The contribution of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions during the D-Day landings is occasionally overlooked, and even more often misunderstood.
The units that landed on Utah Beach had only a few ways to get off the beach and onto the peninsula proper. The airborne troops not only tied up German defenses inland, but more critically secured those “exits”: roads, crossroads, hamlets and villages that controlled access across swampy and otherwise difficult terrains. Without securing those exits, the troops on Utah could easily have been bottled up. Because of their location, the only feasible way to guarantee they could be taken was by air - a controversial decision at the time, especially given the short but decidedly mixed American experience with paratroopers to that point in the war.
Like most airborne operations in WWII, the drops that preceded the D-Day invasion left troops scattered over the battlefield, and in many cases far from their objectives. Casualties were high. But despite the odds, the paratroopers were able to rally effectively, insuring the invasion's ultimate success. Later on, the 101st secured Carantan, another key turning point in the Normandy campaign, and one that ultimately led to the breakout.
A side note: Maxwell Taylor, the 101st commander, was one of the key generals during the Normandy battles and indeed the entire war. Following the battle, Taylor received the Distinguished Service Medal in recognition for his and his troop’s role in Normandy. This will tell you something about Taylor: Not only did he not expect the award – Omar Bradley arranged to surprise him with it – as far as I can tell Taylor didn’t bother mentioning it (or most of his commendations) in his autobiography. He was a general who not only believed in giving his men credit, but acted on it as well.
A humble achiever – no wonder we won that war.