Many of you know I recently returned from Europe. One long and powerful day we dedicated to Normandy, the beaches- Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword (these entry points along the Normandy, France coast in the English Channel, all code-named by generals planning the assault). When you see these beaches, and take time to absorb the whole story, you change. Our ordinary, everyday lives are a gift. At Memorial Day we honor the fallen. At Veterans Day we honor the living. But everyday and especially on a day like today, the anniversary of a defining moment in our history, D-Day, American soldiers are wearing their nation’s uniform to protect and defend us. We should remember them everyday.
One of those beaches, Omaha is of course named after the city in Nebraska, where many members of my family were part of the ‘greatest generation.’ This trip was personal!
Let us set the stage, with the help of the D-Day Museum in Caen, France:
Hitler was dreaming large. After a thumping during WWI, he sat quietly dreaming up the way he would execute a plan to colonize ALL of Europe. First he exterminated the local population. He would rule the Reich from ‘Germainia”, the world’s largest city. Once his plan went into action, all of Europe would be terrorized.
Hitler was cleansing his lands of the Jews, felt to be too rich and too dangerous for his plan; the handicapped; mentally challenged; gypsies; homosexuals. They were rounded up and killed or sent to work camps.
Once Hitler’s armies stormed into France, and began to wreak havoc there, the Allied Generals knew there was precious time to waste stopping his crusade to cleanse and conquer. Hitler was making too much progress too fast. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe began planning the invasion at Normandy, France. The invasion would involve sending more than 150,000 troops to land along a 60-mile stretch of beach on the northern French coastline within 24 hours. The beaches, across the English Channel from England, were code-named (Juno, Sword, Omaha, Gold) and the ‘largest logistical operation ever’ was planned in secret. 5 million tons of military supplies and equipment needed to be moved. Supplies of food, ammo, clothing, medical supplies and more needed transport there. Further, a second front needed to be created forcing Nazi Germany to defend against American, British, Canadian and French troops. Patriotism was high, enlistment soared, and overnight, long-held military strategies were turned upside down. This was an impossible operation.
The English Channel was rough and difficult to navigate. The cliffs at the shores were tall and mean. Further, Nazi troops were waiting on top of those cliffs. The Nazi’s had filled the shoreline with dangerous obstacles and mines, as preparedness early in the occupation. They had bunkers, an underground system, everything they needed up there to defend against the oncoming troops. The Nazi’s just didn’t know that Eisenhower’s troops were on the way.
Mindful that bombing raids were being conducted all over Europe by the Nazi’s, in Hitler’s grand scheme of going ‘large’, this beach landing was a critical movement for the Allies. On the night of the launch, the trip across the English Channel to Normandy was harrowing. 10-foot waves, and a large storm slowed the progress of the troops. The water was rough. Troops were seasick, and silently afraid. An armada of 5,000 ships with 1,000 fighter planes overhead emerged off Normandy pre-dawn. The largest airborne force ever assembled- 20,000 men- dropped on Normandy by glider and parachute. The landing craft took soldiers to shore.
That first morning 10,000 souls were lost. An immediate makeshift cemetery was put in place to lay the 10,000 men. Husbands, brothers, sons, nephews lost their lives in the treacherous landing. The story of that day is told well in the movies, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. I recommend both movies about our ‘Greatest Generation’, and the landings at Normandy.
In 1948 the process of moving the bodies from the beach cemetery to a permanent place of internment began. The French gave the Americans land at St. Laurent to create a national cemetery. It is a beautiful place on the edges of the coast, waves crashing below.