After walking a Normandy beach the day after D-Day began, war reporter Ernie Pyle wrote a newspaper column describing the Allied invasion into northern France: "On the beach lay, expended, sufficient men and mechanism for a small war. They were gone forever now. And yet we could afford it.

"We could afford it because we were on, we had our toehold, and behind us there were such enormous replacements for this wreckage on the beach that you could hardly conceive of their sum total. Men and equipment were flowing in from England in such a gigantic stream that it made the waste on the beachland seem like nothing at all, really nothing at all."

Reading eyewitness accounts like Pyle's is one way to learn about D-Day, the enormous assault that began 59 years ago Friday and turned the tide of World War II in Europe. Another way to learn is to see for yourself.

Three U.S. military units along with one French and one British have traveled to Normandy to walk the battlefields, meet old soldiers and pay respects to the dead. For a few days, they will also feel the appreciation of liberated people.

"A lot of the old positions established by the Germans in 1944 still exist," said Lt. Matthew Alexander of the 5th Quartermaster Company, Kaiserslautern, Germany. "You can see what a stronghold they had on these towns.

"The people of Saint Mere Iglise even after all these years are still very appreciative of everything the soldiers did for them."

The Germans thought U.S.-led Allied forces would eventually cross the English Channel to try to take back France. The Germans built the "Atlantic Wall" — 2,400-miles of concrete bunkers, barbed wire, tank ditches, land mines, fixed gun emplacements and underwater obstacles.

Before dawn on June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied paratroopers landed behind enemy lines, securing key roads and bridges on the flanks of the invasion area. Some of the units visiting Normandy this weekend will reenact the same jumps — falling through the same sky, landing in the same field.

"That's what I'm looking forward to — to actually being able to jump into Saint Mere Iglese," said Staff Sgt. William Ganaden of the 5th Quartermasters Company. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do it in this time frame."

More than 5,000 ships and 11,000 planes carried 175,000 soldiers into France. By nightfall on June 6, nearly all 175,000 soldiers were ashore. They'd assaulted five beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. But the price was heavy.

More than 2,500 soldiers died at Omaha Beach. Thousands more were killed and wounded during the invasion.

Though the Allies gained a toehold, it took many weeks for them to fight their way out of Normandy and nearly a year before the Germans surrendered.

Many people know the VE-Day (May 8, 1945) stands for "victory in Europe."

As for the "D" in D-Day, who knows?

According to the Web site of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans (, military planners used plus and minus signs to indicate the day of an attack: D-4 meant four days before a D-Day, while D+7 meant seven days after a D-Day. In other words, the "D" in D-Day merely stands for day.

Some say D-Day is short for "day of decision."

According to the Web site, when someone wrote to General Eisenhower in 1964 asking for an explanation, his executive assistant Brigadier General Robert Schultz answered: "General Eisenhower asked me to respond to your letter. Be advised that any amphibious operation has a 'departed date'; therefore the shortened term 'D-Day' is used.'"

You'd think Ike would know.

Ganaden of the 5th Quartermaster Company said he didn't know much about D-Day. But he was willing to learn — especially "more about our airborne heritage" — from some of the D-Day soldiers who are still alive and the civilians they liberated.

"Next year is the 60th (anniversary of D-Day)," Ganaden said. "It might be the last (major D-Day observance) because everybody is getting older."

Alexander looked forward to walking the battlefields.

"I hope we're going to come away with an appreciation for the soldiers who fought before us," Alexander said, "and a sense of camaraderie between foreign militaries."

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