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80th Anniversary: Connecticut Connections to D-Day

By Philip R. Devlin

(June 1, 2024) — More than 150,000 armed forces personnel, 5,000 ships, and more than 1,200 aircraft formed the armada that assaulted the shores of Normandy during “Operation Overlord” on June 6, 1944 – otherwise known as D-Day – 80 years ago this week.

The attack was by far the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world to date; it is safe to say that there will never be another invasion of that size again. Nationwide, more than 16,000,000 Americans mobilized for the war; including more than 210,000 men and more than 3,300 women from Connecticut. 161 of those Connecticut natives are memorialized at the famous American cemetery at Colleville sur Mer that overlooks Omaha Beach; nineteen of them died on D-Day. The others died in the protracted Normandy campaign that followed the initial assault.

The American amphibious forces assaulted two beaches – Omaha and Utah – and one cliff – Pointe du Hoc – on D-Day. Connecticut men participated in all three assaults. Four Connecticut men buried in Normandy were members of the famous 2nd Ranger Battalion. Their mission was to capture a triangular piece of land jutting out into the English Channel known as Point du Hoc. It was a formidable challenge.

Pointe du Hoc was of great strategic importance, as it lay between both Omaha to the east and Utah to the west. The Germans had placed large artillery pieces on the top of the cliffs at there. These guns could be used to hit either of the two American beaches or both. The Rangers had to get to the top of 100-foot cliffs from the shore. They modified mortars to shoot heavy ropes with grappling hooks up to the top of the 100 foot sheer cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. They slung their rifles over their backs and began to climb the ropes as the Germans above, with a huge strategic advantage, shot down at them, tossed grenades at them, and cut their ropes.

The Rangers eventually got up and secured the cliffs due to vital help from the American destroyer USS Satterlee but at great cost. More than sixty percent of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were killed or wounded – by far the highest casualty rate of any unit on D-Day. Four soldiers from Connecticut were among the casualties: Pvt. James E. Donovan of Fairfield County; Pvt. John S. Gourley of New Haven; Sgt. Charles E. Rich of Cos Cob, and Sgt. Frederick D. Smith of Waterbury, who was awarded the Silver Star for heroic action. Sgt. Smith was killed by machine gun fire on the bluffs at Pointe du Hoc.

Seven Connecticut servicemen were members of airborne divisions who parachuted in behind the lines to secure roads and bridges. Two were members of the 101st Airborne Division: Pvt. Charles S. Emerson of Derby, who was also awarded the Silver Star, and Lt. Harlan E. Rugg of Fairfield, who had landed near Sainte Marie-du-Mont in a Waco glider and was shot by a German while bending over to pet a dog. Military service was a family tradition in the Rugg household. His grandfather had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and his dad had served in World War I.

Five Connecticut soldiers were members of the 82nd Airborne Division. They included Sgt. Harry E. La Chance Jr., of Stamford, Pvt. John N. Bruno of Hartford (body never found), and Pvt. John R. Bergendahl of Middletown, whose actions near St. Mere Eglise before he died earned him the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster; also, there was Pvt. Andrew Babjak of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne from Bridgeport.

Finally, multi-lingual Hugh Montgomery from Windsor Locks, (photo above) who was wounded in the leg and was later recruited as an OSS agent, parachuted into Normandy. Montgomery, a founding father of the CIA, played a huge role in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 while serving with the CIA for an incredible 63 years!

Another member of a special airborne unit was Cpl. Frank E. Benson of Newington, whose job in the war is simply described as “counter-intelligence.” He parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Counter Intelligence Corps.

Lt. Dave Fuller of Suffield of the 493rd Fighter Squadron of the 9th Air Force flew cover on D-Day in his P-47 named “Mrs. Mouse.” (photo above) One of the most highly decorated pilots from Connecticut during the war, Fuller would complete 92 combat missions. Among other awards, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew most of those missions from an airfield right near Pointe du Hoc called ALG A4. A monument to the 493rd was erected at that site and shows his P-47 on it.

Private Michael Datzko of Ansonia, of the 4th Infantry division, landed on Utah Beach, where he was awarded a Bronze Star before he died. Datzko was one of 197 American casualties on Utah Beach. “Bloody Omaha,” however, had more than 3,000 casualties, so it should come as no surprise that most of Connecticut’s casualties – eight – came at Omaha.

Private Douglas R. Osborne, a combat medic from Windsor, landed at Omaha with the 1st Infantry Division – nicknamed the “Big Red One.” Osborne was killed at the Easy Red sector after his heroic actions had earned him the Bronze Star there. Note in the list below this article that the rest of the casualties were all tied in with the 29th Infantry Division. The 29th was located in the western end of Omaha, near the Vierville Draw. The 5th Ranger Battalion assaulted this area with them. Both units suffered many casualties; in fact, Dog Green was the area where 22 men from Bedford, Virginia were killed within minutes of each other.

Bedford is the home of the National D-Day Memorial (photo above) because the town lost more of its men on a per capita basis than any other town or city in the United States.

Another Connecticut connection can be made to the Dog Green sector on the western side of Omaha Beach. That connection happened in the summer of 2009, when Killingworth native and HKHS grad, Chris DiStefano, was visiting the famous beach as part of a student tour group when he was in college. While walking in the water, Chris heard the cries of two young French children who were being carried out to sea by a riptide. Stripping off his clothes, he swam out and saved their lives, much to the relief of their parents.

The “new hero of Omaha” was quoted in the July 5, 2009, edition of the New Haven Register as saying, “It just felt good being an American back on that beach doing something like that. Coming back in, I just thought about how many people died right where I was swimming. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.” A lot of men had indeed died right there in the Dog Green sector of Omaha where Chris DiStefano saved two lives. Of the more than 5,300 men and women from Connecticut who died in World War II, 19 died on June 6, 1944, and eight of them died right there near the Vierville Draw.

Connecticut Men Who Died on June 6, 1944, in Normandy

  1. BABJAK, ANDREW—PVT ( 508th PIR; 82nd AB)
  2. BENSON, FRANK E—CPL ( Counter-Intelligence)
  3. BERGENDAHL, JOHN R.—PVT (82nd AB ; Bronze Star w/ Oak Leaf Cluster)
     
    4. BRUNO, JOHN N—PVT* ( 82nd AB)
     
    5. CANAVAN, MICHAEL J. Jr.—PVT ( 299th Engineer Combat Div.)
     
    6. COWAN, WILLIAM J—PVT ( 29th ID)
     
    7. DATZKO, MICHAEL—PVT ( 4th ID; Bronze Star)
     
    8. DONAHUE, JAMES E—PVT ( 2nd Ranger Battalion)
     
    9. EMERSON, CHARLES S.—PVT ( 101st AB; Silver Star)
     
    10. GOURLEY, JOHN S—PVT (2nd Ranger Battalion)
     
    11. HALL, WILLIAM C-1st Lt.  ( 79th ID )
     
    12. KRAWFSKY, ANTHONY—PVT ( 29th ID )
     
    13. LA CHANCE, HARRY E JR—SGT. (82nd AB)
     
    14. OSBORN, DOUGLAS R—PVT ( 1st ID; Bronze Star)
     
    15. RICH, CHARLES E—SGT. (2nd Ranger Battalion)
     
    16. RUGG, HARLAN E—2ndLt. ( 101st AB)
     
    17. SMITH, FREDERICK D—SSGT (2nd Ranger Battalion; Silver Star)
     
    18. WASSIL, NICKOLAS—PVT ( 5th Ranger Battalion)
     
    19. ZAWICKI, FRANK A—PVT ( 29th ID)
  4. Fuller and Montgomery photos courtesy of Phil Devlin. Photo of D-Day monument by Phil Devlin

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