Names from among the thousands of Americans who died on D-Day are etched on tombstones that stand at mute attention in military graveyards across the country, including at Long Island National Cemetery.
Their stories are nearly all lost from individual memory now, nearly 75 years later — kept instead mostly by old newspaper clippings, and fading recollections handed down to younger relatives now in their 60s and 70s.
“I was maybe 7 when I learned about him,” Henry Yarsinske said of his uncle, also named Henry Yarsinske, who perished on June 6, 1944, the beginning of the Allied invasion of Nazi-held France during World War II.
“I felt honored to be named after someone like him,” said Yarsinske, who was born 10 years after his soldier uncle perished at Omaha Beach.
“I never knew him, or what kind of person he was,” said the one-time Westbury resident who moved to Marysville, Washington, in 1996. “But he was a medic, trying to save other people when he was getting shot at himself, so that says something of who he was.”
His uncle, Sgt. Henry Yarsinske of Garden City Park, had been a 23-year-old soldier with Company A, of the Army’s First Medical Battalion. Company A landed at Omaha Beach about 1 p.m. on D-Day, the commencement of a titanic struggle that is widely viewed as the war’s turning point.
Yarsinske’s younger brother Walter, who survived the Battle of the Bulge, spoke little of his perished sibling before Walter himself died 25 years ago. Yarsinske’s remains were not even returned to Long Island until 1947, when the USS Robert Burns repatriated 20 slain Long Island soldiers, including John Zelvis, 20, of Valley Stream, another D-Day casualty who is buried at the Pinelawn national cemetery.
The stories of individuals like Yarsinske who died that day may have faded to little more than what is written on their grave markers. But history has not forgotten what they accomplished.
The Normandy landing, the largest invasion in military history, paved the way for the liberation of Europe.
In an operation also known as “Neptune,” the Allies on D-Day targeted the channel coast of France after concluding that it provided the best access to France’s Nazi-occupied interior.
But the Allied plans were beset by formidable challenges from the start.
A lack of adequate landing craft forced military leaders to push back initial plans for the invasion from May until early June.
The weather, which had been mostly encouraging through May, turned truculent as the June 6 hour approached. A stiff breeze made for heavy seas, pushing arriving landing craft out of position, making many of the soldiers debilitatingly seasick, and sinking most of the amphibious tanks that were to have provided them a measure of protection as they scrambled ashore.
A low cloud ceiling scattered paratroopers far from their target landing zones, and prevented Allied bombers from targeting German defensive positions. Nazi troops rained bullets from cliffs and bluffs that overlooked the wide and shelterless beaches.
Large numbers of the invading Allies were shot as soon as their landing craft opened their doors. Still more drowned while making their way shoreward in the heavy surf, pulled under by the weight of their military gear.
But still, on the morning of June 6, the invasion went on, if not exactly as planned.
From D-Day through Aug. 21, the Allies landed more than two million men in northern France and suffered more than 226,000 killed, wounded, or missing, according to the U.S. government. German losses included nearly 450,000 killed, wounded, or captured. In addition, as many as 20,000 French civilians perished in the fighting.
A description of what Yarsinske may have experienced was included in a Distinguished Service Cross medal citation earned by a Capt. Emerald Ralston, who commanded Yarsinske’s unit as they churned toward the coast.
“The landing craft, upon which Captain Ralston’s medical company was coming ashore, was hit twice by enemy shells, setting two of the holds on fire. . . . Despite smoke and terrific heat . . . [and in] the face of vicious enemy artillery fire which killed and wounded many of the men, a landing was effected.”
The sacrifices of those who died on D-Day still resonate among the dwindling number of World War II veterans who landed in Europe in the wake of the battle.
Former Staff Sgt. Paul Tropeano, 95, of Melville, arrived at the Normandy coast just weeks after Yarsinske perished. A member of the 544th Ordnance Heavy Maintenance Field Army, he witnessed the gruesome aftermath of the initial assault, as the beach carnage gave way to a mile-by-mile push into the fortified French coastal region.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of dead, and I had tears in my eyes,” Tropeano recalled of the bomb-pocked landscape that greeted him. “I promised them then I would tell the world how they died. They are all Purple Heart heroes.”