Grandpa Carl’s first visit to France began with the emergency bail-out signal. His plane had been hit by flack and the pilots could not keep it in the air (it was sort of on fire.) Windy, loud, dark, and dangerous was his impression of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He landed in a hedgerow, upside-down. Not the best way to begin an all expenses paid walking tour of western Europe.
He said he was lucky – he wasn’t in one of the gliders or in a tank. Tanks attracted unwanted attention. I spent the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in Germany, watching the TV coverage. Then I raced to Normandy and met Grandpa Carl there. With him, I visited the town he and other Americans had liberated and had a wonderful feast that was held in his honor. Calvados was just as potent 50 years after he’d first encountered it, or so I observed. The next day, we followed his battlefield, visiting the stone barn where a farmer had hidden him for three days until the front lines caught up with him.
He was pretty blasé about the fighting, about “mousetrapping German troops in those houses there and calling in a BAR” and blowing holes in everything that might conceal the bad guys. The very nice young lady acting as his French interpreter was a little shocked. I wasn’t but then I’d heard veterans before, and could see with my mind’s eye what he was describing. And he didn’t go into the gore. In fact, he was less gory than the opening monologue in Patton.
Looking back, I was truly, truly blessed. I manged to get adopted by a number of different veterans while I was in college, and they let me trot along with them, listening, learning, helping with things, going to dances and carrying a banner in a Veterans’ Day parade, all sorts of things. I got to fly on planes, shadow them around Normandy for the D-Day 50th, learn first hand about history, and absorb a lot of emotions and ideas, some of which I only understood much later.
D-Day. I’m not sure even now I can really comprehend everything that had to go right, and how so many people people managed to keep it quiet and them improvise when things didn’t work or the enemy forced changes of plan. Getting to see Omaha and Sword beaches helped a little, but it’s not the same. Grandpa Carl said that the opening 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan were probably as close as it would be possible to come without actually getting shelled and shot at, drenched and sand-splattered. He would know.
And it was only the beginning! That’s what I think people my age and younger have trouble wrapping our heads around. They guys knew that once they managed to grab Normandy and run the Germans out, they still had hundreds of miles to go, fighting most of the way, until they could declare a victory and go home. No “nine-month deployment and then you go home.” Yes, the hope was to be able to rotate men in and out, give people rest, but the main goal was defeating Hitler, and then the Japanese.
Wow. 75 years ago, we began the long slog, the US, Britain, Canada, and the free Poles and others, fighting eastwards to the Rhine, then the Elbe. But first it was Pon’ du Hoc, and Juno, Sword, Gold, and Utah, ” Karentahn and San Mare Ehgleese” (as Grandpa Carl always said it.)