When dawn broke on D-Day, an Army private from Great Neck named Walter Blum was among the first to face the cannon and machine-gun fire that awaited on the beaches of Normandy.
"It was very noisy and very confusing, and the place stunk of gunpowder," Blum recalled of the chaos and the carnage and the din. "The sound was amazing, with the German guns firing and the American guns firing back, and the shells landing in the water around us sending geysers shooting up."
He and other members of the amphibious 1st Engineer Special Brigade had been sent in because surveillance photographs had uncovered a sudden shift of tactics by Nazi troops dug in along the shore. German forces had salted the surf with obstacles that would sink boats bringing the American troops ashore, potentially swallowing 40 GIs at a time.
It would be up to Blum and the others in the surf to clear lanes through the obstructions and lay wire-mesh roadbeds, allowing U.S. tanks and troops to make it to the beach. And they had to do it in chilly, chest-deep seawater, as German guns rained misery down upon them.
"Death prevailed," Blum said during an interview at the Great Neck home where he raised two children after coming home from war. "Of the two platoons that went ashore with me -- 60 guys -- only half of them survived that morning."
"There was so much confusion, it was almost comedy," he said. "But it's not comedy when men are dying around you."
World War II's D-Day invasion -- June 6, 1944 -- was designed as a critical step toward wresting mainland Europe from the grip of Nazi forces, which by that spring controlled virtually the entire continent north of Rome and west of the border with the Soviet Union.
But a heavily armed German defense awaited them, hidden in concrete machine-gun nests that flanked the beaches or operating from artillery batteries farther inland, guns trained on the fateful sands.
The Allies landed some 156,000 troops on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day: 73,000 Americans and 83,000 British and Canadian forces. Within five days more than 320,000 had made it ashore, along with 54,000 trucks, tanks and other vehicles, and more than 100,000 tons of supplies. Offshore, 7,000 warships and landing craft, the largest armada in history, roiled the waters.
Blum, then a lanky, 18-year-old former high school track team captain, was a relatively green recruit when he came ashore on D-Day. The soldier had been among replacements to the 1st Engineers after a German U-boat struck off the coast of England during D-Day training, killing more than 400 GIs.
The brigade had distinguished itself during landings in North Africa and Italy, giving Blum confidence that he was joining a group that was well trained.
But as bullets skipped past, and floating corpses tumbled in the surf at Utah Beach, his focus was tested, Blum recalled.
"We had trained and trained for D-Day, but combat is totally different," said Blum, who worked as an architect after the war, even designing the airy, flowing home he lives in today. "You try to just do your job and not think about what might happen. Fear motivates you."
Luck preserved him.
On that one June day, along a windswept stretch of French coastline whose sunlit serenity had once infused the Impressionist movement, 2,500 Americans perished in an area smaller than Jones Beach.
Blum survived the landing relatively unscratched, though he was badly injured two weeks later near Cherbourg when shrapnel shredded his knee. He talked doctors out of amputating, finished the war working as a draftsman, and the next year married Eileen Gentl, a fellow student where he was studying at the University of Wisconsin.
Now almost 90 and living alone -- his wife died in 2011 -- he says he does not believe that surviving D-Day marks him as an American hero. He said he was only trying to help the GIs who were still arriving on the beach make it in safely.
"We just worked, just took our chances," he said. "Just went from task to task: Clear the mines and get the mats down."