Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day, June 6th, 1944

For those who don't know, today marks the 70th anniversary of the day when the Allies invaded France to begin the final liberation of Europe from Hitler's tyranny and the horrors of The Holocaust.

I often reflect upon this, in particular because I was there immediately prior to the official 50th anniversary celebrations in 1994.  It's hard to believe that 20 years have passed since then.

This is a little commemorative plate I
bought in Normandy.

This is not intended to be a history lesson about the invasions. I have plenty of facts and figures, The History Channel is also full of them, there are more books than a kid has boogers, and movies have been made too. If you want to know more, and it is a fascinating topic in my opinion, seek those out. Or better yet, go there. That's what I did. This is about my experience and some of my observations.

I was stationed in the southern part of The Netherlands with NATO, and whenever I could, I took college classes, usually evenings. The University of Maryland has a large presence overseas, and in this case, they were offering a weekend seminar on the D-Day invasion. Trip to France, history credit, learn more about an interest of mine... HELLO!

So on the appointed day, I boarded a tour bus with a bunch of other service members, some civilian employees, and some of their family members.  Off we went.  Our instructor, whose name I will not give, was an extremely interesting person. He was an older gentleman, had a "crusty" attitude, and was not afraid to tell you his opinion.  I think he was retired U.S. Navy. He asked our names, and once the bus was underway, he proceeded to walk down the aisle, point and tell each of us our names. I soon learned this man was a human encyclopedia. I was fortunate to have him on another similar trip for a different battle later on.

There was also a WW II veteran accompanying us. I don't know if he was taking the class, or if he had made other arrangements. He had served as an engineer in Lt. General George S. Patton's 3rd Army. What an honor to have a man like that with us!

The trip was largely uneventful, although at a lunch stop we did encounter a bunch of rude French folk (surprise?) and our instructor ranted about it for a while once we were back on the bus.

Another memory that I shall never forget is from a rest stop.  While sitting there, I saw a Chevy Corvette. Now, American cars were not all that common in Europe, and some consider them a status symbol.  My landlord drove an 80s Chevy Caprice and treated it like a Cadillac. So to see a relatively new Corvette at a motorway rest stop in France was a surprise. To see it towing a camper was blasphemy. I'm not talking a teardrop camper. I mean a 20 foot or so camper.  Sheesh. My cameras were stashed, otherwise I'd have taken a photo.

(Speaking of which, this predates cell-phone cameras, digital cameras were prohibitively expensive, and I'd left my 35mm SLR at home and only had a couple of disposables; so I'm relying on some internet photos, with a sprinkling of my own.)

Having poked my head into a few countries in Europe, I've seen a bit of anti-American sentiment, so I wasn't expecting a lot of regard for the upcoming 50th anniversary.

I was wrong.  Every little town and village in Normandy was bedecked with red, white & blue. American flags were everywhere.  They even had a mannequin of Pvt. John Steele hanging from the church steeple in Ste-Mère-Église:

Pvt. John Steele mannequin
(If you watch the movie The Longest Day, you'll see his story; his parachute snagged and he wound up hanging there for a long time, being deafened by the church bells before being captured.) I think this tribute is on display year-round.

Very touching to me was this next item.  Inside the church, you'll see some unique stained glass:

Stained glass of church in Ste-Mère-Église

Look closely (click for a larger version.)  Those are parachutes, and paratroopers alongside the Virgin and Child.  Think about the symbolism. To those in that town who are religious, their saviors are Christ, the Virgin... and paratroops.

Now I'm going to address 3 of the many issues that made an impression on me.

1) Prior to the invasion, massive amounts of bombs fell and Naval guns fired upon Hitler's "Atlantic Wall."  It must have been hell to be German soldier that morning. One location in particular has been preserved as closely as possible to the way it looked back then. Pointe du Hoc is atop a cliff and sticks out into the sea, and there were some huge guns installed there in concrete bunkers.  It should have been blown to smithereens, but enough Germans survived to put up a fight against the Army Rangers who scaled the cliff with ropes & ladders in order to destroy the guns.

Here are 3 photos I took (click for larger):

This is one of the bunkers, with some damage.

This is what's left of another one.

And this is a ground view of the "rolling hills" left by bombs & shells.

But you don't get a true idea unless you see the former lunar landscape from the air:

Pointe du Hoc from the air.

2) I was struck by the width of the beaches. The Allies had to cross these beaches, covered with anti-landing craft and anti-tank obstacles, mines, bodies, wrecked equipment, all in the face of German machine gun fire, artillery, and mortars. I'm sure that every one of those men wanted to somehow merge with the sand and be as tall as a doormat... but thousands of them moved forward, running, crawling, crouching... and some fell.

Normandy (Omaha Beach)
3) And for those who fell, many ended up here.  At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, located at Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking the beach.

To appreciate the scale, one must view it from the air:

There are 9,387 graves here. They did not all die on D-Day, some died in subsequent weeks following the invasion in other fighting, but that is only a portion of the total originally interred. Many were repatriated back to their homes at the request of their families.

After we had a chance to look around, we held an impromptu ceremony at the statue overlooking the cemetery. Our WW II vet laid a wreath at the base of the statue.

“The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves”
I have visited several military cemeteries, and I am always moved. I will never forget that trip, nor the men who fought and died there. I hope others remember also.

No comments:

Post a Comment