On this June 6, 2014 – the 70th Anniversary of the day that has come to be known as D-Day – President Barack Obama attended ceremonies in France and spoke of the men “who defied every danger” as they swept onto the shores of Normandy with the crashing waves. It is right and fitting that these brave service members are honored for going into the jaws of death and spitting in its face.
As for those of us who had relatives who were on those landing craft on that monumentally crucial day in the history of the world, the situation becomes personal. All the men who stormed those beaches knew they could die, and almost 5,000 Americans did, with over 12,000 American casualties. To put it in perspective, the combat death toll in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars combined is estimated at 5,291 (over many years). So the death toll on this one day is staggering, but many of the men survived and pushed on as did my father, which would eventually make the Allies victorious.
Dad (who passed away last year) always recalled D-Day wistfully. He remembered leaving New York on the Aquitania, the once luxurious ocean liner converted into a troop ship. Before leaving his mother joked with him that he was going over like a rich man, but Dad thought differently. When he got on board nothing remained of the famous Cunard liner that had ferried royalty, wealthy people, and movie stars between Europe and the United States except its impressive four smokestacks. Painted battleship gray, fitted with six-inch guns, and carrying thousands of troops, it was nothing more than a once glamorous transport.
Dad said the crossing of the North Atlantic was tough. The nine decks of the ship were crowded, and he preferred to stay outside as much as possible – to make it easier to vomit overboard. The seas were so choppy that he and many others were sea sick. Some soldiers were boasting about the food being good, but Dad said he barely ate a thing because of the constant turbulence. To make matters worse, there was always the fear of the German U-boats sinking the ship. Staying outside on deck made him think that he at least had a chance, but in the middle of the cold ocean there was nowhere to go.
They came off the ship in Scotland and immediately boarded trains south. Dad always joked that he got to see the place “very fast” as the clock was ticking and the invasion would not wait. The train stopped only once for ten minutes at Stratford on Avon, and Dad said he walked along the platform thinking about how he would have liked to see Shakespeare’s house. An old woman with no teeth was hawking “cottage pies.” Having regained his appetite after being on solid ground, Dad bought one and ate it ravenously. Unfortunately, back on the train his stomach rejected it and he had to make use of the toilet to feel better.
The train ran all night and they came to the English coast, where he said they were rushed onto the “Higgins Boats” (or landing craft) with their gear. It became real at this moment for him and all the other men. He said the 100-mile crossing of the English Channel was rather quiet except for the noise of the engines, and Dad still felt sick from that rogue pie he had consumed. As they neared the beaches of France a palpable wave of fear overtook him and he imagined everyone else on board as well – there was a very good chance they were not walking away from this one.
His boat was not the first to reach the beach; those men were the ones that got cut down unmercifully. I had watched Saving Private Ryan with him, and he said that Spielberg got it right, but that it still seemed much worse than the movie. The German firepower was fierce, but by the time Dad got off the boat Americans were pushing forward and the enemy was running out of ammunition. Besides the soldiers there were many vehicles on those boats, and some of them got stuck on the beach, including the tanks, but they were still of value as they fired on the German positions.
The first day of the Invasion – D-Day – was a modest success according to Dad, but they had gotten across the channel and were moving slowly against a resilient enemy. It would takes days and weeks until the goals of the mission were realized, but it all started with those men on that June 6, 1944. Dad said that the enormity of the day came to him that evening as he ate his meal and the fork in his hand was shaking, but he also said, “C-rations never tasted so good!”
This was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany and its tyrannical ruler, Adolf Hitler. Since Dad’s expertise was demolitions, he eventually became stationed in Fontainebleau and worked with the liberated members of the forestry service to find unexploded bombs (which were numerous due to the Allied bombing campaign before the invasion). He never got to Germany and remained in France until 1946 coordinating efforts with the locals, and he returned home a hero as all his fellow soldiers who could and couldn’t make it home after the war were heroes.
Now that Dad is gone I watch the old fellows on the news, and I see the glint in their eyes, old warriors looking proud as they wear a hat or uniform jacket. They watch silently as flags flap in the wind, people salute them, and rightly honor their courage for the heroism they showed that day. D-Day is just one day in history, but they were soldiers before that day and always remain so long after it. The truth is old soldiers do die, but they don’t ever fade away. They all collectively are owed our highest honors and should be celebrated eternally as the people willing to draw a line in those Normandy beaches. It was there where American blood (and other Allied blood as well) mixed with the sea and sand that the tide began to turn and the Nazi evil was eventually extinguished.
Photo credits: getty images; U.S. Army; diesel punks[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B003LL3N1I]