D-Day plus 75

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 blasĂ© 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.)

5 thoughts on “D-Day plus 75

  1. My wife’s dad went across the beach at Normandy with one of the support echelons on D+10 or so. He was a clerk instead of in the infantry because he could type, assigned to one of the first units to use automated sorting machines using punched cards to help tally up all those nightly casualty reports to tell the First Army how many troops the Generals actually had where.

    They still woke him up in the middle of a cold December night later that year and sent him with his rifle up a Belgian hill in the dark to wait for the German Panzers to roll down the road on the first night of the battle of the Bulge, when a breakthrough seemed imminent.

    He made it back, and with the GI Bill he graduated from Stanford and went on to teach English for several decades in Palo Alto high schools. By all accounts he was one of those singular inspiring teachers. He passed in 2001. I’m glad I got to know him.

    My own high school Social Studies teacher went across the beach at Utah on D-day in the second wave. He said in spite of all the noise and distractions, the first thing he noticed was the beach where the landing craft dumped him out was all fist-sized rock, with no sand – he said “What kind of a beach is that?” but noted it did encourage him to keep moving and get off the beach, since there was no way to dig in to
    that rockpile.

    One the the great blessings being born when I was is to have an overlap of years with those folks.

  2. SLA Marshall had an article called “First Wave at Omaha Beach” in the November 1960 issue of “The Atlantic.” It provides a detailed look at two of the very first companies of infantry of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Marshall notes that most histories are focused at a higher level, but that historians were able to track the activities and fates of individual companies and platoons, even individual soldiers, and he describes what happened with Able and Baker companies.

    Able Company was basically annihilated, mostly before getting ashore. German machine gun and mortar fire was accurate and relentless. Within one hour, forty five minutes of landing only two rifleman make it to the top of the bluff, joining some Rangers who were part of the assault on Pointe du Hoc nearby. Two thirds of the company is dead, most of the remaining third wounded and exhausted, forced to abandon weapons, gear, even boots, to narrowly escape drowning. Many of the ones that made it ashore did so only by waiting for the tide to come in and moving with it. The water was the only cover from German fire that they had.

    Baker Company, coming in behind Able to land in the same place, fared a little better because some of the coxswains of the landing craft, seeing the murderous fire and chaos on the planned landing sites, veered to one side or the other and found small temporary havens from enemy fire. Many are killed anyway, but a few soldiers and officers make it ashore, and eventually push inland towards their battalion objective, linking up with a few Rangers along the way. They eventually make the furthest penetration of any US Army unit that day before being called back to regroup with the remainders of their battalion.

    It is fascinating and grim reading.


  3. Uncommon valor, and steel backbones. They didn’t quit, they pressed forward while literally all around them were being hit and dying. SLA Marshall’s article still doesn’t convey it all. One of the things I remember hearing about was the smell. Thankfully that isn’t included in the theater presentations…

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