Magazine article Newsweek

The Kids Who Changed the World

Magazine article Newsweek

The Kids Who Changed the World

Article excerpt

They were unimaginably young, exchanging high school for the horrors of war. These are the soldiers' stories.

AMBROSE, author of "D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II" and "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Surrender of Germany," is a historical consultant on "Saving Private Ryan." He is also collaborating on a book about the film with Steven Spielberg.

AT 0227 HOURS, JUNE 6, 1944, LT. 8013 MATHIAS, A platoon leader in the 82d Airborne Division, was riding in a C-47 Dakota over the English Channel, headed toward Normandy. The red light, the signal to get ready, went on over the open door of the plane. "Stand up and hook up!" Mathias called out to the 16 men behind him as he stepped to the door, ready to jump into the night. German antiaircraft shells were bursting all around him and German machine-gun fire-green, yellow, red, blue, white - arced through the sky. Below him, Mathias could see a hay barn burning just outside the village of Ste-Mere-Eglise. Behind him, Mathias could hear his men calling out, "Let's go, for God's sake, let's go!" As the machine-gun bullets came through the fuselage, they instinctively put their hands over their crotches.

A shell burst in Mathias's face, and the blast and shrapnel knocked him off his feet. With a mighty effort, he began to pull himself back up. The green light went on-the signal to jump. He had enough strength to push himself out of the way and forgo the battle. Had he done so, the crew of the airplane could have applied first aid and gotten him back to England in time for a He-saving operation. Instead, he raised his right arm, called out "Follow me!" and jumped into the night. Whether from the shock of his opening parachute, or the force of hitting the ground, or the bleeding from his multiple wounds - when his men found him later that morning he was still in his chute, dead. He was the first American officer killed by German fire on D-Day.

The cause for which Mathias gave his He was nothing less than civilization. This isn't sentimentality; this is fact. When General Eisenhower ordered the C-47s into the night skies over Normandy on June 6, inaugurating the climactic battle of World War II, it remained very much in doubt who would prevail in the titanic struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. Hitler was certain that the Nazi Youth would outfight the Boy Scouts. The Fuhrer believed that while the Third Reich's teenage boys were imbued with fanaticism and taught that they belonged to a master race destined to conquer the world, the spoiled sons of democracy had been reading cynical, post-World War I antiwar literature that sometimes portrayed patriots as suckers, slackers as heroes. And Hitler knew that American kids wanted no part of another war. They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-Is at other young men.

Hitler was aware of American industrial capacity. He understood that the United States could put a mighty fleet into the battle, along with thousands of bombers and tighter aircraft, tanks, trucks, jeeps and artillery pieces, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers. …

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