Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Revisiting the Longest Day

My father was a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division in World War II. He told me, when he was still alive, that he was a radio man and among the first to jump into Japan when the Allies liberated the prison camps toward the end of the war. Most of the young men who fought in World War II had never been away from home and now they were scattered across Europe and the Pacific.

My dad, Alfred Friedman, jumping off a troop carrier in the South Pacific.
So it was a sense of awe and gratitude that I recently traveled back in time to the beaches of northern France and the D-Day sites of Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach and Sainte Mere Eglise.

Remembering D-Day

On a rainy day, June 6, 1944, the skies suddenly cleared and the Allied Forces made the decision to go ahead with Operation Overlord, in which Canadian, British and American troops landed on the beaches of Normandy to push the German troops out of France and back into Germany. The D-Day invasion involved 5,000 ships carrying 150,000 men and 30,000 vehicles across the English Channel as well as 800 planes dropping six parachute regiments of over 13,000 paratroopers. An additional 300 planes dropped 13,000 bombs over coastal Normandy in advance of the invasion. Of the Allied troops that landed on the beaches that day, securing French coastal villages, 73,000 of them were Americans.

The men and women of the French Resistance played a very active and invaluable role gathering intelligence prior to D-Day, something that is seldom mentioned. They paid a high price for their bravery. Most were hunted down by the Gestapo, tortured and killed.

Pointe du Hoc: Can you imagine scaling these cliffs?
Our first visit was to Pointe du Hoc, a point of land where American Rangers landed, one hour before the invasion, to scale 100-foot cliffs with grappling hooks.  They did this while under fire from hand-held machine guns the enemy discharged from the safety of concrete bunkers. The Rangers' mission was to disable the coastal gun batteries— huge 155-millimeter guns that could send shells 12 miles out into the ocean or to adjacent beaches. Since the rest of the troops would be coming in by sea, those coastal gun batteries had to be taken out before the invasion force could land. Once the Rangers overpowered the Germans in the concrete gun emplacements, they then had to fight for two days to hold the location, losing more than 60 percent of their men. Afterwards, the remaining 40 percent regrouped and continued Northeast to a rally point one mile from the gun emplacements on Pointe du Hoc.

What the Germans saw from their concrete gun bunkers.
The French—remember this the next time someone says something negative about them—have not touched Pointe du Hoc since 1944. It is considered hallowed ground. So you can still see the concrete bunkers and the craters left by Allied bombers and ships shelling the coastline. Many men were slaughtered trying to make it up those cliffs. Oddly enough, it could have been worse.

Fortunately, Hitler suffered a bad headache the night before, supposedly because he had learned that Rome had fallen to the Allies. So he took a sleeping pill, went to bed and left orders not to disturb him. This was a strategic blow to the Master Race. No one was allowed to make decisions without the F├╝hrer’s blessing. The Germans had reinforcements that could have been sent into the invasion area to back up the German troops fighting on the cliffs. But by the time Hitler finished his beauty sleep—he is said to have slept until noon—it was too late. Even when his concerned officers finally informed him of what was going on, Hitler said it didn’t matter. He was more interested in invading London than fighting a defensive war in France. (Bad call.)

"...Comrade in Arms, known but to God."
Our next visit was to Utah and Omaha beaches. The troops were actually supposed to have landed west of there, which would have been strategically better. When they landed at about 6:30 in the morning, the soldiers jumping off the troop carriers encountered mines, barbed wire and heavy gun fire. More than 3,000 Americans died on those beaches from stepping on mines, gunshot wounds and in some cases drowning because they jumped off the troop carriers in water that was too deep, getting weighted down by their equipment. Many more would die in the weeks to come. Men stepped over the bodies of their comrades to run up the beaches and keep the assault going. By mid-afternoon, the Allied troops broke through the German defenses. By August 1944, all of Northern France was under Allied control.

Our next visit was to the American cemetery, a site overlooking Omaha beach. It is difficult to describe the emotions that wash over you as you gaze over the 9,387 gravestones perfectly aligned in row after row to the horizon. Most have names, but several hundred do not (see photo above) because some soldiers were never identified. Those buried came from every state in the union and represent just about every ethnic group you can imagine. What is striking is that most of the fallen range in age from teenagers to early twenties. They made the ultimate sacrifice and never had the opportunity to have a career or family like the rest of us. Just writing about it brings tears.

Finally, we visited the small town of Sainte Mere Eglise, where soldiers parachuted down into the French countryside in the dark in advance of the beach invasion. This was supposed to have been a surprise landing under cover of darkness. Unfortunately, a house caught on fire and a bucket brigade of villagers was working to extinguish it. The occupying Germans came out to survey what was going on. The night, lit with the rising flames, revealed a sky filled with descending parachutes. The Germans ordered the citizens back into their homes and began firing on the troops while they were in mid-air. Many were dead before they hit the ground.

Steele hung from this church steeple.
The parachute of one soldier, John Steele, caught on the town’s church steeple and he hung there, playing dead, in hopes of not being killed. The Germans eventually took him prisoner. Steele later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when U.S. troops attacked the village, capturing thirty Germans and killing another eleven.

The success of D-Day changed the course of history. Hitler was forced to fight a two-front war against the Russians in the east and the Americans, British, Canadians and French in the west. Within a year, Hitler committed suicide, and the war was over.

Reflections on War

Some wars are unavoidable, even noble; others are not.

It is appropriate to honor those who serve and protect our country. But prudent to be wary of the well-heeled, duplicitous legislators and contractors—many of whom have never served—who carelessly send today's soldiers into harm's way for hidden agendas.

We owe that important distinction to our troops and to our country.

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