Sixty Five Years Later

Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword.

It’s been quite a long time since I stood on the bluffs and cliffs overlooking these beaches. It was an experience that I shared with a large contingent of my extended family, including my Grandfather. Though he was not there during his service in The War, he is a battle weary veteran who understands what went in to a landing. He in fact, understands it better than most men alive. It was what he did for years and under horrifying conditions at that. As a skipper of LST’s, LCI’s and LCM’s, he became a member of an elite group of landing craft captains specializing in unusual or particularly difficult combat landings. His war, however, was in the Pacific.

As we walked around and over the battlements of a lifetime ago, he pointed out small things here and there that we might not have noticed. Things like how the tide was running and what that would do to soldiers in the water, the position of gun emplacements and how the fire would have converged out to sea and where it would be most intense. I have always been fascinated with the Second World War and having been glued to my television set when ever “Victory at Sea” was on, I was well versed in the Pacific War. Whenever I had asked him about his own stories though, I was brushed off. He had a handful of funny tales he liked to tell and retell. I can recall him recounting memories of watching B-25’s and B-26’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley Mountains in New Guinea. That was always a favorite for him.

“They’d come over the range high and in formation, then, one by one, dive like sparrows down the side of the mountains. We’d count them as they peeled off and thundered at tree top level with their engines wide open. Then they’d disappear over the jungle. We’d count them again as they came back into our view over the water and figure out how many we’d lost. At that speed, nobody had a chance to bail out.”

That was about as detailed as he would get. I never really heard much about the landings he made at all.

Even though I knew the stories by heart, I would still sit and listen, eager to hear what ever he’d give me. France however, was different for him. He hadn’t been here during the fighting and so, he was in a reflective mood and willing to share his views on how he saw this field of battle. It was a fascinating trip.

As I stood on a German pillbox, its sides crushed under the weight of Allied shelling and bombing, I remember wondering if it was a tomb for the soldiers who would have been manning on that day long ago. There are missing men in every battle, but the thought that under my feet and few feet of concrete and steel, may hold the unremovable, mortal remains of the German war machine, was a sobering one. They would have been young boys. They never grew old, but died as teenagers for the dreams of a madman. The loss from every stone, dune and bunker was palpable.

As we visited the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, we split up as we walked with a sort of hushed reverence. These were the heroes who had given their own “last full measure of their devotion” and the emotion for me was overwhelming. As I humbly walked among the graves, I couldn’t miss hearing the voice from a young British girl as she pointed me out to her parents.

“Look mum! That man is out walking on the grass! It says right here not to do that!”

She was right, naturally. I had walked deftly past the neat little sign admonishing this very thing. We were to “stay on the paths, please.” I smirked… and kept reading and saying the names to my self in a soft whisper. These were my countrymen. They were from my home and I did not think for a moment that I didn’t have the right to be there. In the cemeteries of the other nations involved, I would stick to the paths, but not here. This was U.S. soil and I was here to pay respects. I was twenty-one years old then, and older than most of the soldiers who surrounded me as they lay in peace.

Besides, Americans have never been great at following rules. It’s actually how we started out with our own country.

On this sixty-fifth anniversary of the invasion, I think back to my time walking the peaceful and quiet beaches of Normandy. I thank the French whom we met there and the kindnesses they gave us during our stay. I think of my Grandfather as he stood on the cliffs with the knowledgeable eye of a veteran landing craft captain as he wondered aloud how they got anyone past the sandbars and onto the beaches or over the cliffs.

We remember this day for the great sacrifice of youth that took place and because it marked the turning of the tide in, what had looked all too often, like an unwinnable war against a juggernaut that knew no defeat.

The beaches are beautiful now but still carry deep scars, much like the individuals who were there on the day of invasion. Their scars will be gone soon. They are leaving us by the hundreds every day. The scars on the land will outlive them all.

If you have not seen them, I suggest you should.

If you know someone who saw it for themselves sixty-five years ago, ask them about it now, for they will likely be gone tomorrow.

d-day letter

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Normandy, with Grandpa

On the year of the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I got to walk the beaches with my Grandfather.

He hadn’t been there all those years ago, you understand. His war had taken the young New Hampshire boy to much stranger fields of battle. His war had been going on for years. His war was full of malarial mosquitoes and sunstroke. His war was mostly ignored, or so it seemed to him.

On June 6th, 1944, Tech Sgt. N.B.H. was most likely floating off the shore of New Guinea watching B-25’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley mountains and wondering where the next landing would be. He was the skipper of various landing type craft, sometimes LCI’s like you see on the beaches of Normandy, but more often LCM’s or LST’s. Those are the big boats for getting machinery and tanks into the landings. His boats were often the first ones in and some of his battle ribbons, which he gave me years ago, hold bronze stars.

He had signed up in 1942, waiting until he had finished high school before joining the army. He had picked the army because he was a hunter, confident in his ability with a rifle and was comfortable in the woods. He knew little about airplanes, so stayed away from the Air Corps. and didn’t like the idea of being in the Navy. His logic was that if his ship was hit, there was little he could do about it. He’s a hands on person and relies on his own judgment and wits as they rarely let him down.

So, off to the Army he went. Then they found out that he grew up on a lake. Next they found out he could run a boat. before he knew it, he was off to lake Pontchartrain, being schooled in the art of running landing craft. His leadership qualities quickly sent him to the wheelhouse and his athletic abilities got him sent to the Combat Engineers.

The Combat Engineers were often the guys who went in ahead of the landing to get it ready for the infantry and the marines or to fix a degrading landing. These were the guys who got shot at first or under the worst conditions. They were specialists and his unit badge sported a shield with an eagle, anchor and tommy gun, meaning that they would get there by air, sea or foot, and they did.

He survived the war, but just barely. His only physical injuries came from falling through a hatch, carelessly left open by a green replacement, a partially crushed finger from a 55 gallon drum of oil that fell on him, a concussion from a falling signal light that was shot off his mast, and a case of sunstroke that nearly killed him. He made it though though, and he’s still around to this day.

He mostly tells you the funny stories. The painful ones he keeps to him self. The men he talks about were the ones who came home with him. I’ve never heard him mention the name of a single friend who was killed in action, and there must have been many. Where he was, it was inevitable. If I press for more than the five or six stories he tells and retells, he’ll go off on a line about how there are millions of stories out there from millions of people and that his don’t matter. I disagree, but it’s not my place to argue that. The memories are his, and he is entitled to share them or not. I just make sure that I’m there to listen.

When we walked the beaches in Normandy all those years later, I had the chance to watch an old man learn something new. He had always sort of talked down the European war. In many ways, I think he resents the coverage and interest it gets, while his conflict remains little more than a foot note. For years, when ever he saw footage of the D-Day landings he would speak disparagingly about how the men had to wade, if not swim to shore. “We never did that! If we brought you in, you had dry boots!”

Standing on the bluffs in the old German positions, this old man looked down and saw the beach with the eyes of a military landing craft captain. After a few minutes he remarked that now he understood.

“This is a hell of a place to land. Look, there are at least six sand bars that you’d have to plow through before you’d hit beach. You’d never have the momentum to get past the fourth one. This is an awful place to bring them in. No wonder they had to swim.”

Later that night, it started to rain as we all went out for dinner. There were thirteen of us in the group and it wasn’t easy to find a place where we could all fit. We finally found a nice little restaurant and nearly filled it with our family. As the evening came to a close, the owner came out to our tables to ask if we had enjoyed our meal. When he spotted the white hair on my Grandfather’s head, he asked if he was a veteran. “Yes, but not from here. I ran landing craft in the Pacific.”

The two old men chatted a while and as the bill came out, the owner grabbed it quickly and removed the cost of my grandparent’s meal. My grandfather objected but the owner insisted. “It is my gift to you. Wait one moment, I have something else.” The owner disappeared into the back for a few minutes and emerged, holding a labelless, corked wine bottle. “This is sand from the beach. I picked it up my self just a few days after the invasion. It has the blood of American soldiers in it. I want you to have it. I remember. Here, in Normandy, we all remember.”

I’ve never seen my grandfather so much as tear-up, and to be honest, I don’t know if he did just then. I know I would have. I had to look away. It was too much to see.

It’s June 6th today. A day of loss for so many families. Many dreams stopped forever on a long stretch of beach or on the cliffs over the French coast. So many more dreams however, were made possible by the loss. We remember that day for the heroism and loss on those beaches but I’ll try to think of my Grandfather, all those miles away, floating on a steel deck in the Pacific, wondering when it will all be over so he can finally go home.

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