A November 2003 trip
to Normandy by Idler
Quote: These are the names of the D-Day beaches, west to east, names seared into a generation’s memory. After visiting landing sites and battlefields in Normandy, they’ve become emblematic for me as well.
I am the World War II buff in the family. At each site, I tell my son what happened there on June 6th, 1944. At Pointe du Hoc, he hears of the Ranger’s ascent up the 30-meter sheer cliff face as German troops dropped grenades and fired down upon them. At Arromanches, he learns what a ‘Mulberry’ is. By the time we reach Sainte-Mère-Église, he’s well prepped.
"Is that supposed to be John Steele?" he asks, pointing to the dummy parachutist dangling from the church tower. "Yup, that’s where he came down," I confirm. "He played possum up there, but it must have been tough, watching his buddies come right down where the Nazis were waiting." Greg stands silently regarding the figure. "Come on," I say, "Let’s go check out the Airborne Museum."Six months later, at the dedication of the WWII Memorial in Washington, I meet men who fought on the beaches of Normandy, in the Pacific, and elsewhere. As the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaches, I think back…and remember.
I concentrated on key areas where the Airborne Divisions fought, such as at Pegasus Bridge and Sainte-Mère-Église. However, having ‘done my homework’ in terms of major battles and events paid off. Here’s a list of books I found helpful. Numerous tour companies operate from Caen and Bayeux, as well as the UK and US, should you wish to join an organized tour. Three "major" D-Day museums, at Caen, Bayeaux, and Arromanches, also provide a good orientation. Useful websites:
Anyone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan is familiar with the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. There’s that final scene, when the surviving veteran comes to pay his respects; the camera pans through the cemetery, across row upon row of perfectly aligned white crosses, intensely green grass, and reverent stillness.
I knew in advance what I’d see at Colleville-sur-Mer. I had all the facts at my fingertips: 9,386 graves at the site overlooking Omaha Beach; 172 acres of French soil granted in perpetuity to the United States.
But that had not prepared me in the slightest.
We have entered the zone of the American landings and American losses. Nowhere is this clearer than at the American Cemetery. This Thanksgiving Day, there are a surprising number of visitors, almost all American. Entire families have assembled to pay respect. Knots of people gather at individual graves, but others, like us, simply wander, bereft of speech or purpose. I’m struck by how pristine the graves are, how flawless the lawn, and how precisely deployed the marching rows of headstones. It is unmistakably a military cemetery.
Despite the open vastness of the grounds, everyone speaks in a whisper, as if in church. We walk to the focal point of the cemetery, the memorial featuring a bronze statue "The Sprit of American Youth Rising From The Waves." It’s flanked by two enormous maps of the European Theater of Operations (ETO). An elderly man stands with several younger men and points to one spot on the map, then another, perhaps indicating places he’d fought during the war.
The cemetery is ringed by a wall of dark evergreen trees. A long path through the trees runs parallel to the cliff edge. Walking down this path and then toward the beach, we find the viewing platform overlooking Omaha Beach. The 1st Division landed on this sector of the beach on D-Day, and it seems strange now to see nothing there but a placid ocean beyond a featureless spit of sand. It occurs to me that a good portion of the cemetery must stand on what were once German defenses. As I look down at the beach, I wonder if it is high or low tide.
The Allies, of course, had to land at low tide to avoid having their landing craft hit the mines and other obstacles which were concealed in the water at high tide. Since the beach shelf slopes very gradually, the difference between high and low tide amounts to several hundred yards more of beach to cross, perilous yards consuming precious minutes as the American troops were exposed to withering fire from German machine guns while attempting to reach the relative safety of the seawall.
I think of that fatal gauntlet, braved by men burdened with heavy equipment, as we leave the American Cemetery and head down to Omaha Beach.
"The enemy is at his weakest just after landing. The troops are unsure and possibly even seasick. They are unfamiliar with the terrain. Heavy weapons are not yet available in sufficient quantity. This is the moment to strike at them and defeat them." - Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
The American troops who came ashore at Omaha Beach had been assured of three things: That the German gun emplacements on the cliffs would be destroyed by a massive bombardment from the air and sea, that the ‘swimming’ DD (dual drive) tanks would swiftly knock out remaining artillery and machine guns, and that the German troops they faced on shore were not high grade.
None of this proved to be the case.
Air Force bombers, unable to accurately pinpoint objectives through dense cloud cover, bombarded areas far inland, leaving all the German guns intact. Almost all the specially-outfitted Sherman ‘DD’ tanks designed to swim ashore were caught by currents then swamped and sank as they attempted to correct course. And Allied intelligence had judged the German troops positioned at Omaha to be the less-than-half-strength 76th Infantry Division, consisting mostly of disheartened Poles and non-German troops. Instead, the Americans faced the combat-hardened 352nd Infantry Division, operating at full strength.
Casualties at Omaha Beach were greater than all the other four beaches combined – over 4,000 men. The overall survival rate was 1 in 9, but this is misleading, for the troops who came ashore later in the day suffered very light losses, whereas the nearly half the men who came ashore in the first wave were killed.
Huddling in their landing craft, the men in the first assault were wet, cold, and suffering from seasickness, yet they had little idea of the hellish prospect they faced. As they approached, it was strangely quiet as the Germans held fire until the landing craft were within range, then hit them with the full weight of their firepower. Company A of the 116th Regiment, ‘the Stonewall Brigade,’ lost over ninety percent of its men before managing to fire a single shot.
A high percentage of the men who were killed weren’t shot but drowned. Those who made it ashore faced a stretch of beach that was no more than a shooting gallery for the German machine gunners. It seemed, at first, hopeless, and in fact General Bradley, overseeing the battle plan offshore, considered aborting the plan to invade at Omaha and sendind incoming troops to Utah Beach instead.
Yet somehow the stunned and demoralized men at Omaha Beach began to coalesce and fight, forming ad hoc groups rallied by the surviving officers. "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach," bellowed Col. George Taylor, "the dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here."
Somehow, they got the hell out of there.
Down on Omaha Beach, it’s midway between high and low tide, though I’m unsure if the tide is coming in or going out. No one is around; it seems few of the visitors at the cemetery make the trek down to the beach. Jack and Greg have elected to stay in the car, once again humoring me as I take my time, slowly walking down the beach. Pebbles on the sand click together as they wash back and forth in the surf. I bend down and pick a few up. They’re unremarkable, like any other pebbles on any other beach, but I carefully brush them off. I put them in my pocket as I turn to walk back to the car.
The build-up has been massive; week after week we’ve been bombarded with stories and rumors, but now at long last it’s the big day.No, not the invasion of Normandy – the dedication of the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.Thousands of veterans are converging on the Mall to mark an occasion that has been a long time coming. As long-time Washington area residents, we’ve seen one monument after another go up on the mall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Korean War Memorial, The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.For 17 years, plans for a World War II memorial were mired in bureaucratic wrangling. It took a cadre of dedicated advocates and some Hollywood clout – Tom Hanks throwing his Saving Private Ryan weight behind it – to cut through the red tape and give the project the green light. Oh sure, there have been any number of nay-sayers and critics. Columnist Jonathan Yardley derided the monument as "ghastly," while architects, art critics and civic planners have bemoaned the "sterility" and "cold formality" of the seven-acre monument. But on the morning of the dedication, I step outside to retrieve the newspaper and minutes later decide to go to the dedication. I’ve read something that prompts me to go: while 16.4 million Americans served in WWII, there are fewer than five million who remain alive, and they are dying at the rate of over a thousand vets a day. This will probably be the last time they gather in any significant number.It’s an absolutely gorgeous spring day, atypically cool and without a hint of humidity. Normally, I shun the Mall from Cherry Blossom Festival time to October, until the crowds thin and the weather cools. But today is different; there’s something in the air, an aura of expectation and buoyancy.I have seen the battlefields of Normandy. Now it is time to meet the men who fought there. A Most Unusual Metro RideI get my first inkling that something big is happening when I pull into the Metro parking lot in Rockville. Normally on a weekend this vast parking complex is deserted, but today it looks nearly as full as on a weekday. I’m lucky to find a spot.The station is thronged with out-of-towners trying to make sense of the finicky fare card machines. "Press this button here," I tell a panicked-looking woman who has inserted her money and now stands helplessly gazing at the confusing mass of instructions. She thanks me, moves to the turnstile, and inserts her ticket the wrong direction. I smile to myself, remembering that a few weeks earlier I had been the out-of-towner in New York, invariably inserting my fare card incorrectly. "The other way," I tell her, and the turnstile swings open. The Metro car is full of couples and families, many clustered around a central figure wearing a uniform or VFW cap. Some are in wheel chairs, others carry canes, while a few sit ramrod straight in their orange upholstered seats, eyes front. There are Vietnam vets, Korean vets, and Desert Storm vets, but above all Word War II vets. I sit in front of two men, one elderly and the other roughly my age. The younger man leans forward and asks how long it takes to get downtown. We strike up a conversation.The older man was at Pearl Harbor, the younger in Vietnam. When another man hears "Pearl Harbor," he joins in the conversation. Then another. And another. All throughout the car, strangers are suddenly talking, laughing, shaking hands, and joking with one other. In my purse, I’m carrying pocket packages of Kleenex. I thought they might come in handy.On the Metro, I realize this won’t be the solemn occasion I’d expected. Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times One of the first people I meet on the Mall hails from Curtis, Ohio. "My family’s from Ohio," I tell him, and we begin a long, rambling Ohio-style conversation. Turns out he’s brought a buddy from Curtis to Washington to attend the dedication ceremonies. "Come on over here and I’ll introduce you to him, " he says. "Smokes" fought under General Patton in Europe and is full of stories. "Yeah, old 'Blood and Guts' Patton," he reminisces. "Our blood and his guts!" We all laugh at the old saw, though in Smokes’ case it’s more than a joke. He’s still got a bullet in him somewhere, "But it didn’t kill me then, so I don’t think it’s gonna now." Smokes is an electrician. "Where were you when I couldn’t find anybody to rewire my old house?" I ask him. His buddy chimes in, "You shoulda had Smokes! He did my son’s place for just the cost of materials and a few beers. Started early every morning and worked till ten at night!" He shakes his head, admiringly, "That’s Smokes for you." Over at the "Arsenal," a crowd is gathered round a Sherman tank . A bear of a man in khaki is explaining the tank’s features, but he stops when he spots a vet with an 82nd Airborne patch on his uniform. "Come on up, sir," he says, and the crowd parts. Just then a woman races up to the vet. "Dad, you won’t believe this! Look who’s here!" She points to the young man beside her. "It’s Bob’s grandson!"The WWII vet looks momentarily confused, then a smile spreads across his face as he turns to the young man and puts his arm around him. It’s clear that "Bob" didn’t make it here today, but that this, to the vet, is the next best thing.Throughout the crowd, I spot people carrying photos of WWII vets or wearing T-shirts or pins emblazoned with the image of one. An extended family, all in identical T-shirts printed with a fresh-faced soldier’s face on them, proudly push the older version of the soldier along the gravel path of the mall. A young man wears his grandfather’s uniform. "He couldn’t be here, but, boy, he sure would’ve liked this," he muses.Behind the vast Reunion Tent, the equipment buffs are admiring a row of vintage army jeeps. One stands out: splattered with mud, loaded with duffel bags and boxes, with Chianti jugs strapped to the side. Inside, there’s a crate labeled ‘PROPHYLACTICS’, Hershey bars, a pair of silk stockings, a garter belt, "Yank" magazines, and muddy boots. On the hood in a cage, a stuffed hen wearing a miniature helmet presides over a clutch of Army-green eggs. A captured Nazi flag is mounted on the front bumper. "Doc," the jeep’s owner, put together the display as a tribute to his WWII days in Italy. I ask him about the mud. "Oh, it was muddy," he says. "It rained and rained." Although the mud on the jeep isn’t original, that certainly isn’t true of Doc’s purple heart, irreverently fastened to the front of the chicken’s cage. Granite, Marble, and GiltAll along the Mall, huge video screens have been placed before several vast seating areas. At 1:30 sharp, the dedication begins. Tom Brokaw gives a speech, culled from his book, The Greatest Generation, followed by Tom Hanks narrating a piece about the new memorial. Then a great whoop goes up when Bob Dole, one of ‘the boys’ to this crowd, gives his speech. Finally, all rise for the Commander in Chief. Bush receives a restrained reception compared to Dole. Some vets, I notice, stand respectfully but don’t applaud. When the dedication ceremony is over, I make my way down the Mall toward the Memorial. This area had been open during the ceremony only to those with tickets available only to dignitaries, vets, and their families. It’s a long walk, past the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, moving against a huge crowd. Normally, this sort of slow-moving assembly makes me impatient, but the presence of the vets and their families puts it into perspective. They’ve waited a long time for this. Surely I can wait a bit, too. Down by the memorial, I meet Ed Matz, who enlisted when he was "seventeen years old and a day" and went around the world on a light cruiser "from Boston to San Francisco." We talk for several hours in the shade of the Memorial’s granite columns, watching the crowds go by. A young woman asks Ed to sign a copy of Brokaw’s book. Another vet and his wife stop and join the conversation for a bit. Groups of people come and go, everyone talking unselfconsciously, openly. We’re all Americans, after all. Especially today.As the sun starts to set, Ed says, "I’m hungry. Wanna go get something to eat?" I think to myself, ‘Now’s my chance.’ But Ed’s an old hand, and he beats me to it when it comes time to pick up the check.