Thursday, September 30, 2010

Images and Emotions in Normandy (Part 1 of 2)

I have always been a devourer of World War II history.  I still remember the eerie feeling I had as I drove in a taxi over the Rhine into Mainz back when I was a PFC, the very first night I arrived in Germany in 2001.  To think of the thousands of kids just like me who died 56 years before trying to do what I had just accomplished at the cost of 30 Marks was humbling.  Of course, to this history buff, majoring in the European Theater of Operations with a concentration in the Western Front 1944-1945, the beaches of Normandy, France was my Mecca and I was to perform my hajj while assigned to Germany.  Then, came September 11.  My ambitions to tread the same sand as those brave boys did on June 6, 1944 were suddenly, and violently thrown aside by my own generation’s call to battle.

wind-swept flag before dawn; Easy Green Sector - Omaha Beach; Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, France
This past month … nine years, several assignments, a tour in Iraq, a wife, and two kids later … I found myself stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, wondering what to do with three days use-or-lose leave.  My wife suggested I take the opportunity to finally perform my pilgrimage.  I picked up my Audi A6 (a sweet gratis upgrade from Enterprise) and took off down the A8 on a beautiful Thursday, September 16th toward Karlsruhe.  As I meandered throughout the hills of Eastern France, I was assaulted by history.  I passed by signs identifying the Maginot Line, and shook my head in sad reflection on Patton’s folly at Metz.  As I drove on, I thought of how the average American views the average Frenchman.  Silly jokes about cowardice come quickly to mind.  But then I crossed the Meuse next to the city of Verdun.  The spookiness of that place cannot be underestimated.  It gave me a different understanding of the quick French capitulation in 1940.  I think the loss of an entire generation of French boys (around 4.3% of the total population was killed in the Great War) made the politicians somewhat reticent to throw the next generation once again into the breach.  Finally, eight hours after my journey’s start, I pulled into my hotel in Caen, a busy town at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, and gateway to the history of 1940s Normandy.

dog green; Dog Green Sector - Omaha Beach; Vierville-sur-Mer, France
As I was due back home by Saturday night, I could only afford one full day of battlefield tourist in le D√©partement du Calvados.  Thus I had to prioritize my time.  I arrived on a cold and windy, dark and deserted Omaha Beach at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer 45 minutes before sunrise on September 17, 2010; 66 years and 103 days since that Day of Days.  I spent several minutes setting up dramatic night-sky photos of the monument, memorial, and the flags representative of the nations involved in French liberation.  As the sun began to creep up to the horizon, that pre-dawn light eerily illuminated the bluffs to the West.  I sauntered across the cold, hard-pack sand, avoiding the numerous areas of sea water cut off from the rest of the ocean, caused by the types of sandbars that must have made life very difficult for those coxswains on the LCVPs.  I walked west from Dog Red Sector, across Dog White, and finally to Dog Green at the town of Vierville-sur-Mer.  Anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan knows more or less what happened at Dog Green Sector.  It was here that A Company, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division from V Corps came ashore.  Their mission was to take Dog One exit, the road in the draw through the bluffs connecting Vierville to the Normandy inland.  Their company landed unsupported as their armor support largely foundered in the Channel, and their left flanking units were dropped hundreds of yards east of where they were supposed to be.  A/116th alone suffered 120 casualties on Dog Green.  As I stood there, even at near high-tide, the thought of trying to scramble up to the shingle, soaking wet, overloaded, sea-sick, and under constant, accurate MG-42 machine gun and 88mm artillery fire made my stomach ill.
low tide; Dog Green Sector - Omaha Beach; Vierville-sur-Mer, France
It’s a testament to the bravery and leadership skills of those men, who managed to save a plan that was falling apart, improvise, adapt to conditions, and find alternate routes to their objectives.  As the day wore on, openings were made in lighter defended areas straight up the bluffs and by day’s end, the towns at the base of the beach exits lay in US hands.

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