The author, laden with oral-history transcripts, spent a summer in Normandy studying the battle that marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.
AS PART OF THE RESEARCH for a book I am writing about D-Day, timed for the 50th anniversary (June 6, 1994), my wife, Moira, and I spent a summer in Normandy. Staying in small hotels in the seaside villages, we walked along the beaches and swam in the surf. I’ve been studying this battle since I first went to work for General Dwight D. Eisenhower as editor and biographer in 1964. I have visited Normandy at least a dozen times, for periods ranging from a couple of days to a week or two. I am always startled to find out how much I don’t know, and delighted at how much I learn.
One reason for our trip was new source material I had with me, transcripts of oral histories from the men of D-Day. For the past 10 years, the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans has been collecting tape-recorded memories from Normandy veterans; to date, we have about 1,000 from Americans and another 300 from German, French, Canadian, and British veterans. In most cases they are detailed enough to make accurate guides.
For example, on Omaha Beach, on the shoulder of the bluff looking down on the Colleville Draw, there is a series of German emplacements that impressed themselves forever on the minds of a dozen or so of my U.S. 1st Division informants. The Germans built a miniature Gibraltar to defend that draw. There are a dozen or so “Tobruks” of various sizes. Some are cement silos sunk into the ground, with openings that a mortar crew inside could fire from with all but perfect immunity. Others held machine guns or flamethrowers; some even had tank turrets on top. Climbing down into them, getting into the tunnel system that connected them, I marveled at how well situated they were to cover that draw, and was appalled at the thought of how much fire they could hurl down on it.
Even more impressive are the twin casemates built to hold 75mm cannon. Made of six-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete and big enough to hold the cannon and a five-man crew, they are tucked into the bluff, perfectly sited. Through the aperture of the higher casemates, there is a magnificent view of Omaha Beach stretching out to the west, about four miles long: The sand is golden; the sky is blue; the Channel is gray; the surf is white; the bluff is green; the bathers’ swimsuits add splashes of color. Altogether, it is a subject befitting an impressionist painting.
For the Germans firing those 75mm cannon on June 6, however, the scene was terrifying—thousands of young Americans coming ashore to kill them. To prevent that, they fired down on the invaders as rapidly as they could load. An American combat engineer who had been down on the beach told me that those two guns probably killed more Americans than any others in Normandy—he estimated more than 200.
The casemates took a pounding in return. I could locate damage from a 5-inch naval gun, or from a rocket—not much damage, just a pockmark in the concrete. Inside the upper casemate, I spotted the hole where an American 75mm shell had scored a direct hit. It had been fired from a Sherman tank on the beach. Following the angle of the hole, I could trace the exact position of the tank when it fired. A French employee at the Omaha cemetery told me that in 1984 the German battery commander met with the commander of the American tank to discuss their duel of 40 years past—each had put the other man’s weapon out of action.
That tank got ashore thanks to Lieutenant Dean Rockwell, who made a decision to bring his LCT group all the way in, rather than launch them, “swimming,” offshore as planned. A crew member on Rockwell’s LCT, Martin Waarvick, told me the story. Rockwell mistrusted the rubber inflatable skirts that guided the tanks and had thought the sea too rough for the tanks to swim, so he brought his four right on in. Of the 33 tanks launched at sea, only two others made it to shore; the rest sank.
For three decades, those tanks sat on the bottom of the Channel. Local fishermen knew their location; the wrecks were prime fishing areas. The fishermen refused to divulge the spots until embarrassed into doing so by the local mayors, who pointed out to them that the men whose bones were inside had come over to France to liberate them and deserved a proper burial. In the past ten years, all the tanks have been pulled out, the bones buried.
Lieutenant Rockwell saved the day at Omaha. Until he got his four tanks ashore, the Germans in the casemates at the Colleville Draw could and did kill everything on that beach. The descending shells from the navy could not put those cannon out of action, but the flat-trajectory shells fired upward by the tanks directly into the aperture did.
What it was like for the first wave, before the tanks came in support, is best described by S. L. A. Marshall. He has come under considerable criticism lately, some of it justified, but I carried his writings with me all summer and found them to be vivid, moving, and generally reliable.
As the first wave approached, the Germans held their fire. Survivors tell me they thought it was going to be an easy assault, that the naval and air bombardments had put the German defenders out of action. But Marshall writes (in Atlantic Monthly, November 1960) that at the dropping of the ramps, the beach “is instantly swept by crossing machine-gun fire from both ends.” The first men out
are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the water-logging of their overloaded packs… Half of the people [in Boat No. 4] are lost to the fire or tide before anyone gets ashore. All order has vanished from Able Company before it has fired a shot.
The company is part of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Within minutes of its landing, “the sea runs red.” Wounded men who drag themselves ashore “lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and by the onrushing tide.” The few who make it to the beach untouched cannot hold, and they return to the water for cover. “Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide.”
TO GET A BETTER IDEA OF WHAT HAPPENED, I spent a dozen afternoons swimming off Omaha Beach. In June the water is still cold, although not bitterly so; by July it is pleasant. The tide is spectacular, alternately covering and uncovering a 1,500-foot-wide beach.
This enormous tide created all kinds of problems for the invaders, the hill extent of which can be appreciated only by swimming. When the sea was running at all high—say, two- or three-foot waves—it was virtually impossible for me to stand up, even in waist-deep water, or rather what would have been waist-deep water if the sea were calm. When the waves were up, the surf would be ankle-deep as one wave washed out, over my head when the next one came on. Even on a calm day, I found it difficult to swim because of the powerful current that runs parallel to Omaha just beyond the breakers.
Another difficulty—one that nearly every survivor mentions—is the sharp drop-offs. I would swim out a couple of dozen yards, then start in. My feet would hit bottom and I’d start walking. Suddenly, I’d be over my head again. At least three of the men who have given oral histories to the Eisenhower Center swear that the Germans dug antitank trenches when the tide was out, and that the invaders fell into them. Nothing of the kind was attempted, for the obvious reason that the next incoming tide would have caved in a man-made trench. These depressions are natural, created by the tidal action, and they shift with every tide.
In short, I found it difficult to get ashore from even a short distance out, in a calm sea and wearing only a swimsuit. The men of D-Day had a moderately rough sea to deal with. In addition, their clothing had been treated with an anti-gas chemical that stiffened the fabric, and they were loaded down with helmets, heavy boots, rifles or mortars, grenades, ammunition, radios, and other tools of war. I now understand better why drowning was a major cause of death at Omaha Beach.
Once ashore, the invaders entered the killing zone. For the first wave, landing at dawn at low tide, it was pure hell. The Germans concentrated their fire on the GIs trying to struggle their way through the thousands of obstacles Rommel had placed on the beach. With rifle and machine-gun fire kicking up the sand, the Americans tried to crouch and run, but the weight of their waterlogged uniforms and equipment plus the wet sand made running impossible. A dozen veterans have used the same image to describe what it was like: the nightmare in which a demon is chasing you but your legs are so heavy you can’t run.
Many tried to hide behind Rommel’s obstacles. They were of all different types and descriptions, but the most common were six-foot sections of steel rails welded together as a tetrahedron. These only gave the illusion of protection—they were in fact often more dangerous than the open sand because they were topped with land mines. The Germans would wait until a group of GIs were behind such an obstacle, then fire at the mine to set it off.
Combat engineers coming ashore in the first waves had the job of blowing those obstacles before the tide covered them. Sergeant Vince DeNiccio of New York City told me that his toughest job was getting the men away from a tetrahedron so he could blow it up. As I made various runs across the beach, I could hear the surf and the laughter of children playing on the beach, but I had in mind what Vince had told me: The noise on the beach on June 6 was so great that he had to go up to an individual, cup his hands around the man’s ear, and shout as loud as he could, “Get the hell out of here—I’m going to blow this thing!”
Shingle runs parallel to and at the edge of the sand dunes. It consists of small round stones piled up about three feet high and fifteen feet wide. Many of the GIs hit the ground on the edge of the shingle, trying to use it for protection. It didn’t work: although they were then relatively safe from rifle fire, the Germans hit them with mortars. They clung there anyway, because a swamp lies between the dunes and the base of the bluff, and that swamp was full of barbed wire and land mines—and exposed to rifle fire.
I walked through the swamp with ease—today a raised, all-weather path leads through it. But when I thought of the men who decided that lying on their bellies behind the shingle, their noses in the sand, was only going to get them killed, and who then crossed the dunes, cut through the barbed wire, and started up the bluff—my admiration soared.
Looking up the bluff, I reminded myself that the brush and small trees that today make it such a lovely sight were all cut down in 1944. The bluff was crisscrossed with rifle pits and trenches, machine-gun pillboxes, and Tobruks. Barbed wire was everywhere.
The men who moved up the bluff were charging a replica of a World War I trench system: The rifle fire was intense; the machine-gun fire was interlocking; the mortars were presighted and active; the mines (which were not a feature of World War I) were everywhere. In the face of this, infantry worked their way up the bluff, got into and through the German trenches, and began pitching grenades into the pillboxes or picking off German soldiers in the Tobruks with their rifles.
Taking that bluff was one of the greatest feats in the history of the U.S. Army. The D-Day plan had been to move forward by going up the draws, at Colleville, Vierville, and Saint-Laurent. And in Darryl Zanuck’s movie version of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, that is the way it was done. In the climactic scene, a bangalore torpedo blows a gap in the barbed wire protecting the cement wall that blocks the draw. Men rush forward to place dynamite at the base of the wall. A plunger sets the explosive off; it blows a hole in the wall; GIs rush forward and up the draw. As Robert Mitchum, playing General Norman Cota, climbs into his jeep and drives up the hill, the music swells.
BUT CLIMBING THE BLUFF MYSELF, and listening to the veterans’ words on the tapes, I made a discovery: That wasn’t the way it happened. The victory was won by individuals and small groups struggling up the bluff. German defenses at the draws were too strong to be breached, and had to be outflanked.
In his oral history, Lieutenant John Spaulding told how. He was leading Privates Richard Gallagher and Bruce Buck.
As we climbed, we bypassed a pillbox, from which MG fire was coming and mowing down F Company people a few hundred yards to our left. There was nothing we could do to help them. We could still see no one to the right. We didn’t know what had become of the rest of our company. Back in the water, boats were in flames. After a couple of looks back, we decided we wouldn’t look back anymore.
About this time Gallagher said to follow him up the defilade, which was about 400 yards to the right of the pillbox. We were getting terrific small-arms fire. We returned fire but couldn’t hit them.
When Gallagher found the way up, I sent Buck back to bring up my men. [Buck returned with four men from the section.] I couldn’t take my eye off the machine gun above us, so Sergeant Bisco kept saying, “Lieutenant, watch out for the damn mines.” These were a little box-type mine, and it seems that the place was infested with them, but I didn’t see them. We lost no men coming through them, although H Company coming along the same trail a few hours later lost several men. The Lord was with us and we had an angel on each shoulder on that trip.
Trying to get the machine gun above us, Sergeant Blades fired his bazooka and missed. He was shot in the left arm almost immediately. Sergeant Phelps with his BAR [Browning automatic rifle] moved into position to fire and was hit in both legs. By this time practically all my section had moved up. We decided to rush the machine gun about fifteen yards away. As we rushed it, the lone German operating the gun threw up his hands and yelled, “Kamerad!”
Coming up along the crest of the hill, Sergeant Clarence Colson, who had picked up a BAR on the beach, began to give assault fire as he walked along, firing the weapon from his hip. He opened up on the machine gun to our right, firing so rapidly that his ammunition carrier had difficulty getting ammo to him fast enough.
With the strength of the German defenses at Omaha, and the enemy’s natural advantage due to the lay of the land, the question arises: Why on earth did Ike land there? The answer is, because he had to. Between the British right flank at Arromanches and the Carentan estuary, Omaha is the only beach available. Everywhere else, the Channel runs right up to the bluffs and cliffs, most spectacularly at Pointe du Hoc. Had the U.S. 1st and 29th divisions not gone ashore at Omaha, there would have been a 25-mile gap between the British right flank and the American left flank on Utah Beach. I walked on the edge of the bluff the entire twenty-five miles and can testify that there is not a single spot, other than Omaha, where an ordinary soldier could possibly get to the top.
I say “ordinary” because at Pointe du Hoc soldiers did make it from the base of the cliff to the top, but they were Rangers, elite troops specially trained and especially brave. The men of Colonel James Earl Rudder’s 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the cliffs using one of the oldest implements of war, the grappling hook. Looking at the vertical cliff today, with the sea dashing against the base, it just seems impossible that men could get up it under the best of conditions. Indeed, I had the best of conditions: I was determined to experience as much of the physical challenge of D-Day as I could. I wanted to secure a rope at the top of the cliff, then descend and climb back up it. But I didn’t make it. I chickened out. Rudder’s men did make it, carrying 60 to 100 pounds of equipment on their backs, despite German defenders firing down on them, dropping grenades over the edge, and cutting the climbing ropes attached to the grappling hooks.
For me, Pointe du Hoc is one of the premier World War II battlefields, not because it was the most important but because there is no better place in Normandy to see the scars and destruction of battle. The German fortifications rival the great World War I fortress at Douaumont north of Verdun. The steel-reinforced concrete casemates protecting the 155mm cannon are at least six feet thick. The casemates are connected by extensive tunnels that contain an underground railroad.
These casemates were pounded by 500-pound blockbusters dropped by the bombers and by huge shells from the fourteen-inch guns on British and American battleships. They were hit by thousands of tons of high explosive, equal to two or three tactical atomic weapons. The results were devastating. The place reminded me of Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain, except that these stones are fortifications blasted apart, lying at all angles. The bomb craters are huge.
THE D-DAY VETERANS ARE CAREFUL TO TELL ME that in many cases the German defenders were inferior troops. That was not so at Pointe du Hoc, where the Germans in the ruins kept fighting for two and a half days, inflicting nearly 75 percent casualties on Rudder’s Rangers. In other areas, however, and especially at Utah beach, the German soldiers surrendered at the first opportunity. In most cases, this was because they were not Germans but Poles, Russians, French, Belgians, and others forced into the Wehrmacht after capture in 1940 or 1941. There were thousands of such conscripts.
Some German units did fight effectively. Some fought magnificently. At Saint-Marcouf, about six miles north of Utah Beach, I found a tremendous German emplacement—four enormous casemates, each housing a 205mm cannon. I had read about the emplacement but had not previously been able to locate it. Those guns got into a duel with American battleships on D-Day and sank one destroyer. American infantry surrounded them on D-Day plus one. To hold the Americans off, the German commander called down fire from another battery some nine miles to the north, right on top of his own position. That, plus the pounding from American ships, kept the Americans at bay for more than a week while the German cannon continued to fire on Utah beach. The Germans surrendered when they ran out of ammunition.
Walking on top of the fortresses, I could see innumerable direct hits, all from big shells. They made little more than dents in the concrete. Crawling around inside, I marveled at the fortitude of the German gunners: the noise, the vibrations, the dust shaking loose, the terror they must have felt, along with bad water, stale bread, and no separate place to relieve themselves—and for nine days they kept firing.
Sainte-Mére-Eglise, a small village about six miles inland from Utah Beach, rivals Pointe du Hoc for fame, thanks in large part to Zanuck’s movie. The director took considerable liberties with the truth here, too, making the firefight in the square at Sainte-Möre-Eglise into a much bigger thing than it was. His most memorable scene, however—the one in which trooper John Steele (Red Buttons in the movie) caught his chute on the church steeple and hung there for hours playing dead—Zanuck underplayed. I know, because I got the hill story from trooper Ken Russell of the 82nd Airborne.
Ken was a 17-year-old then. As he was coming down, he saw three buddies land on telephone poles around the square: “It was like they were crucified there.” Next to him, another trooper had his grenades on his hip. A tracer bullet hit the grenades “and instantaneously there was just an empty parachute coming down.”
Standing in the square years later, I listened to Ken on the tape describe what happened next. There was a fire in the hay barn across the street, caused by tracers.
The heat drew the nylon chutes toward the fire. The air to feed the fire was actually drawing us towards the fire. One guy, I heard him scream, I saw him land in the fire. I heard him scream one more time before he hit the fire, and he didn’t scream anymore.
In the middle of the square is a Norman church. Ken jerked his suspension lines to avoid the fire, and as a result came down on the church’s steep slate roof. He slid. His chute caught on a steeple. He was hanging there when “John Steele came down, and his chute caught too.” Sergeant John Ray floated down past them. Ken says:
He hit in front of the church. A Nazi soldier, billeted on the next street behind the church, came around from behind, a red-haired German soldier. He came to shoot Steele and myself, hanging there. As he came around, he shot Ray in the stomach. John being a sergeant, he had a forty-five pistol and while he was dying in agony, he got his forty-five out and when this German soldier turned around to kill us, John shot the German in the back of the head and killed him.
Where the barn burned down, there is today the Parachute Museum, run by Phil Jutras, a World War II veteran who was a politician in Maine until 1972, when he decided to leave what he calls the “American rat race” and retire to this quiet Norman village. He married a local widow and began helping out at the small museum. Soon he became director. He has expanded it to include a C-47, a Waco glider, a tank, some artillery, a movie (in French and English), and, at the entrance, a full-scale model of a paratrooper.
Phil introduced me to locals who have filled me in on the events of 1944 at Sainte-Mére-Eglise. Over the years he has also passed on other stories he has heard from the veterans who come to see him and has guided me to many sites, such as General Matthew Ridgway’s command post and General James Gavin’s foxhole. For this portion of the story, I have also relied heavily on S. L. A. Marshall’s Night Drop. It is a book full of marvelous maps. A bit fanciful, it has been criticized by paratroopers and scholars. Nevertheless, I recommend it as the best and most vivid account of the action.
Confusion and chaos marked the night drop, and thus the after-action reports and later oral histories are contradictory. I have great sympathy for Marshall in his attempt to put together an authoritative account of a complex series of small actions.
At La Fiere, Captain Ben Schwartzwalder (later famous as the football coach at Syracuse) of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment led 44 men on a maneuver to capture a manor house next to a bridge over the Merderet River. Using football analogies, Marshall details the action minute-by-minute. Following step-by-step, I held my breath—figuratively—as I moved along beside a hedge and turned a corner. The manor loomed before me, the barns and house joined by connecting stone walls higher than a man.
“Held for downs, Schwartzwalder took time out,” Marshall relates. On the other side of the road, “Slim Jim Gavin arrived on the scene, in the van of his band of 300.” Unable to see through the hedgerow, Gavin was unaware of Schwartzwalder’s party, and he moved on.
I WAS TRYING TO PENETRATE THE HEDGE, to get a better fix on the positions of the American units, when I got hit by a foe that made further movement impossible. That foe is present in all the hedgerows and is mentioned by nearly all airborne veterans, but it is so commonplace that it makes almost none of the books. Nettles—they sting like fury. They cause a rash that lasts, a burning that is painful and maddening, and there is no remedy but time. In this one instance I had it worse than the men of D-Day, because their bodies were covered except for hands and faces, whereas I was wearing only a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts.
Everyone knows how the GIs cursed those hedgerows, even beyond the nettles, and what a barrier they were to offensive action, but you cannot appreciate why until you have seen them and tried to crawl through one. They dominate the terrain, making each tiny field a miniature fortress. They are anywhere from four to ten feet high and have only one gate, too narrow for a tank. The Germans set up their heavy machine guns in the two corners away from the gate, and pre-positioned mortar and artillery fire on the middle of the field. In the first days of the Battle of Normandy, the Germans would let unsuspecting GIs get into the field, then hit them with interlocking machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire.
One solution was to use dynamite to blast a hole in the hedge, then ram a tank into the hole and fire white phosphorous shells point-blank at the machine-gun positions. Another was to weld short sections of steel rails onto the front of a tank, then drive it into the hedge. The rails kept the Shermans from going belly-up. Here and there I thought I could see where a Sherman tank had penetrated a hedge, but after forty-five years I couldn’t be positive.
All along the French coast from Brest to Belgium and beyond, there are extensive German permanent emplacements. They range from small field fortifications to massive blockhouses that brought to my mind the Great Wall of China or the Maginot line. Built by millions of French slave laborers, they are unpleasant to look at, squat, gray, forbidding, in many cases their cannon still pointed out at the Channel.
The juxtaposition of these fortifications with the lovely Norman seaside—the villages, the cathedrals, the chateaus, the cattle and horses, and the friendly people—struck us hard. It is a sad and futile thing that the Germans spent four years putting prodigious effort into building projects that are now only symbols of ugliness, fear, and hate.
They paid for their offenses against the French people. We saw the consequences at Longues-sur-Mer, just outside Port-en-Bessin, where the Germans built a four-gun battery, set back about three-fifths of a mile from an observation on the edge of the bluff. Each 155mm cannon had its own casemate, built of steel-reinforced concrete about nine feet thick. The guns had a range of more than twelve miles and were thus capable of firing on both Omaha beach to the west and the British Gold beach to the east. On D-Day, however, they were mainly involved in fighting duels with cruisers and battleships offshore. HMS Ajax, already famous for sinking the Graf Spee in December 1939 off the River Plate, put three of the guns out of action.
The Royal Navy scored many direct hits on the casemates, but as at Pointe du Hoc and elsewhere, the damage was relatively slight. Even the biggest naval shells could not penetrate the concrete. To do any effective damage, the shells had to come right through the relatively narrow—ten feet at most—aperture, almost impossible with high-trajectory shells. Still, the Ajax did it. How?
I GOT THE ANSWER from André Heintz, one of the founders of the new D-Day museum in Caen. At age 17 in 1944, he was a member of the French resistance. André told me that when the Germans built the battery, they took away a farmer’s best field. The farmer wanted to fight back, and figured out a way to do so.
He had a teenage son who was blind. Like many blind people, the boy had a fabulous memory. The farmer filled his mind with details about the location of the guns—so many meters back from the bluff, so many meters from the crossroads, so many meters between the casemates, and much more. Because the boy was blind, the Germans paid little attention to him, hardly glancing at his papers, allowing him to travel more or less freely.
The boy journeyed to Bayeux, where he relayed the information to André Heintz. With his primitive, handmade radio set (now on display in the Caen museum), André sent the information on to England. From air reconnaissance and local resistance informants, the Allies already knew that there were emplacements on the bluff at Longues-sur-Mer, but they did not have the exact coordinates. Thanks to the farmer and his son, on D-Day they did.
But even with perfect intelligence and brilliant shooting, there was luck involved in the Ajax’s victory. Two of the guns were put out of action by shells that burst on the edge of the aperture, damaging the mounting and making the cannon immobile. With the third gun, the shell came right through the aperture and burst inside.
The Germans were great at conquering, terrible at occupying. They had an opportunity in France to play on traditional anti-British feelings, heightened by the British withdrawal from the Battle of France in June 1940, and on French fears of communism, to bring the French in on the new German order in Europe. Instead, they acted like beasts. The result was the French resistance, without which victory on D-Day would scarcely have been possible. That, at least, was Eisenhower’s judgment: He once told me the resistance was worth five divisions on D-Day.
The British and Canadian beaches—Gold, Sword, and Juno—are not so evocative of D-Day as Omaha and Utah, except at Arromanches, where the cement breakwaters for the artificial harbors can still be seen, and where the museum displays models that show how the system worked. The coast from Arromanches to Ouistreham at the mouth of the Orne River is a traditional vacation spot for the French middle class. Small cottages and shops now cover what was the battlefield. But by staying in small hotels or bed-and-breakfast places, we got to meet people who were there forty-five years earlier, and each of them had a story to tell.
ON THE MORNING OF D-DAY, Jacqueline Noel, 17 years old, pedaled her bike down to the beach at Ouistreham. She wanted to help. Because she was a nurse wearing a Red Cross armband, the Germans did not stop her. On the beach, she worked with the medics. She told me a story that made the sheer scope of D-Day vivid for me in a way that little else could.
About midmorning an Allied bomber was hit. Burning, it began descending in circles. “Everybody started watching,” she said, “Germans and British alike. It was obvious that the pilot was trying to find some open piece of water where he could safely ditch his plane. I looked at that armada of landing craft, LSTs, and all the rest, and could not see how he could ever find a place to land. The beach was so jammed with men, guns, and vehicles that it, too, was impossible.” Sure enough, the bomber crashed into an LCT.
We were sitting on the beach as she told me the story. The Channel was all but covered with French kids windsurfing, hundreds of them. Jacqueline said there were more landing craft on D-Day than windsurfers that day.
On the beach, she had met Lieutenant John Thornton. She got to know him better in the days that followed. After the war, they married; he took a job as a shipping clerk for a British steamship line, and they lived in Ouistreham. I discovered five other couples who met on D-Day, three British and two American, all still married.
John Thornton told a story that gave me a sense of the ferocity of the battle. He was an artilleryman. On D-Day plus five, he was riding a bike past an artillery park in an open field, a few miles inland. The guns had been firing constantly for three days. Suddenly, on signal, they all ceased firing at once. He was so stunned by the quiet—the first he had experienced since June 6—that he fell off his bike into a ditch, where he lay looking up at a clear blue sky. A lark flew over his head and sang.
Praise the Lord, he thought to himself. Life goes on.
And so it does. Normandy endures. Except for the military cemeteries and the German fortifications, it is not much different from the way it was a half century ago. The cream, the cheese, the seafood, the cider remain the best in the world. You sense the presence of William the Conqueror and the Normans in every church, in every village square, in every 1,000-year-old farmhouse or manor. Standing on the bluff looking down on Omaha beach, or among the sand dunes behind Utah beach, or among the hedgerows around you can also sense the ghosts of the men who died there on D-Day. MHQ
STEPHEN E. AMBROSE, an MHQ contributing editor, is the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. His most recent book is Band of Brothers (Simon & Schuster, 1992).
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1993 issue (Vol. 5, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: D-Day Revisited.
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