The U.S. Army’s 29th Infantry Division faced what would turn out to be a devastating situation as it neared Omaha Beach on D–Day.
Bad weather had turned the sea rough, and troops from different regiments intermixed as they began disembarking from landing craft into water that was waist-high to 10 feet deep. The ensuing confusion added to the carnage, as some men drowned and others were hit by withering fire from German soldiers in the bluffs overlooking the beach.
“Where they landed was one of the most heavily defended parts of the beach, and pre-invasion bombardment had largely overshot the German divisions,” said Maj. Gen. John Epperly of Stafford County, who is the commander of the 29th Infantry Division in the Virginia National Guard based at Fort Belvoir. “There was no cover. The beach was mined.”
More than 800 members of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry Regiment were killed, wounded or went missing on D-Day. Company A from the Virginia National Guard in Bedford was nearly annihilated.
“It was a worst-case scenario,” said Epperly, “but not only did they get to the beach, they took the German positions—albeit with heavy casualties.”
Epperly, who is also president of DMI’s federal practice, will speak at a ceremony Thursday at the National Guard monument on Omaha Beach to honor soldiers with the 29th Infantry Division on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. They were among the first wave of Allied forces to break through German defenses.
“I will try to speak to the incredible feat of arms that that battle was, and what those young soldiers did that morning, and also the strong link between the American soldiers and the French people,” he said.
Epperly spoke at a similar ceremony there last year during the 74th commemoration of D–Day, and said that he was impressed by those who turned out on a cold, rainy day for the event.
“The French were busing in middle and high school kids,” he said. “What really struck me was that the French really take the time to teach their children what happened, and the incredible appreciation they have for the Americans who helped.”
He said that it was “very emotional” when he shook hands with many of the Frenchmen who held the historical unit colors of the French Army and the French Resistance during the ceremony. Most, he said, were crying.
Epperly said he wore his uniform when he gave his talk, and the French know the 29th’s insignia represents and seek out those who wear it.
“The French that live in different parts of the Normandy coast, they know who came ashore and thank you for that,” he said. “Obviously I wasn’t born then, but there’s just this adoration and care.”
The 29th Infantry Division, also known as the “Blue and Gray Division,” was formed in 1917 and deployed to France during World War I. It was called up for service again during World War II, and its 116th Regiment was among the first ashore during the landings in Normandy. It’s currently part of the U.S. Army National Guard and contains units from Virginia and five other states.
“It’s a very, very special piece of history as a battle for the division,” Epperly said of D–Day. “It was our defining moment in history for the Blue and Gray Division.”
He said that the French take “meticulously care” of the American monuments that stud five beaches across a 50-mile front of the Normandy coastline. They include the National Guard Monument, which was built on top of the bunker that Germans had built at Vierville–sur–Mer. Nearby in the same small town are the 29th Infantry Division Memorial and the 116th Regimental Combat Team.
“Here it is 75 years on and these folks have not forgotten,” he said. “They’re very appreciative and accommodating to their American friends.”
Last year’s D–Day commemorations were not as big as those planned this year for the 75th anniversary, Epperly said. Most are being held in France, although remembrance services and other events are being held in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
He said that it’s a big deal for him that DMI supports his work with the National Guard. He’s been deployed twice overseas, and has had a chance to work with French forces in the war on terror.
“If I deploy, they cover my family’s health care, and I get paid time off for training and duty,” he said. “I never miss a chance to thank them.”
DMI, which is based in Bethesda, Md., specializes in mobile enterprise solutions, including web and app development, digital commerce, internet of things, analytics, brand and marketing, artificial intelligence and secure device and app management. Epperly is a West Point graduate and combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who has commanded troops in the U.S. Army for nearly 30 years.
“What DMI gets from the Army are all our veterans, folks that tend to be mature, have a great work ethic and do well as leaders,” Epperly said. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”