I remember the two days we were there in the late spring of 1984, how blue the sky and the ocean were. That hadn't been the case, the historians assured me, forty years earlier. It was soothing to see how the sand seemed to go on on forever along the shoreline but, when you turned to face inland from the beaches, how quickly the landscape changed to thick bushes, scrub trees, rocky terrain. I found it hard to imagine what it all must have looked like as the landing craft lowered their ramps and men and machines poured from them struggling to cross the water to the beach all in the face of murderous counter-fire.
I was traveling with a US Army Helicopter Company from Hanau, Germany, to walk the beaches of Normandy, France. I had come with a young enlisted US Army videographer, Specialist Four Bob (the Human Sachtler) Garvin. Bobby G was over six feet tall and had, it seemed, enough upper body strength to crush an automobile like a beer can. We called him the Human Sachtler because there wasn't a shot where he needed the camera tripod-between the arms of steel and the ability to control his breathing, he was as steady as a rock.
Walking, as we did for hours in the sand, can wear you out and the fatigue is profound. I could only wonder what, on D-Day, a GI with a seventy pound rucksack, and all hell in front of and around him, was feeling on what we now call the longest day. We had done interviews earlier that morning with elderly Frenchmen who, as men our present ages and sometimes only boys, had been inadvertent witnesses to history, triangulating linguistically, as they spoke no English and we, no French. One of them, to the undisguised scorn of the others, admitted he understood 'some German' and so I would ask him auf Deutsch a question that he would rephrase into French and ask of a neighbor who would reply to him and which he'd relay to me in German and which I'd translate into English.
When you read about Normandy and all the planning and staging that lead up to it, it feels very different when you can walk the beaches you've read about. There's a taste in your mouth from the salt air and a breeze coming off the water that helps the screams of gulls carry even farther. I wonder if those struggling ashore, from the landing craft or parachuting down onto those maintaining their watch on the Atlantic Wall had a moment in which to take any of that in--on a day when so many would die, was there a split second to savor life? There was no one to ask except those we visited the next day, friend and foe alike, at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
When you can struggle to climb to Pointe du Hoc (up the stairs carved into the soft stone and NOT the way the Rangers had to, directly vertical), you can almost, but not quite, grasp what it was like for the soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, first to seize this emplacement (actually to capture artillery that had already been moved) and then, as the Nazi High Command realized, finally, the invasion wasn't a ruse but the real thing, and threw itself at the Rangers trying to drive them over the cliffs and into the sea, how they held their positions for two days.
Today, June 6, 2009, we mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the liberation of Europe from the tyrannical, homicidal terror of the Nazi's Third Reich. Young American men had been in Europe thirty years earlier, in the War to End All Wars that, as it turned out, didn't. And what they couldn't know as they waded ashore and struggled to stay alive long enough to shoot back at those shooting at them, in less than a year, all the shooting in Europe would be over.
How much we've learned as a species sixty five years on is a matter of debate and discussion (and for some, despair) as the young men, of all sides, who survived D-Day pass from our earth at a rate of thousands everyday, taking with them every memory and meaning we might have shared, assuming we had cared enough to ask. Santayana noted that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' but those who remember it was Santayana who said this are also few and far between. "Say a prayer for the common foot soldier. Spare a thought for his back breaking work."