The chronicles of my Normandy adventures continue this week--the 70th anniversary of D-Day--as we finally reach the shores of Omaha Beach. The coast seems an otherworldly place at times. The eerie solitude of the memorials and incoming tides are contrasted with WWII-themed cafes, synthetic touristy venues, and beach houses dotting the landscape. After indulging in some truly authentic French Fries at the nearby "D'Day House" cafe in St-Laurent-sur-Mer, I walked across the square to the First Division Memorial pictured above. Luckily for our caravan, the weather this day was one of the nicest during our expedition, although the blustery Channel winds felt anything but pleasant. The Musée Mémorial d'Omaha Beach up the adjacent Av. de la Liberation proved much to be desired. After being snowed in and confined to hotels, museums, and a bus for several days, I was ready to hit the field. Living up to Ike's famous maxim of June 1944, I said, "Okay, let's go!"
For the next several hours our band of students, alumni, and friends of Shepherd University embarked on a sand-filled odyssey across the entire width of Omaha Beach. This unusual sculpture by Anilore Banon, commissioned by the French government, symbolizes the wings of hope, freedom, and fraternity. If they say so. Regardless, the most impressive quality about this site is the beach itself. Our arrival fortuitously coincided with a low tide on the beach--much as how it was when Allied infantry began landing here shortly after 6:30 a.m. on June 6. As a matter of fact, geography played a major role in determining the difficulties faced by Americans on Omaha. The widest of all the landing zones, significant portions of Omaha were outlined by bluffs that made for difficult movement and easy defense. Like almost any battlefield, you truly cannot comprehend what happened there until you walk it yourself.
To simulate some of the hazardous conditions GIs found themselves in on the morning of June 6, our group of twenty or so gathered in small columns of three--symbolizing the formation many Americans were in on their landing craft before hitting the shores. Our guide, Bill McQuade, noted that the officers and radioman often stood in the front rank with the intention of leading their men ashore. Rather, these men at the bow became the first casualties while everybody else on board was left leaderless and without communication. Furthermore, the men were completely waterlogged and seasick by this point. While the Navy had fine intentions by feeding the men heartily that morning, the large breakfasts consumed before disembarkation did not help them in the choppy Channel waters. As combat medic Jack Fox later recalled, "The noise of the shelling was deafening. The smell of sulfur, vomit and fear was permeating. I was just praying that I would not die until I was on land" (Van Der Vat, D-Day, 89).
Among our group were several WWII reenactors, including Chris Herr, who wore his authentic GI roughout shoes during our trek. Upon hitting Omaha, the initial wave of the real landing parties encountered a haunting silence. Moving several dozen yards inland, many no doubt may have believed some of the German fortifications had been dismantled by the massive naval bombardment. They were wrong. The enemy defenders were merely waiting for the beach to fill--ensuring a "turkey shoot" of the most lethal form. Seeking protection behind the beach obstacles, officers and NCOs quickly realized that to stay on the shore was a death sentence. The only place of remote safety was "off that God-damned beach." Private Harry Parley of the 116th Infantry confirmed such exclamations, noting, "As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell." At that same time, LCVP gunner Jack Hoffler of North Carolina had the unpleasant task of rolling dead bodies off the boat ramp to make way for the evacuated wounded. Their "longest day" had begun. (Van Der Vat, D-Day, 94-96).
Four heavily-guarded inlets blocked the American advance up Omaha from the Normandy countryside. Like many major battles throughout human history, armies converge where there are roads. Despite the advancements in armored warfare and air capacity, WWII is no exception. Above, I offer the "V for Victory" pose at a German bunker at Vierville-sur-Mer--one of these four major exit points for American troops from the beach. (This is where Tom Hanks waded ashore, right?) Granted, many of the men fared little better than was depicted in Saving Private Ryan. Amidst this misery, nineteen-year-old Thomas Herring of the 5th Ranger Battalion found himself immersed in a world of pain. His 135 pound body was buckled to ninety pounds of gear, ammunition, and weaponry. Nearly drowning before he reached the water's edge, the "carnage on the beach was indescribable." Somehow, they had to make the mad dash up the bluff.
As one would surmise, that task proved anything but simple. Hitler's Atlantic Wall was built with such precision and engineering skill that many of the bunkers remain to this day--and will for many decades to come. The above installation, also located at Vierville, overlooks a wide swath of the Dog Green sector of Omaha. With many Germans in such close proximity to the American advance, they could not but help to hit anything that moved. Corporal Heinrich Severloh manned an MG-42 above the beach, mowing down over 2,000 Americans before being captured. Known as the "Beast of Omaha," Severloh was haunted by this this blood on his hands for the rest of his days. He recalled a terrified GI only yards away from him, attempting to reload his rifle. Severloh took careful aim at his chest and sprayed a burst of fire across to the soldier's forehead. The man's "helmet fell and rolled over in the sand," Severloh reflected. "Every time I close my eyes, I can see it."
With this view from the interior of the bunker previously pictured, one can easily see how Americans became bracketed by artillery and machine gun fire. By triangulating such lethal power, the Germans could command the entire beach from two or three primary positions. The perspective here is an overwhelming one. The crossfire was unbelievably intense and inescapable. That said, the Germans fared no better by day's end. Franz Gockel, stationed at nearby Coleville, planned on celebrating his eighteenth birthday on June 6. He was not expecting the Allied armada to come kickoff the party. Shot in the hand later that day, one of his comrades remarked, "This is your shot home." Many were not as lucky.
Even further above the bunker at Vierville, I climbed amidst the remnants of the German defenses atop the bluff. The view was utterly captivating and humbling. Yet, I found the serenity almost disconcerting, having trouble contrasting it with the absolute chaos there seventy years earlier. As military historian Antony Beevor has suggested, "The Battle for Normandy was horribly savage. Despite the assumptions of many historians, the German losses per division engaged there were twice as high as the overall average on the eastern front. And the 225,000 Allied casualties were almost as high as the German total of 240,000....The divisions facing the Allied onslaught were driven by a fanaticism and bitter hatred that led to the most brutal fighting of the war." The remnants of this destruction remain quite evident seven decades later.
Just for a moment, I imagined myself among the GIs heading up the beach. "I don't have a chance," I thought to myself. Meanwhile, the faint echoes of French children playing in the soupy sand nearby brought me back the 21st century. Mike Rippeon, an Army vet and member of our travel group, commented how some of his comrades were offended that French citizens played and sunbathed on these hallowed shores. His reply: "We fought in France to give it back to the French. Local kids playing on the beach is one of the greatest memorials of why we fought here in the first place." I was not one to disagree.