"So tell me, what is it that you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?"
--Mary Oliver

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

d-day plus 62 years

"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces!You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely....I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
---General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces (This "Orders of the Day" was issued to every Allied soldier prior to the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944. The picture above depicts American soldiers aboard an LCI [Landing Craft Infantry] attending Mass on their way to Normandy.)

62 years ago this morning, my father, along with other young men--boys, really-- from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, stormed the Normandy beaches to begin the Allied assault on Nazi-occupied Europe. When Eisenhower said the hopes of freedom-loving people everywhere went with them, he wasn't kidding; D-Day has been called the definitive day of the twentieth century because it became the turning point in the European War and gave Hitler his first real taste of what he had so underestimated, what Eisenhower called the "fury of an aroused democracy."

A few of the troops landing in Normandy that day had some combat experience, primarily in North Africa and/or Italy. But the vast majority, like my dad, had never before heard a shot fired in anger. For them, the Normandy Beaches were to represent the ultimate loss of innocence. There were five landing beaches: Gold, Juno, Sword (British and Canadian), Utah, and Omaha (American). Of the five, Gold, Juno, Sword, and Utah went relatively according to plan; Omaha, however, has been known as "Bloody Omaha" ever since. The first assault waves sustained tremendous casualties, as soldiers were mowed down by German mortar and artillery fire. Many drowned, wounded by German fire and loaded down by 60 lbs. of gear, before they ever made the beach. The beach itself was a slaughter, littered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. There were body parts, blood and gore everywhere, along with the never-ending sounds of artillery fire and the screams of the dying. One soldier famously described landing on Omaha that day as a "descent into hell." Did you ever see "Saving Private Ryan?" The opening scenes were set on Omaha Beach.

This, then, was what my dad, a farm boy from Minnesota, saw in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. I don't know very much about what he experienced, as he wouldn't say much about it and, like all children of combat veterans, I instinctively understood that there were some things one simply didn't push dad to talk about. But he did tell me a few things: he was in the third assault wave to hit Omaha; in response to my question "what was it like" he said vaguely "...well, you know, gettin' shot at a lot...bullets in the air, everyone in the boat was seasick goin' over...." My mom asked him once what he thought about while crossing the English Channel on his way to France, and after he reflected for a while, he said that he mostly worried that he might be a coward, that he'd let the family back home, and his buddies, down.

After he died, my Aunt Marie told me a story about my dad and Omaha Beach. After he finally worked his way on to the beach, a lieutenant (I've read that most of the officers that day were useless idiots; for the most part it was the enlisted men--the noncoms and the new privates--who saved the day) grabbed him and barked, "Soldier, dig me a foxhole!" To which my dad replied, "Dig your own goddamn foxhole--I'm gettin' off the beach!"
To paraphrase a famous quote, there were two kinds of men on Omaha that day: the dead, and those about to die. The rest got off the beach--and won the day by knocking out the German defenses from high up on the bluff. That was their job. Pinned down on the beach, the men had no hope of survival.

WWII historian Stephen Ambrose wrote this about D-Day:
D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the climactic moment of the twentieth century. The outcome of the war in Europe was at stake. If Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's forces had thrown back the invasion of Normandy, Nazi Germany might well have won the war. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the American, British, and Canadian forces, was prepared to resign his post if the attack had failed.
Operation Overlord, as the invasion was called, had superb planning, training, and equipment. But no matter how good the commanders had been in preparation, it was the men on the beaches at Gold, Sword, Juno, Utah, and Omaha who counted. At Omaha Beach, the infantry was pinned down at the seawall, taking fire from German mortar, artillery, and small arms fire. The U.S. First Army Commander, Gen. Omar Bradley, was at one point ready to pull them off the beach.
But they were soldiers of democracy. They were not as good as the German soldiers at taking orders [as my dad so amply proved], but they knew how to take responsibility and act on their own. What happened along the seawall--over there a sergeant, down the line a corporal, over there a lieutenant--they all came to the same conclusion: if I stay here I'm going to die, but before I do, I'm going to take some Germans with me. So he would yell at the men on his right and on his left, 'I'm going up that bluff. Follow me,' and start out. One man would follow, then another, soon a dozen or more. They got to the top of the bluff to begin the drive inland, toward Germany...
Their triumph that day against the best the Nazis had to put against them, insured our freedom. There were eleven months of hard fighting ahead, but once the Allies got ashore in France, neither the skill nor the determination and the fighting abilities of the Germans could stop them. They put the Nazis where they belonged, in the ash can of history. (From D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen Ambrose.)

In 1994, the year after my dad died, I remember watching the 50th anniversary celebrations from Omaha on TV. What I remember most, and what I wrote in my grief journal later, was what President Bill Clinton said to and about the veterans of D-Day that day:

They may be older now, and grayer now, and their ranks are growing thin. But when these men were young, these men saved the world.

My dad never wanted to be a hero, and certainly didn't think of himself as one (I was just doing my job, he said once to sum up his service during the war) but a hero he was. As were they all, those boys who became young men on the beaches of Normandy that day.

And as for me, my father has long since gone to his peace, and memories of D-Day have no more power to torment him. This I know. I know, too, that the beaches of Normandy have been quiet and still for 62 years and that Hitler's Nazi regime and all of its evil was soundly defeated. But it still breaks my heart to think of my dad, a sweet, gentle farm boy from Minnesota, facing that beach the morning of June 6, 1944.


In Normandy, they have not forgotten. After 9/11, the French left thousands of notes and flowers at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer. Many of the notes read, simply, We Remember.

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