D-Day: “This is holy ground!”

“Look around you,” he told us.

The man was Dutch:  middle-aged, husky, normally friendly — but now turned serious.

We were five Americans that he was talking to.  We were standing on the wet sand of Omaha Beach.  It was 56 years after D-Day.  A drizzling rain made the setting with the actual day of the invasion more fitting.

“Look around you,” said our Dutch guide.  “Notice — you don’t see anybody playing with a beach ball. You don’t see any hotel development — no golf courses.”

He was contrasting Omaha Beach, the site of the deadliest fighting on June 6, 1944, with the other landing zones of that historic day.  Even 56 years later, he said, you can feel it.

“It’s in the AIR,” he barked.  Meaning, the atmosphere — the awareness of what happened.  “This is holy ground!”

I was standing on the wet sand in a rain coat.  I bent over and scooped up a handful of sand, putting it into a plastic sandwich bag.  I would bring that sand back to a middle-aged mom in my congregation near Madison, Wisconsin.  Her father had been one of the first to step foot onto Omaha Beach when it was aflame with bullets and bombs and the dead and screaming.  The invasion would succeed because of 18-year-olds who would become fathers like hers.

The French don’t call D-Day “the invasion.”  They are sensitive to the idea of their own land being invaded.  Rather, they call it “the landing.”

The accomplishment, establishing a beachhead in a Europe that had ben under control of the Nazis, meant that four years of warfare on the continent would end in only 11 more months.

To get an idea of how vast the invasion was, when you visit the beaches, to do it properly, you need the entire day.  The beaches stretch for 60 miles!

There were five of  us — Americans — a newlywed couple and the bride’s parents — and me.  Our guide was an expert in all things D-Day.  In fact, since our group was so small, he took us places he would not normally go with a larger entourage.  Some miles inland from Omaha Beach, he took us to a village where there was an old, white-washed, stone church — a simple, plain, village church that would not seem to be anything so special as to draw any tourist’s interest.

We followed him inside the church.  It felt musty — from the dampness of the rain.  We didn’t know why he took us inside of this particular church.  But he allowed us to wander for a while.  We went up & down the center aisle, looking around.  Finally, he directed our attention to the pews.  The color of the pews was mixed — an aged, dark brown — but with a mixture of dark red deeply set in the wood.

Those are blood stains, he told us.  This church was made into a hospital during the battle.

I had been in touch with this Dutch guide before leaving Wisconsin for the trip.  I had found him through a travel guide by Rick Steve. I contacted the Dutch man by e-mail. He recommended that I watch the movie The Longest Day to help prepare myself for what we would see.  We would see some of the same sites that are in the movie.

All the more enthusiastically, I read the book from which the movie The Longest Day was made.  The book was written by a Dublin native, a war correspondent, Cornelius Ryan.  He researched the story for nearly 15 years before it was published in 1959.

His masterpiece became the source book for all other writings about the invasion.

I had seen the movie several times before finally getting around to reading the book (an American trait if every there was one!).  I was amazed at how few liberties the film took.  The main “inaccuracies” with the book were a couple of occasions when two characters were collapsed into one (as in the film when two American generals are portrayed as the actions of one — Gen. Manuel Cota — played by Robert Mitchum).

One other liberty that the film took was — in the movie, the village of Ouistreham, where there was a casino harboring a German cannon — was in reality a different village.  The film-makers liked the setting of this other village better than the real one in Ouistreham.

No problem.

Another slight change from the book concerns the incident where an American paratrooper (played in the movie by Red Buttons) got snagged on the spire of a church in St. Mere Eglise (“Holy Mother Church”).  It really did happen.  In fact, today there’s a mannequin of an American paratrooper hanging from his parachute on the spire that you can see as soon as you pull into the tourist parking lot.  The slight liberty is that in real life, the soldier was hanging from the opposite side of the steepled roof.  But that other side is not visible from the parking lot!

All such changes between the movie and the book are trivial.  All may be forgiven.  One thing the film-makers did very well was something I didn’t pick up on until I had seen the movie a few times.

It took me a few times to notice the directing that switched the scene back & forth, again & again, from the GI’s awaiting the “go” signal as contrasted with the high officers who were huddling with Eisenhower over the decision.  The GI’s were occupied in the most harmless of pursuits — gambling, gossiping, visiting one another, trying to catch an hour of sleep…The film-maker kept shifting back & forth between these young 18-19-20-year-olds acting like typical Americans trying to find ways to kill time vs. the heavy burden that Eisenhower and other high officers were placing on the backs of these young men.

In his book D-Day, author Stephen Ambrose wrote that most of these GI’s had never seen combat.  Their lack of awareness of what they would be getting into — he said — was one of the factors in the success of the invasion.  More experienced soldiers would have been more cautious.  These 18-20-year-olds stormed the beaches!

What a heavy fate the leaders of the free world placed on the backs of those young men!  One moment (as shown in the film) they looked like typical American  teenagers with a few hours to find something to do with — the next moment, they were hurtling themselves into ferocious firefights.  They were relied upon to spearhead the largest amphibious landing in world history!

They did it in coordination with English, Welsh, Scot, Irish, Canadian — and the French underground.  All of their national flags were flying in every village all over Normandy that we party of six travelled through on that day 46 years later.

The actual participants are becoming fewer & fewer.  In 20 years, there will be none left.  It will be interesting to see what becomes of the day.

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