A D-Day Reflection

 

In reviewing all the different statements about the June 6th, 1944 Allied invasion of Europe, I have yet another observation to add concerning those of us who are left to not just remember, but to carry on. There have been words both past and present that exceed any that I can add concerning how important the event itself was in the history of humankind. It was and still is the greatest military mobilization in the planet’s history. It not only was beyond anything attempted before but did actual, for a time at least, “save the world”.

One of the pivotal things for us to remember in our own special time of worldly challenge is how individual each act of bravery was that day. It was indeed a glorious achievement of overall planning, cooperation, and just plain blind luck. But it was done in thousands of very private, individual moments of sacrifice performed in a heated mix of both fear and focused courage.

If any war movie moments were ever to be required of each young citizen to watch about WWII, I would suggest two options. The first is the opening of Private Ryan. It is important that we grasp a sense of the terror that had to have touched every heart as those long doors fell down to expose the soldiers tightly packed together in the solid metal cage that was a landing craft. It is important that we reflect on how we would feel looking out at that single narrow opening as a constant flow of machine-gun bullets flew into it, not just striking those in front but bouncing off the craft’s walls to tear through flesh even deeper into the vessel’s human cargo. The options were to race out into that hail of bullets, climb over the side into deep water carrying a pack that made you helpless in deep water or to stay in that death trap among the loud sounds of bouncing lead and groaning wounded. There would be moments later as the young warriors were pinned to the beach trying to figure out how to get out from under the enemy fire. But those first seconds were, for the most part, the introduction to combat for legions of young men who had barely begun to shave and were still years away from legally voting.

For me, the second movie moment is steeped in the description from a paratrooper uncle who jumped into combat five times during those last few months of WWII. He was not quite as young as some of his companions, having joined the army in 1940 with an impulsive ambition to be a pilot. It was not until he was in uniform that the army informed him that he was too short to fly in the then peace-time air corps. After a short term in the medical corps, he was deemed just the right height to jump from the plane he was too short to drive.

The movie moment is taken from the adaption of Band of Brothers. And it is only a moment. For years I had carried in my mind the description of that flight over in the dark to drop behind French shores. It was characterized by both noise and silence. There was the shaking sound of the body of the plane that made you think it had to be paper-thin. But it was not a steady sound as it rose and fell against the wind. Each sound was accompanied by a shift of the plane as it floated its way toward Normandy. As the plane drew close to the coast there would be a shake and jolt from enemy ground fire as that sound mixed with the now much louder clatter of the metal of their craft. The silence came from the men inside, minute by minute as they approached France. This was the first combat for the 101st. Airborne warfare was new to Americans except for some action by the 82nd in Italy. Just like their brothers in those landing crafts, they were mostly too young to have seen a sophomore year of college. In a few minutes, their lives would change forever. That short movie minute fit exactly slow, quiet words I had heard years before from a voice that had then been still for a decade and gave them life.

It is my belief that in these single moments of stress, confusion, and often near panic the individual’s mind was not on overall goals of ideology. They were on the basics of life such as their blood, the family they might never see again, the buddy next to them who had become a scattered mass in a split second, the next port of safety on an exposed field of fire.

There were 4,414 Allied soldiers who died in France that day, more than half of them Americans. Their last thoughts were probably not of distant political goals but more likely about loved ones, opportunities missed, friends surrounding them, the mistakes made seconds ago, or simply home. Each act of bravery that day (and the days to come) were probably not thought through with analysis. They mostly happened in a split second of need, passion, or focus on momentary mission.

The Rangers who altered techniques to scale Point Du Hoc did so from a sudden need to silence the guns raining down on the beach which had failed to be taken out as planned. The need was immediate and they responded in the moment on the most basic level.

The lesson for us is that those single, individual acts of courage which were born from the most basic of emotions and needs blended together to create one of the greatest events of human history. They overcame blind luck of weather, inexperience, misjudgments of high command, and a dozen other things that befall an operation this large and new. Their acts were “grassroots level”. They were the strength of the whole operation and its success.

A few months later as fighting raged between American and German troops at the Colman Pocket in now mostly freed France, a battlefield-commissioned second lieutenant still half a year from his 20th birthday took position to cover the retreat of his men of Company B. When his rifle ammo was exhausted, he claimed atop a burning tank destroyer to take command of its .50 caliber machine gun. Despite wounds in both legs, he held off the enemy for an hour before rejoining his men. There, still wounded and without ammo, he led a counterattack.

When asked later why he had climbed onto that burning destroyer to man the machine gun, the answer was an uncomplicated “They were killing my friends”. Raised just east of the Hunt/Collin Counties line in Texas, Audie Murphy was not steeped in political philosophy beyond “what is right, is right”. He had not completed the 5th grade when he left school to help support the family. But his short and to-the-point answer illustrates a most basic duty we all have.

The free, self-governing society gifted to us by countless individuals, private acts is best sustained from the grassroots acts of us all. The bare-ground protection of that society is from individuals protecting what is closest to them.

Right now, there are parents defying school boards to have the deciding voice in their children’s education.  There are a few citizens standing before city councils to defend gun rights. There are involved voters taking action to try and ensure a more secure count of their share in the public voice. There are others refusing to be excluded from the public discussion, either in public meetings or so-called social media. There are others who simply need the example to follow in the protection of their own rights or property.

The most basic acts of protection for our republic occur as we protect what is immediate to us; our children’s education, our own right to vote, the property of myself and the citizens next to me, our own city’s streets. There will always be some corruption in government of any kind. There will always be mismanagement at the highest levels.

But it is the individual acts and determination at the grassroots that can come together as a saving force for that republic. 156,000 Allied troops crossed into France on June 6 across a 50 miles stretch of coastline. But it was individual, determined acts that were often very lonely despite all that was around which made the day a success.

It is not enough for each of us to exchange a few words between like minds and then shake our heads at the direction the rest of the nation takes. There are battles that have to be won just down the street, across town, and down the road. No matter how small or hopeless they may seem, they all add up. They all require attention. That attention is the price of keeping a hard-won liberty which we are entrusted with. It may well be that these seemingly small battles are the ones we will be held most accountable for.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    THe Longest Day is a great D-Day movie that teaches what was going on. I watch with a friend every year on the weekend closest to the 6th.

    • #1
  2. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    THe Longest Day is a great D-Day movie that teaches what was going on. I watch with a friend every year on the weekend closest to the 6th.

    There are many great scenes (and stars) in this movie.  Two favorites are when the German officer looks out the bunker at the English channel and sees nothing.  He waits a moment, then looks out again and sees the water filled with ships and loses it.  The second is the whole sequence of the German High Command trying to get Hitler to release a Panzer division to help stop the invasion.  No one wants to wake up Der Führer to ask permission.

     

    • #2
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    As reluctant as some people have been to say so, we are at war to protect our country. Our immediate lives may not be at stake, but over time they are, as is the future of this country. It is time to call it what it is. Thank you for doing so, Ole.

    • #3
  4. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    My dad was a submarine combat veteran as an 18 year-old. My parents friend’s were WWII vets, to include a Royal Navy veteran. My first scoutmaster was a member of a B-17 crew that was shot down over Germany. We have one photo of dad directing fire for the 5″ deck gun in a surface action. Like so many photos from WWII that were published no names were published in that photo. He’s at the top right, in the black sweater.

    Thanks, for a great essay.

    • #4
  5. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Stad (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    THe Longest Day is a great D-Day movie that teaches what was going on. I watch with a friend every year on the weekend closest to the 6th.

    There are many great scenes (and stars) in this movie. Two favorites are when the German officer looks out the bunker at the English channel and sees nothing. He waits a moment, then looks out again and sees the water filled with ships and loses it. The second is the whole sequence of the German High Command trying to get Hitler to release a Panzer division to help stop the invasion. No one wants to wake up Der Führer to ask permission.

     

    Those 5000 ships you say they haven’t got? Well, that got them!

    • #5
  6. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Great post Ole. 

    • #6
  7. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    About Private Ryan:

    My father was in some sort of elite squad to become part of the Normandy invasion.

    A few weeks before D day, a shell was dropped on his foot breaking his right big toe. He ended up in a hospital, and upon discharge was wearing a toe to above knee cast.

    He missed out on D Day. He often stated if not for the misfortune of breaking his toe, he’d have been dead by end of the day, June 6th.

    I thought that was an exaggeration. Throughout the ’50’s and 60’s the grainy films sometimes shown as commemerative film footage on each June 6th failed to impress me.

    But on seeing Private Ryan, I finally understood what he meant. Modern day graphics are sometimes over used. But in this movie’s case, the digitized footage of the damage inflicted on the young bodies attempting to secure a beach head made it clear how real bodies were impacted by each round of a sniper’s rifle, each volley of a mortar attack.

    How anyone survived that assault, I have no idea. But survive our troops did. The tide that had propelled the all powerful Third Reich was turned.

    Across Europe, people in occupied nations listening to their illegal radios knew they “simply” had to hang on for another some months.

    My dad’s luck held out for a while, as by the end of that summer, he joined his newly re-organized unit in Paris, with enough spare time to frequent Parisian cafes and night clubs. He began writing my mom that he’d be home by Christmas 1944. And then that unit was sent over to the hill country of Belgium for some minor “mop up” operations against a few scattered German troops.

    That “minor mop up” turned out to become what was known as The Battle of The Bulge. My dad finally got home to Chicago, April 1946. My mother had kept the Christmas tree from late 1945 up and lit for his arrival.

    • #7
  8. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):
    He missed out on D Day. He often stated if not for the misfortune of breaking his toe, he’d have been dead by end of the day, June 6th.

    My father was a Marine training for the invasion of Japan.  Good thing we nuked them, because I might not be here today.

    Neither would my wife.  Her dad saw action as a Marine photographer on recon aircraft taking scouting photos.  They got shot at a lot, so doing recon over Japan for an invasion could have been a death sentence.   She’s glad for the nukes too . . .

    • #8
  9. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    In looking at those photos (both the airborne troops and those on the landing craft), I was reminded of the quote by John Wayne:

    “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

    When it comes to courage, those guys had it by the ton.

    Great essay to remind us of that, Ole.

    • #9
  10. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Not Hollywood, but a summary of the immediate field notes collected from the unit level:

    Atlantic, 1960, “First Wave at Omaha Beach

    Unlike what happens to other great battles, the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Day.

    […]

    In everything that has been written about Omaha until now, there is less blood and iron than in the original field notes covering any battalion landing in the first wave. Doubt it? Then let’s follow along with Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Their story is lifted from my fading Normandy notebook, which covers the landing of every Omaha company.

    Able Company riding the tide in seven Higgins boats is still five thousand yards from the beach when first taken under artillery fire. The shells fall short. At one thousand yards, Boat No. 5 is hit dead on and foundered. Six men drown before help arrives. Second Lieutenant Edward Gearing and twenty others paddle around until picked up by naval craft, thereby missing the fight at the shore line. It’s their lucky day. The other six boats ride unscathed to within one hundred yards of the shore, where a shell into Boat No. 3 kills two men. Another dozen drown, taking to the water as the boat sinks. That leaves five boats.

    Lieutenant Edward Tidrick in Boat No. 2 cries out: “My God, we’re coming in at the right spot, but look at it! No shingle, no wall, no shell holes, no cover. Nothing!”

    His men are at the sides of the boat, straining for a view of the target. They stare but say nothing. At exactly 6:36 A.M. ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine-gun fires from both ends of the beach.

    Able Company has planned to wade ashore in three files from each boat, center file going first, then flank files peeling off to right and left. The first men out try to do it but are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the waterlogging of their overloaded packs. From Boat No. 1, all hands jump off in water over their heads. Most of them are carried down. Ten or so survivors get around the boat and clutch at its sides in an attempt to stay afloat. The same thing happens to the section in Boat No. 4. Half of its people are lost to the fire or tide before anyone gets ashore. All order has vanished from Able Company before it has fired a shot.

    […]

    By the end of one hour, the survivors from the main body have crawled across the sand to the foot of the bluff, where there is a narrow sanctuary of defiladed space. There they lie all day, clean spent, unarmed, too shocked to feel hunger, incapable even of talking to one another. No one happens by to succor them, ask what has happened, provide water, or offer unwanted pity. D Day at Omaha afforded no time or space for such missions. Every landing company was overloaded by its own assault problems.

    By the end of one hour and forty-five minutes, six survivors from the boat section on the extreme right shake loose and work their way to a shelf a few rods up the cliff. Four fall exhausted from the short climb and advance no farther. They stay there through the day, seeing no one else from the company. The other two, Privates Jake Shefer and Thomas Lovejoy, join a group from the Second Ranger Battalion, which is assaulting Pointe du Hoc to the right of the company sector, and fight on with the Rangers through the day. Two men. Two rifles. Except for these, Able Company’s contribution to the D Day fire fight is a cipher.

    • #10
  11. navyjag Lincoln
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Same as Stad. Dad a 20 year old Marine Corps pilot, transport.  When I was a boy he told me about the horrible campaigns he saw: Bougainville, Saipan, Pelilieu, Iwo Jima. His job was to land his plane on the strips the Navy Seebees had constructed to offload weapons and take on the wounded.  Quick work.  Assigned to  a Marine Corps squadron in July, 1945 to support the planned initial landings in Japan some months later.  Then war over. And I was born.  Lucky me. God  bless Harry Truman, even though he was a Democrat. 

    • #11