A BULLET TORE through Staff Sgt. Leonard Lomell's right leg as he stepped into the frigid Atlantic at Omaha Beach.

"I had stepped in a bomb crater, and went to the bottom," Lomell, of Toms River, N.J., said this week.

"As I came up, my guys pulled me [out] and pulled me onto the beach."

It was June 6, 1944 - D-Day. Lomell and his men were among the first American soldiers to step out of landing craft and into the murderous German gunfire at Normandy.

Today, 65 years later, the nation pauses to remember the largest water invasion in modern history and a major turning point of World War II.

President Obama will honor the occasion in Normandy today - amid the graves of 9,387 American military dead - while VFW posts around the area will hold their own commemorations.

Lomell, 88, is one of the few D-Day survivors still around to honor his comrades. Of the three million Americans who served in WWII, 400,000 died during the war. The aged survivors are now dying at a rate of 2,000 a day.

Bleeding onto the sand, bullets whizzing by, it was a brutal landing for Lomell - but only the beginning.

A ranger in the 2nd Battalion, trained in the Smoky Mountains, Lomell's mission that dawn was to scale the 100-foot cliff of the Pointe du Hoc, rout the Germans from fortifications there, and destroy the six massive cannons they were guarding.

Lomell and his men fired claw-shaped grappling hooks from the gunwhales of their landing craft, then started climbing.

"[It was] hand-over-hand, no safety lines," Lomell said. "Just you and your two hands, and all your gear."

"Within 15 minutes . . . we were up, fighting through the Germans," Lomell said. "But to make a long story short, to fight through that mass of Germans, my 22 men were reduced to 12."

The Germans were expecting an invasion - Hitler had discussed the matter with his High Command in late 1943.

"Everybody in the world knew by the end of '43 that there would be a cross-channel invasion of Northern Europe - the only question was where and when," said University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers, who has written several books about World War II.

The invasion was a monument to strategy and intrigue, Childers said. Fierce weather from November to April limited an invasion to the summer months. The weather and tides further limited a landing to just a few days a month.

And there were the hundreds of thousands of troops who had flooded into southern England, ready to ship to France in waves. To delay meant to risk a likely intelligence break, and to further endanger the invasion.

When the order came, FredSherman, of King of Prussia and now 85, was a pathfinder/navigator on the C-46s, 47s and C-53s that pulled gliders and dropped paratroopers, provisions before and during the D-Day invasion.

"I had a feeling that we're on a great mission to save the world from what was going on in Germany, especially Hitler," said Sherman, known to area radio listeners for his stock-market reports.

"At that point, news was starting to come out about what was happening to Jews in Germany and Poland, so it was even more meaningful then."

Many of the missions he had flown in the past had been rough, but the missions just before June 6th were quiet, he said. D-Day was different.

Sherman's crew, flying in black planes at night, dropped paratroopers over France.

"When dawn came on the 6th, we were flying back. If you looked down, you almost thought you could walk across the channel, there were so many ships," he said. Sherman's squad ran four missions back-to-back throughout the invasion.

"It was continuous . . . it was like a shuttle. I think we had time to change our underwear," he said, laughing.

Unlike the flights from earlier that day, on these, they encountered stiff resistance.

"The sky was full of lead," Sherman said. "Oh, my God, there was a lot of flak!"

A re-supply drop on June 7 was the worst. After an initial pass, Sherman says, "I went up to the pilot - Clanky was his name - I said, 'Let's get the hell out of here!' "

"What did you drop," Clanky asked.

"Only three bundles," Sherman said, "Because the quartermaster and crew chief were both hit."

Clanky said "No, we have to go back and finish the drop - that was our mission."

Clanky turned the plane around, and forced the crew to finish the drop. Before they got out, flak hit and critically injured the co-pilot. Sherman, whose left side was riddled with flak took his place.

His brother also flew.

"I had a brother [Henry William] - a first lieutenant in the Air Force. Feb. 7, 1943, he was shot down over New Guinea. I was sure he was dead."

Sherman used his grief - he volunteered as a gunner on B-24s on his days off.

"I was just interested in killing as many Germans as I could."

Fifty-thousand Americans landed at Omaha Beach in the initial assault, and almost 25,000 at Utah beach.

"They went into teeth of best German defensive troops, and where they were really well dug in, on a ridge," said Childers the historian. "If you visit, you'd just think nobody could get up out of the beach."

A failed invasion "would have been potentially disastrous," Childers said. "The Allies wouldn't have been able to launch another invasion for another year."

It might also have given the Axis troops enough space to win a separate peace agreement with Russia or the U.S., Childers said.

"Americans were developing the atomic bomb, for use against the Germans. So it's conceivable in a really nightmarish scenario, that the first bomb might have been dropped in Germany, not Japan.

It would have been an absolutely desperate thing to do." *