At 12:15 a.m. on June 6, 1944, Capt. Frank Lillyman jumped out of a C-47 Skytrain over Normandy. Moments later he became the first American paratrooper to set boots on the ground in France for the historic assault of “Fortress Europe.” British writer Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II details the experiences of Lillyman and the other Allied soldiers who first engaged the enemy during the monumental assault of Nazi-occupied France. Through exhaustive research and interviews the New York Times best-selling author has crafted a riveting narrative of the pathfinders, commandos, Rangers, assault troops, pilots and coxswains who led the assault on the Atlantic Wall. Kershaw is the author of the critically acclaimed books The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter and Escape From the Deep. He also wrote The Liberator, which is under development as a Netflix series.
What motivated you to write this book?
The 75th anniversary [of D-Day] was coming up, and I knew there would be renewed interest. I wanted to try and find a new angle. I was looking for a high concept and hoping to come at it from a different way.
I came across a story about Leonard Schroeder, the first American to come ashore from a landing craft [that day], and I started thinking about the first people to face combat. They were leading the way and were the most likely to die. I suddenly thought, Oh, the first wave! Then I thought, Who were these people? I started looking for men with interesting stories that hadn’t really been mined properly. I found a lot of stuff that hadn’t been looked at and a lot of stuff that was new.
How did you approach the individual stories?
I included Frank Lillyman of the pathfinders and Schroeder. I talked with Léon Gautier, the French commando, and Waldo Werft, an extraordinary medic at Omaha. I included material on others I had spoken with over the past 20 years who did not become main characters. They gave me a lot of good context and background. I visited Omaha Beach with Dan Farley, who was a Ranger. I tried to get as many people as possible, but only 3 percent of World War II veterans are still alive, so trying to find someone from the first wave was very difficult. These were all brave men in different units who were given a job to do, and they did it.
Did they realize the importance of what they were doing and the danger they faced?
Some of them did. The guys at Pegasus Bridge, especially John Howard of the British army, absolutely knew this was a vital objective. Men taking out gun positions and securing crossings knew they had to get the job done, because the repercussions were serious. These were critical missions. I’m not sure any of them at the time thought, If I don’t succeed, the invasion is going to fail. But they knew those were critical targets, and they needed to succeed. The jobs were so important and so dangerous.
Many were going into harm’s way for the first time. Did fear pose a problem?
A lot of them had fear. They hid it very well. The guys I focus on were probably more afraid of failure and letting their men down. John Spalding, for example—here’s a young lieutenant who’s never been in combat before, and he wanted to prove himself at Omaha Beach. He was more afraid of failing his men than of the enemy.
Which examples of valor and courage impressed you most?
Anybody who jumped out of an airplane. I think Howard and his unit at Pegasus Bridge were incredible. They crash-landed in a glider, then got out and did the job after that trauma. Spalding getting off Omaha Beach—that was a spectacular achievement.
I was struck by the fact that for many of these guys this was their first day in combat, and they carried on. D-Day for a fair few of them wasn’t nearly that bad. Things got worse in the next days and weeks. In Spalding’s case D-Day was very bad, and then he went through episodes of enormous trauma later on. But they all carried on. They knew they were exposing themselves to tremendous psychological and emotional damage. That’s what moved me—they kept on going.
What was it like for them, living through all that?
We tend to forget the context of the times. I met a fellow from England once who told me he was a boy in London during the Blitz. By 1943 he had already lost two or three friends. They all knew someone who hadn’t come back. No one questioned putting their life on the line. It’s not like today, where you have these elite forces who do these actions, and no one really hears about it. Back then everyone did it. The feeling back then was, We’ve got to win this war. It’s very, very, very important. The stakes were high, and everyone was giving something. They all felt they should do their part.
Today we are incapable of knowing what it was really like, how nightmarish it was. I always liked the example of Vito Pedone. He was the co-pilot on the plane that dropped Lillyman into Normandy. I was struck by how he said it was only when he got back to England and was on the ground that he actually felt any fear. He was so busy flying the plane, so focused on his mission, that he didn’t have time to think about anything else. I think that was common for quite a few of them. For Howard it was a few days after D-Day, when he had lost a lot of his men, that the emotional impact hit home. There was another guy I interviewed who had been in combat for 500 days. He said to me, “Imagine being in the worst car crash ever, and then imagine that happening every day.”
How many of those brave men remain alive?
There are only about five guys in my book that are still around today. Gautier is one of them. He is one of only three surviving Frenchmen who landed on D-Day. There are other people in the book who are alive today, like Fred Glover, a British paratrooper, and John Raaen, a Ranger at Omaha Beach. Sadly, several people I interviewed died before the book was published.
What do the men who fought at Normandy want us to understand about that experience?
It’s difficult to generalize, but I think most really hoped no one would have to do this again. Peace would be cherished, and people would be reluctant to engage in war again. They were proud of what they did, but not egotistical about it. The ones alive today that I know feel very lucky they came home, feel very lucky they had long lives. There is some survivor’s guilt, but they were part of something really important. That they played a role in D-Day and are alive today means they can look back and know in their heart of hearts they were a part one of the most important days in history. Democracy means a lot to these people, and so does freedom. They are proud to have been able to protect that. A lot of people died so we could have what we have today. We shouldn’t take it for granted. They certainly don’t.
What do you think is the ultimate legacy of D-Day?
Seventy-five years of peace and democracy in Europe. That’s the main result—the liberation of Western Europe. It’s an immense thing. It’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s the greatest gift America has ever given anybody. MH