Traveling brings insight into words and history.
For example: What does “D-day” mean? Hints of the true meaning can be found long before WWII in a U.S. Army Field Order. The order stated that “The First Army will attack at H hour on D day with the object of . . . The use of D-day allows military personnel to easily plan for a combat mission ahead of time without knowing the exact date that it will occur. Given that planning for the most famous of all D-day’s in June of 1944 started way back in 1943, and that, due to factors like optimal tides, only a few days in a given month were suitable for the launch of the invasion, trying to fix a firm date in the planning process was pointless, even close to the time of the attack.
Seeing the realities soldiers of the free world and the peoples of France had to face was a real life history lesson to David and I. Since we did not have any first hand experience of World War II, no family members story, we opted for an high level tour of Omaha and Utah Beaches and a view of the world from the members of “The Band of Brothers” and Saving Private Ryan. We had a homework assignment from our tour group: to watch and be familiar with the docu-series and movie depicting realistic stories from the invasion.
Code-named ‘Operation Overlord’, the D-Day landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history. Early on the morning of 6 June 1944, swarms of landing craft – part of an armada of more than 6000 ships and boats – hit the beaches of northern Normandy and tens of thousands of Allied soldiers began pouring onto French soil.
At 7.10am on 6 June 1944, 225 US Army Rangers scaled the impossibly steep, 30m-high cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. The first Army Ranger accomplished this mission in 5 short minutes using their daggers to help propel them up the cliff. Their objective was to disable five 155mm German artillery guns perfectly placed to rain shells onto the beaches of Utah and Omaha. They managed to locate the massive artillery pieces and put them out of action. By the time the Rangers were finally relieved on 8 June – after repelling fierce German counterattacks for two days – 81 of the rangers had been killed and 58 more had been wounded.
Today the site, which France turned over to the US government in 1979, looks much as it did right after the battle, with the earth still pitted with huge bomb craters. The German command post (topped by a dagger-shaped memorial) and several concrete bunkers and casemates, scarred by bullet holes and blackened by flame-throwers, can be explored. As you face the sea, Utah Beach is 14km to the left.
We roamed the bunkers, with some placements out to sea, to disrupt soldiers on the beach or to sink personnel transport boats before their men could land. The Germans had other gun placements parallel to the beach to shoot in an arc that prevents movement up the beachhead and impede progress toward the headland.
We learned so much about the humanity of war, ships that landed at the wrong beach, missed signals, tanks that could not move forward and act as a shield because of mines planted in the sand, of brave actions of some incredible men, and death, the byproduct of war. We saw small French towns (we stayed in Bayeux) which was liberated by the British and then the Americans and the debt of gratitude these small towns still feel today. Band of Brothers helped us imagine a tank rolling down these ancient, cobblestone roads to the main square.
We visited the Normandy American Cemetery, occupied on land donated from France to the USA to bury our dead if their family agreed to keep their loved ones on the soil where they sacrificed their life. White marble crosses and Stars of David stretch off in seemingly endless rows, situated on a now-serene bluff overlooking the bitterly contested sands of Omaha Beach. Featured in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, this place of pilgrimage is one of the largest American war cemeteries in Europe. It contains the graves of 9,387 American soldiers, including 33 pairs of brothers who are buried side-by-side (another 12 pairs of brothers are buried separately or memorialized here). Only about 40% of American war dead from the fighting in Normandy are interred in this cemetery – the rest were repatriated at the request of their families.
The Band of Brothers provided more context, we saw where the airborne division landed away from their designated drop zone and one guy was stranded on a church tower; he played dead for two hours rather than get shot. Where members of Easy Company performed a perfect flanking exercise on the enemy position. Where a church became a field hospital, and the medics treated all wounded (German, French and American) and when the real estate changed sides, the Germans respected the humanitarian efforts there and kept their guards outside to protect American medics and the wounded. The French placed stained glass windows in this same small country church to remember that effort and the young American medic who visited this town for years after the war, chose ultimately to be buried in that French churchyard, because it was then and there he spent his finest hours.
Overall it was a sobering day, the price and the value of freedom. Thanksgiving. Small towns that were destroyed and rebuilt. Visions of armored tanks moving down the main streets of these tiny villages, church bell towers as the lookout point. Pictures of GI Joes handing out candy and kissing women after years of hostage under the German Army. An entire generation changed.