Lt. Gen. Thomas James

James photo

Watching the dignified, elderly man enter our First Army headquarters might not have appeared remarkable to an outsider.

But we knew better.

The man, Henry Langrehr, was among the first Americans on French soil as the invasion of Normandy began on June 6, 1944. First Army had been tasked with planning and commanding that entire D-Day mission, perhaps the most iconic, world-changing military feat in modern history. And the fact we are headquartered on Rock Island Arsenal, less than an hour from this amazing Iowa veteran, had given us the incredible opportunity to meet a hometown hero.

As he looked over our collection of World War II artifacts and weaponry, Langrehr sighed. "I remember every bit of this," he said.

I’m thankful he does.

Men like Langrehr – and the historic memories they hold – are increasingly rare national treasures. Thursday marks 75 years since brave Americans stormed the beaches of Normandy. Sadly, only a fraction of our nation’s Greatest Generation remain with us for it. Of the 16 million World War II veterans America once had, just 500,000 are still alive. More than 300 die each day.

Langrehr has never been one to trumpet his wartime actions. But if you have ever seen the beloved movie, "The Longest Day," you know part of his story.

Langrehr is the American paratrooper who crashed through the glass roof of the French greenhouse near the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, on a mission with a few thousand other paratroopers to distract the Germans and blow up bridges the enemy would need to reach the beach. Of the 18 on Langrehr’s plane who left England, only six survived.

"We only partially understood the historic nature of what we were doing," he says today. "I remember one soldier casually trying to read a book on the airplane as we headed over the English Channel."

Langrehr embodies a generation that matter-of-factly put their young lives on hold to free Europe from the tyranny of Nazi occupation. On the day he was parachuting into France, his high school class was graduating back in Clinton.

The war would only become more brutal for Langrehr. He battled through the infamous French hedgerows and saw more death than he cares to remember. He watched one soldier draw his last breath saying "The Lord’s Prayer," another while reciting the 23rd Psalm.

Langrehr soon found a German tank turret aimed directly at him. He woke up days later a prisoner of war.

For months, Langrehr and other American POWs were forced to mine coal in dangerous shafts. Langrehr, scrappy and no-nonsense, told a friend one day that it was his last day working for the Germans. He’d escape or die.

The two made a break for it. When a German police officer discovered them in a farmer’s barn, his friend was shot to death. Langrehr fought his way out of the barn and survived.

Langrehr evaded the Germans for two weeks before reuniting with an American unit. Almost a year after D-Day, he was still wearing his original – now tattered and filthy – uniform.

After the war, Mr. Langrehr returned to Clinton where he became a successful small business owner. He married his sweetheart and raised a family – including a son who would go on to serve in Vietnam, as well two grandsons and a great-grandson who would serve in the same airborne unit he was with on D-Day. What a legacy.

In the hours before the Normandy invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a message to soldiers like Henry Langrehr. He said, "The eyes of the world are upon you."

In so many ways, our eyes still are. Those men who stormed the beaches, who scaled the cliffs and liberated an entire continent, continue to inspire us all.

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Lt. Gen. Thomas S. James commands the First Army, which is headquartered on the Rock Island Arsenal