Hill 314 would prove anything but.

On Hill 314, Denius faced a danger that would define him forever, cementing his sense of grit. Despite indications that the invasion would hold, Hitler ordered a massive armored counterattack, hoping in particular to stall the Americans of Patton’s Third Army from rumbling out of Normandy and into Brittany. On Aug. 7, Denius’ unit and the infantrymen of the nearby town were encircled by SS tank divisions, while a regiment-sized artillery division began relentlessly shelling them.

The battle raged for nearly a week with Denius and his comrades trapped by German Panzer tanks and a barrage of heavy artillery. Infantry divisions, trapped at the base of the hill, helped keep the tanks at bay, while Allied sorties attempted to knock them out from above. Still, the Americans were pressed, and rations ran out within two days. When the Air Corps attempted to drop supplies, they missed their targets, forcing the ensnared Americans to cross no-man’s-land to collect bars of chocolate so unyielding that they had to be shaved with a bayonet rather than bitten into.

Denius once described the situation this way: “You could see the Atlantic Ocean, which was 25 miles west, from the top of that hill. If the Germans had broken through, cut off our 1st and 3rd Army, it would’ve disrupted our entire Normandy front. We had to hold on at all costs, which we did. The Germans offered us a white flag of surrender on the second day and told us we fought valiantly. We said, ‘Nope.’” He compared it to the Alamo. At night, with food and water low, the soldiers on the hill would file to a farmer’s nearby well, risking sniper fire to take a drink.

As supplies dwindled, an ingenious solution was devised. An American artillery unit several miles away had artillery shells without explosives, instead packed with propaganda leaflets meant to convince the enemy to surrender. The literature was taken out and the shells filled with bandages and medicine, and subsequently trained on the positions of the trapped Americans. Some of the supplies were destroyed on impact, but some made it.

“The medics were able to get some of that out and get it to those that needed it the most. That’s what we did. It was so important that we held that hill,” Denius remembered.

They did hold Hill 314, and on Aug. 12, Denius, forever changed by the experience, was relieved along with his unit. The Axis had been pushed back, and Denius, along with much of the invasion force, began the march toward Germany, setting up the grueling fight to come: the Battle of the Bulge and the eventual conquest of the German heartland.

***

The America to which G.I.s like Denius and Kusin would return was forever transformed, too.

The ultimate success of the Allies would usher a new era of economic and social prosperity—and change. The war left a positive impact on universities, especially public institutions like UT, which benefited from a scheme of government research grants, a system which helps inform the school’s mission to this day. Hatfield calls it “a great shot in the arm” for the modern research university.

UT’s Applied Research Laboratories, for example, still in existence, can be traced back to UT’s War Research Laboratory that was established in 1942. Tens of millions have funneled into UT research projects from the federal government ever since, including a recent $458 million contract awarded to the Applied Research Laboratories by the Navy for research aimed at technology used for sonar, satellite navigation, and cybersecurity.

“The war resulted in the creation of the modern research universities,” Hatfield says, “including The University of Texas at Austin.”

When the war ended, another massive transformation came to campus, clad in combat boots. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the G.I. Bill, was signed by FDR less than two weeks after D-Day. The bill gave massive educational benefits to those who served. By 1947, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, World War II veterans accounted for nearly half of all college admissions, a number far greater than anyone had predicted. It made public universities “even more egalitarian than before,” Hatfield says.

“You had more than one president of this university who got a major part of their graduate degrees through the G.I. Bill,” he says. Today, the Registrar’s office still facilitates G.I. benefits for veterans and active duty service members enrolled at UT.

***

Frank Denius kissed the Texas soil when he made it back on Aug. 25, 1945.

At Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, the major processing his discharge told him to go home and relax—he could stay on another three months and be paid without any work. But Denius was insistent he be discharged immediately in order to enroll at The University of Texas for the fall semester. Denius’ records were packed away with more than a million others, the major told him. He would never find them. Now-Staff Sergeant Denius asked if he could try anyway.

“I found them in 45 minutes,” Denius said. He went to Austin and enrolled. “I was a better student after the war because I was grateful for what I had. Combat has a way of doing that to a man.”

Today, his name is attached to the Longhorn football team’s practice facilities, a reflection of his status as perhaps the most important booster in the school’s history. “He’s been to more football practices than I have,” former athletics director DeLoss Dodds is said to have joked. From 1946 on, Denius claims to have missed only two Texas football games, and pointedly was married on a Saturday the Longhorns did not play. He was a fixture at UT until his death last August.

More than just boosterism, Denius was dedicated to keeping the memory of the war, and of Normandy, alive at UT. Each spring, 20 outstanding UT students participate in the Frank Denius Normandy Scholars Program, a rigor course of classes and a three-week trip to Europe, focused on understanding the war. The program was established with Denius’ help, and he helped arrange a grant through the Cain Foundation that gave the program a permanent home in the Liberal Arts Building.

By the end of the war, Denius had earned four Silver Stars for valor in combat and two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained. In 2012, the French government awarded him the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor), the nation’s highest order.

The newly dubbed knight reflected on the legacy of the invasion after being honored for the award by then-Governor Rick Perry.

“I hope that American people will always understand what freedom is and the price of freedom,” Denius said. “Because if you don’t, there still remain French people who can describe it for you.”

***

“William, as he is recalled in Normandy, is inseparable from it today,” Hatfield muses.

Indeed, the man who conquered England was himself permanently changed by the act of invasion. Coronated on Christmas Day 1066, the Duke transformed from “William the Bastard” to “William the Conqueror.” Or, if you’re Norman, simply William.

“You can still find buildings [in Normandy] where he stabled his horses,” Hatfield says.

And still today you can find the sites of the 20th century knights who this time liberated a nation by sweeping across the English Channel. On June 6, the French, Americans, British, and Canadians will again gather on Omaha, Juno, Utah, Sword, and Gold Beaches for the 75th time in peace. They will walk the hedgerows where Paul Marable led his troops before being captured, the ancient bridges Mel Kusin crossed with Patton’s army, and the hill where Frank Denius and his men refused to surrender.

Dozens of Flying Longhorns will travel to Normandy this year for the anniversary ceremonies. The Longhorn Alumni Band will play a whirlwind tour, providing music at remembrances and parades across the region.

After months of preparation and fundraising—each participant paying their own way—530 members and friends of the Longhorn Alumni Band will march in triumph through Normandy, just like their baritone, Mel Kusin, did three-quarters of a century earlier.

Sloan, the president of Alumni Band, calls Kusin, who played in the first D-Day remembrance in Normandy, a “huge motivator” for the trip. A year ago, as they planned, the 92 year-old Kusin gave Sloan a worrisome piece of news.

“Geof, I have cancer. But it’ll take an act of God to prevent me from going to this event,” Kusin vowed.

“And that’s exactly what happened,” Sloan says with resignation in his voice. Permanently scarred by a beer keg he dropped on his toe when his unit made it to Bavaria, Kusin, chili-recipe innovator, cocktail connoisseur, and the oldest person ever accepted into UT’s political science PhD program (at age 78), died in December.

Kusin, Denius, and thousands more will be remembered in the same spot that holds the memories of the knights, centurions, and warriors who trod its ground before them. The preservation of memory, whether of William the Conqueror or of Frank the Conqueror, is likely to last as long as there is a Normandy.

Asked about his own legacy late in life, Denius himself was characteristically endearing.

“I just hope people remember me as a great representative of the spirit of America,” he said. “Although,” he added, laughing, “I’d rather say that I hope they remember me embodying the spirit of the Longhorns.”

Those two spirits, of course, are inseparable. UT today is permanently changed by the war and the social, technological, economic, and political changes it catalyzed. The modern research university that UT typifies is an institution not just of teaching, but of inquiry and training in the service of society. In the churn of war, the campus became an ever-growing collection of endeavors deemed vital to society, sometimes with funding to match. In war, the university’s founding motto was made real: Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis, knowledge is the guardian of society.

On the eve on the invasion, D-Day minus-one, Eisenhower addressed all troops headed across the Channel. He reminded them that their fight was not theirs alone, echoing another sentiment that would prick up the ear of anyone associated with our university.

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months,” Ike wrote. “The eyes of the world,” he added, “are upon you.”

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett 

 
 
 

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