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Operation Varsity: The Last Airborne Deployment of WWII

In the early morning hours of March 24, 1945, a massive WWII airborne operation known as Operation Varsity launched with an attempt to deploy 17,000 American and British Airborne troops across the Rhine River. It was the largest single-day airborne operation in history.

C-47 Transport Planes Release Hundreds of Paratroopers during Operation Varsity

In the final months of WWII, Western Allied Forces advanced east into Germany. This meant crossing numerous rivers, many of which no longer had standing bridges. The Rhine River was especially treacherous, with steep banks and swift currents, providing German forces with a natural defensive barrier.

Planning got underway to deploy airborne forces on the east side of the Rhine. The principal mission was to seize and hold the high ground five miles north of Wesel, Germany, and to facilitate the ground action and establish a bridgehead. The soldiers would then hold the territory until the advancing units of the British 21st Army Group joined them, allowing them to advance to northern Germany. Extensive photo reconnaissance identified suitable drop zones. This operation would be part of Operation Plunder and would involve troops from the 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division.  

On the night of March 23rd, British ground troops crossed the Rhine and launched an intense assault near Wesel, securing nine small bridgeheads. At 6:00 a.m. on March 24th, airborne troops were given the green light. A huge armada consisting of more than 1,500 American aircraft and gliders carrying more than 9,000 soldiers, rendezvoused with the British airborne armada of 1,200 aircraft and gliders carrying 8,000 soldiers. They met in the skies near Brussels, Belgium, and formed a column two-and-a-half hours long. To draw away enemy fighters during the operation, the 15th Air Force consisting of 150 heavy bombers flew one of its longest missions and bombed Berlin.

Glider Troops After Landing Near Wesel, Germany

Paratroopers filed out over the drop site while gliders cut loose over the landing area. Concealed flak positions, sniper and mortar fire caused casualties. After landing, the soldiers fought off German attempts to infiltrate their defensive positions. In the process, they captured German prisoners.

Stuart Stryker served in the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division. During Operation Varsity, he parachuted to a landing near Wesel. When his company attacked a strongly defended building, another platoon became pinned down by intense fire. Stryker voluntarily ran to the head of the unit calling for soldiers to follow him. He charged the German position and was killed just 25 yards from the building. His attack provided a diversion that allowed other soldiers to take the position, where they captured over 200 soldiers and freed three American airmen held as prisoners. Stryker was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. In 2002, the US Army named its new armored fighting vehicle “Stryker” in his honor.

Operation Varsity was deemed a success and soldiers captured bridges, strongholds, and secured towns allowing troops to advance to northern Germany. British and American casualties were lower than military experts anticipated but still numbered more than 2,000. The two divisions also captured 3,500 German prisoners. To learn more about Operation Varsity, search Fold3 today!

100 Comments

  1. Good choice for an event few of us have heard about. Thanks. JHW

    • never heard of allied gliders. But in a French movie they showed an escape with a glider so there must be something of it. So my dad says at the end of the war in 1945 the sky was full with allied planes coming over from England due to Germany, a very distinct sound he still would recognize today. This offensive went on for days. And those planes flew very high he says. kids tried to count the flocks which appeared to be impossible. Flying so hih was probably to avoid ennemy ground fire. Contrary to what I read on the internet he says in our region ( Belgium) the Germans used regularly the V2 (Vergeltungswaffe). He says some V2’s came down in his town leaving terrible damage. It made a hole a small house would disppear in. He says you could clearly see a V2 flying over and that there was no danger as long there was sound. As from the sound stopped it came down.

    • To Mr kris de cnijf, what you saw was the V1 and it sounded more like a two stroke engine. I was in England, about 12 years old and saw several of these.
      We waited fo hear the engine stop before seeking shelter.
      The V2 was the rocket and there was no warning sound before the explosion!
      Also saw the gliders being towed on their way to Arnem–something I will not forget.

    • V2 rockets were supersonic and the only time they were heard was then they landed/exploded

      V1 rockets were ramjets and puttputted along till the fuel ran out. Then they tipped over and landed/exploded.

  2. My uncle was killed in this offensive. He was caught in a tree and was shot by German soldiers. He was a paratrooper with the 17th airborne. It was his last jump and his 25th birthday.

    • Uncle Dale, will be forever young. May he RIP.

    • My Uncle was 504th PIR 82nd Airborne with 3 combat jumps during WWII, and my father was with the 15th Army Air Corp. When I could get stories out of them they were very interesting.

    • My uncle a 17 year old had already made the Normandy and Market Garden jumps with the 50duce PIR 101st! He transferred to the 513th 17th Abn and made the jump across the Rhine! Many brave men fought and died that day and the many days before!

    • He died a hero of the Greatest Generation. We owe him and thousands like him a debt we can never pay. Your family is appreciated.

  3. My Uncle Dale was killed over Wesel, Germany. He and his crew were delivery supplies and so were flying low. He steadied the plane so that his crew could get out.

    • My father in law landed in a glider there that day with the 194th glider infantry, 17th Airborne division

  4. Kris de Cnijf, a friend of mine’s father flew gliders in the war. He had used a movie camera to make some tapes, which they later transferred to a VCR tape. I was lucky enough to get to borrow it. He had mainly stories of the cities and villages the flew out of, but there were some stories and videos of the gliders and a bit about their missions. Not a lot of course, since he made the tapes during the war, but it was interesting to see.

  5. kris de cnijf

    A person could see and hear the German V-1 “Buzz Bomb” and when its engine quit, it fell and did it’s damage. It was a subsonic early cruise missile. A person could also see and hear the launch of a V-2 ballistic missile, it reached very high in its trajectory and fell at supersonic speeds, it impacted and exploded before any sound was heard.

  6. A surprise since I would have thought that Market Garden would have discouraged an operation like this. But like in our US Civil War,
    overwhelming force prevailed regardless how hard the defenders fought.

    • Market Garden would have been a caution but by March of 1945 the type of organized Panzer divisions that doomed the bridge to far were nowhere to be found
      Local strong points did exist but large mobile armored forces were scarce and allied air dominance kept their heads down. My Uncle Harry was in the 101st and survived the war, sadly he was killed in a car accident when I was just 13.

    • Market Garden could have been a success,, but the Limies (XXX Corps) stopped for Tea???

    • My father was with 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.
      From May 1943 to Oct 1945. He shared the stories and problems that took place during Market Garden. We could not keep him quiet while watching the movie “A bridge too far”.

    • My uncle (Royal Engineers) spent the night of Market Garden rowing back and fro over the river under heavy fire, rescuing 138 that night. My other uncle was at the Battle of the Bulge. Rest assured, Tucker Callan, neither of them stopped for tea.

  7. My brother-in-law, John R. Greene was in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Div. He jumped into Arnheim, Belgium during Operation Market Garden. He spent Christmas of 1945 in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He was a scout for his platoon. He spent each night in a foxhole with no more than his parachute for a sleeping bag. He later sent that parachute to my sister in Helena, MT as a keepsake. John was executed by the LA Police Department on February 27, 1947.

    • I’m fascinated by your “executed” reference. Please tell me more.

    • It’s easy to throw out the term “executed” when referring to police departments. Proof or further information would be appropriate when labeling an entire police organization as murderers. In today’s society there are large numbers of people who disparage LEO that daily put their lives on the line to defend the public. True there are evil individuals in LEO, but labeling all for the deeds of the few is asinine and leads to the targeting of innocent members of LEO that defend us from criminals.

    • See The Daily Courier. Feb 28, 1947. Connellsville,PA. It has a photo blurb re: LA,
      John R Greene killed a cop and was himself killed as he attempted to escape.

    • My step-father Phil Koon was also a scout with the 82nd Airborne and fought in the Battle of the Bulge – as well as Africa, Sicly and jumping into France the night before D-Day. Sadly, he did not talk much about his service. I have a few pictures, including one of him and two soldier buddies holding a large German flag.

    • Why would he have a chute at the Bulge ? They were all trucked in .

    • Why was your brother in law killed by the LA Police Department? If you don’t mind my asking?

  8. My Dad was already home and his 35 combat/bombing missions behind him by this date.He went in at 17 and just 19 when mustered out

  9. Hard to believe anybody not familiar with gliders, not trying to be tacky but to me one if the most powerful scenes in Private Ryan was going thru dog tags!!! Uncle Frank had already been shit up in Italy in 43 but loved airborne history since I sat in his lap as a little boy!!!

  10. My father was a glider pilot during WWll. He had many interesting stories about WWll. There was picture of him in a magazine. I can’t remember which one. There was also a documentary that I saw about the glider pilots. They were a tight knit group and had many get togethers over the years

    • Love to see the magazine, please!
      My Dad was with USAAF, 314th/62nd, he was a Crew Chief. His plane towed the Gliders.
      His name was Theodore Carter Brewer from Cortland, Marathon, New York.

      Best wishes to the family of another Hero.
      Beryl Guest
      [email protected]

  11. I would appreciate if Fold3 would provide citations for these history posts. Although I am a World War II Historian with a known federal institution, I would like to see the sources. Thank you

  12. God bless so many brave soldiers !!

  13. My uncle was a glider pilot in the Pacific theater in WWII. His glider with troops was shot down in New Guinea. Not all survived. He did and escaped into the jungle, was rescued and returned to a hospital ship suffering, blessedly, only jungle rot with a permanent loss of smell and taste. He was returned to his base of operations and continued to fly. He was recalled by the Air Force years later to serve in Korea. As a young girl, he would take my brother and I flying over the Great Lakes. To us he was always an inspiration and our hero. My brother went on to serve as a general’s adjutant during the Vietnam war and I earned my wings as a flight attendant for TWA.

  14. I was a crew chief on a C 47, 303rd TC Squadron, 442 Troop Carrier Group, that dropped these troopers and gliders in W W 2, Europe. Was always glad I did not have to go down with them!!!!!

  15. To those interested in the gliders, a large part of them were made by the WACO air craft plant in Troy, Ohio.. My dad and grandpa were employed there, toolmakers and made a lot of stuff for them.. There Is a WACO air field there outside of Troy to the south and they have a museum there with WACO planes and a couple gliders. Just in case some one wants to see a glider..

  16. My Uncle Norman made two attack jumps. One on D-Day the other
    at Arnhem In Market Garden.
    He left a fascinating account of his transport to Arnhem and described
    a colleague who was not to make it.
    He was severley wounded in Arnhem on the bridge and captured
    when they ran out of ammunition. His pal with him was shot dead alongside him when they surrendered. For some reason they did not shoot Norman.
    He spent the rest of the war in Stalag 11B. They had to march to the camp in their bare feet as their boots were confiscated to stop them escaping.
    Norman weighed sixteen stone when he went in and six stone when he came out.
    He died in 1990

  17. Kris; the V1 was launched off a ramp, had wings and a ramjet….called ‘Buzzbombs’ by the Brits, when the ‘buzzing’ stopped it would coast down and explode.. The V2 was a rocket launched Vertically; it could not be heard coming straight down and supersonic. The V2 made a bigger hole but the V1 was more destructive, exploding on the surface.

  18. The American Cemetery in Margraten honours the remains of Major Leonard McGee who died when he just got out of his glider. Just recently a documentary has been released under the title ‘Some will never return’ in which his story is researched by a fellow countryman who takes care of Leonard’s grave in the Netherlands. Find the documentary here: https://limburg.bbvms.com/view/L1_video/3667204.html

  19. Pfc. Warren Pendleton, served in the 89th Infantry Division, 354th Infantry Regiment, Cannon Company during WWII.

    Private First Class Warren Henry Pendleton ~ Serial # 11103637 enlisted on 12/10/42 at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. Basic Training was at Camp Carson in Colorado. Maneuvers were at Camp Polk in Louisiana, then on to Camp Roberts in California, Camp Butner in North Carolina and back to Fort Devens in Massachusetts. He was shipped overseas to the European Theater of Operations on Jan. 10, 1945 by Troop Ship, arriving at LeHavre, France on 01/21/45.

    He saw action in Rhineland, Central Europe. In March of 1945 he crossed the Rhine in Germany on a pontoon with a 105 Howitzer. His military decorations and citations included C.I.B. (Combat Infantryman Badge), Marksman Rifle, Expert B.A.R. (Browning Automatic Rifle), Good Conduct Metal, Victory Metal, American Theater Campaign Ribbon, and European African Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Ribbon.

    Pfc. Pendleton departed Bremerhaven, Germany on March 18, 1946. He arrived in the United States of America on March 29, 1946. Place of Separation by Honorable Discharge was Fort Devens, Massachusetts on April 2, 1946.

    He doesn’t speak much of the combat. His favorite story is of the end of the war in Japan. He was on leave in Edinburgh, Scotland. The victorious news spread fast through the town. People poured out into the streets dancing and kissing. Warren was on Princes Street across from the Edinburgh Castle. A spontaneous parade was in order. He sent a friend in search of a flag pole. Pfc. Pendleton climbed to the top floor of a nearby hotel, retrieving the American flag through a window. Everyone joined in the celebration parade as bagpipes led them through the town waving the American flag.

    Warren married Pauline Skinner Pendleton, she was a surgical registered nurse in North Carolina. They met while Warren was stationed there. They were wed in Middlefield, CT on April 27, 1946.

  20. Monty Mola; Just a couple of things, The jump at Arnhem was a British event and its in the Netherlands. The 504th dropped near Nijmegen in the Netherlands. The Battle of the Bulge was in 1944, the war in Europe finished in May 1945.

  21. For Kris de Cnijf,
    Yes, the English built many gliders. The names of two types were “Hengist” and “Horsa”, named after historical figures in English history. The Hengist could take 15 soldiers and the Horsa was bigger and could carry 30 soldiers. It could also carry a very small jeep, or a small piece of artillery.

    Also you mentioned a flying bomb and said “V2”. Actually, the V1 (Vergeltungswaffe) had a pulsejet which could be heard and would cut out, then the bomb fell. People could see them and knew that there was no danger while the engine was going. The V2 was actually a rocket and could reach a height of, perhaps, 50 kilometres, so it could not be heard flying over. They did terrible damage when they landed, but could not be heard beforehand.

  22. If you go to Marshfield, WI you will find a museum at their local airport of the gliders. The lumber industry in Wisconsin created plywood, and the company in Marshfield was instrumental in using it in the development and building of the gliders, and made there.

  23. …so that’s why the Stryker is named the Stryker…never knew that..

  24. My uncle was in the airborne and was in a glider that day scary !

  25. All brave men willing to give up their lives

  26. I was a paratrooper and cadre at The Parachute School, Ft. Benning, GA, during the latter part of WWII. Near the end of the war we were required to become glider qualified in the CG-4A gliders that carried 13 troopers, pilot, and co-pilot. Although the CG-4A was the only American glider used in combat, we also trained in the much larger CG-13 and CG-15s that could carry a 2-1/2 ton truck or 155 howitzer.
    The CG-4A fuselage was of tubular aluminum construction covered with fabric and the wings and floor were plywood. It bounced like a leaf in the prop blast of the towing C-47 and the fabric beating against the frame was so loud you could not hear but it was quiet and serene when cut loose. Troopers often threw up because of the rough flight so we took off our steel helmets and held them in our laps–otherwise, the floor was so slick you could not stand up to exit.
    After a drop, wounded were often loaded aboard the gliders for evacuation. A “clothes line” attached to the glider would be strung in front and the C-47 would come in at about 20 feet altitude and near stall speed to snag the line as a roll of nylon rope payed out through the cargo door. Lift off was rather violent and sudden.
    Later, I made the first test jump of the C-82 (forerunner of the C-119 “Flying Boxcar”) that made the gliders obsolete. Fourteen of us made that first jump and General Wainwright sat and talked with us in the “sweat shed” for nearly an hour before loading. During the flight, he stood in the clamshell between the doors as we exited the plane.

    • Thank you, Col Bachlor, for posting this wonderful narrative and thank you for keeping us all free and making the world a better place. Unless a person was there, no one truly understands the horrors of what you all went through. My grandmother had 4 sons in WW2 at the same time. Our family was so blessed with them all surviving.

    • Amazing you survived all that. I have read many times how perilous the gliders were. Landing with a howitzer inside? Yikes!

  27. Dad was in the 517th. His troop of 157 men jumped at 10am, and 87 men gathered, finally, at 4pm. Having missed their drop zone, and run off old maps, they joined a British column of 16 tanks, and 7 light reconaissance vehicles. Later, down to 8 tanks, and no other vehicles, Dad was blown off his tank,and survived in a ditch, bleeding, shivering, and silent as Germans walked nearby in the dark, until a GI ambulence forged through in the morning. After weeks in treatment, he went back to serve with a lifetime of sharpnel still in his back. Volunteering for the Pacific, Dad and 6000 other soldiers embarked on a “banana boat” across the Atlantic. Two meals a day, standing up. Nearly entering the Panama canal, headed for Japan, the end of the war was announced over the P.A.-and the ship turned North. They were then the first troops back from Europe to Norfolk, Va. on 19 August, 1945. My twin and I were born in August, 1946.

  28. My Daddy was a Pilot who towed the gliders and or the paratroopers in the European Theatre . He also was a part of teaching in England the pilots there how to use the gliders. From England he was in Callis FR. He was in this 2nd push into Germany, Ardennes, Vincinnes(not sure of this town being a part of the glider push; he never ever talked of what went on. Finally not too many years before he passed 2005, all he mentioned were the pickup of the halocaust victims, POW being our men or others. He did mention how these big planes had fat tires and when coasting on or off the field, nazi children would throw things onto the ‘runway’ or whatever path they had knowing it could unbalance the plane,throw if off and often create severe accidents to disable the planes so they couldn’t fly.
    From us who are here ONLY because our parents survived the war THANK YOU all for sharing your stories so can all understand a tiny part of their experiences. God bless all who perished in this push to save us all!

  29. My wife’s uncle General William Miley led the 17th Airborne on this assault. He was the lead commander.

  30. My wife’s uncle General William Miley led the 17th Airborne on this assault. He was the lead commander. He was 44 years old when he jumped. We have a photo of him on the field radio after he landed.

  31. MY Uncle in 2nd Armored, landed at Normandy d+6, wentall way to cross elb, Got wounded while waiting to go into Berlin, Wouldnt let anyone even memtion Military much lesss war. His sister said he fought the war until he died. Would wake up and He was behind a chair fighting Germans. He got Silver star and Many other well deserved Medals. I have made a memorial to him for our family. He was a Great Coon Hunter from the Ozarks MAX KISSIRE. My RESPECT to all our Veterans. My Dad in South Pacific in Navy.

  32. Pete, my father was in the 504th Airborne. Sadly he died at 57 but I wish could have asked him about more of this than I knew to do.

  33. I’m an 87 year old retired Naval Aviator. Years go, I had a very good friend who was in the 82nd airborne. His first combat jump was in N Africa against Rommel. His last jump was in Holland where he landed in the middle of a German army. (A movie was made of this event called “A bridge to far”). He, and several others, were taken prisoner. He and a buddy escaped from a German prison in Northern Poland and made their way S to Crimea, eventually to Cairo where he was repatriated and flown to Italy then back to the U.S.

  34. The bridge at Remagen was intact and allowed the entire US First Army to cross the Rhine before it failed.

  35. My uncle William Staff Sergeant William J Loughrey was a wireless operator in the 314th Troop Carrier Group – 2R – 50th Squadron. He was killed in action on April 4, 1945. I never got to meet him.

    • My uncle, S/Sgt William J Loughrey, was killed on 6 April, 1945, not 4 April. I don’t see any way to correct the typo in my original post.

  36. I hope you can one day visit the Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, TX, which honors and educates about the gliders in WWII. My dad, John Ross Goodloe, was one of them. The museum is excellent, and there is at least one book entitled, Silent Wings as well.

  37. My uncle Leonard R. Brooks
    Private First Class, U.S. Army
    507th Parachute Infantry Regt, 17th Airborne Division, died in Operation Varsity on 24 March 1945. I am always grateful for the Dutch families who have tended his grave at Netherlands American Cemetery in
    Margraten. They epitomize the kindness of strangers.

  38. My Dad was in the 17th Airborne Div. Co. G. 194th Glider Infantry. He was in one of the gliders that crossed the Rhine River into Germany in Operation Varsity. He said the soldiers called the gliders “flying coffins”.

  39. My Dad was Battery C, 366th Parachute Field Artillery, 17th Airborne, Staff Sergeant. The drop was way off target and almost on a German field headquarters. All officers were killed before or just after landing, so Dad directed the assembly of the 155mm Howitzer and they then put the headquarters out of service. Lost a lot of buddies that day and didn’t talk much about it after the war, but I found a manuscript of his detailing his whole WWII experience. A treasure!

  40. My Dad was in the 17th Airborne. He landed in a Glider during Operation Varsity. He spent that winter in the Ardennes Forest surrounded by German’s. He was a Captain when he left the Army.

  41. Great and terrible history. My father-in-law flew in a glider across the Rhine in this operation. He was wounded by small arms fire as they landed and was awarded a Purple Heart. The hardest part part for him was that he and two others were the only survivors in his unit; all killed at the Battle of the Bulge. After his company was destroyed, he transferred to an airborne division only a couple of months before their aerial invasion of Germany. He seldom talked about the war, but I was able to get him started at a family reunion. He kept us enthralled as he recounted fighting in North Africa and Sicily, landing at Anzio Beach and suffering waves of German assaults, entering Rome, and battle after battle in northern Italy. They moved up through France by train—and then the Battle of the Bulge. He cried as he recalled the slaughter of his company in the 2nd Armored Division and especially his grief at the loss of his best friend Tony.

  42. VB. Not all were trucked in to Bastogne. Two sticks of the 101st parachuted in. Google Jake McNiece.

  43. My dad was in the Navy twice, the second time he volunteered in December, 1941. He was a Chief Machinist’s Mate on a PT boat in the Pacific. He didn’t like talking about WWII very much, but he had great praise for the airmen and ground troops battling in the final invasions into Germany. I sincerely wish there was more understanding by young people of the real bravery, commitment and loyalty shown by the men and women of WWII. I have been in the protective eyewear business for many years and a portion of the product that I have helped design, engineer and manufacture is used by our troops and has saved some troops vision. I am 78 years old and treasure the freedom won for me by military of the USA. God bless America!

  44. Truly remarkable what these men accomplished.

    My father in Calvin, who resides in CT, was only 17 when he joined the 82nd Airborne. Now at 93, he is only one of less than 15 pathfinders who did all 4 combat jumps according to the 82nd. If anyone out there knows of any surviving 82nd pathfinder paratroopers who jumped in all 4 combat jumps, Sicily, Salerno, Normandy and Holland, i would love to hear from you. [email protected]

    • I believe my step-father was in all 4 jumps. He is no longer alive, but I wonder if your father knew of him. His name was Phil Koon

  45. Hi i’m tryingvto trace relations from my father’s family, if anyone has or knows anyone who is or may be related please contact me at [email protected]
    My dad’s father’s name is William black Anderson and was married to janet rosi they were born in Scotland but they were living in Chicago illionois, cook county they had several children, not sure when they returned to Scotland.. My dad’s father then married my dad’s mother isabella gillespie… Any help anyone can give will be appreciated

  46. My Uncle was with the 101 st. airborne glider troopers in the invasion of Europe. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge to the end of WW2.

  47. My dad, Al Madaline was in the 17th airborne Division light artillery company and landed near Wessel, Germany. Upon landing, his company found out that all their officers were injured or died on the way down. As my dad and his buddy Moon (?) enetered Wessel, they came under sniper fire from a church tower. According to my dad his buddy Moon was an expert marksman and took the sniper out. When they entered the church and went to the area where the firing was coming from, they found a teenage boy who had been killed. They were the Greatest Generation: there may never be another.

    Al Madaline Jr

  48. I would like to correspond with anyone who knew/ has information on Pvt Bill Odom, 194th Glider Inf, 17th Airborne., or served in Co L, 194th GIR. Or has any information/photos of Co L. . Pvt Odom was KIA while landing on the assigned LZ., Operation Varsity. Mike Konczak Baird Texas
    [email protected]

  49. Re: John R. Greene, “executed” check here and scroll down to the “Different Paths” story; http://laphs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/fall-2016.pdf

  50. As an 8th AF pilot of a B-17, the Iron Maiden, 379th BG, Kimbolton, England, 1943, I was deeply moved reading all those comments of family, friends descendants of those who served, died, survived WW2. And I was heartened that so many young(er) people still keep that war of great historical significance in their hearts and minds. Lest we forget, lest we forget.