October 26, 2020

My day at D-Day

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 6 June 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – I was 16 in 1962 enjoying a student tour of Europe. We were in Paris and strict instructions specified that under no circumstances were we to leave the group. I left the group. My brother and I went to the railway station, he imploring me not go. But there was one hallowed site I was not going to miss.

Just 18 years earlier U.S., British, and Canadian troops had landed in Normandy on D-Day the 6th of June 1944. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded those forces, had just returned for a commemorative visit, and I was about to do the same, destination St. Laurent, the nearest rail stop to Omaha Beach.

The train compartment sat two or three people facing two or three other travelers. It was an adventure, all the more so because my two years of high school French language and culture were by no means sufficient, but when the young woman across from me began nursing her baby, I, like the other gentlemen, averted my eyes.

At St. Laurent, I made myself clear to the friendly owners of a bakery, asking, “Ou est le taxi?” They made the appropriate call, and the next stop was Omaha Beach. Unlike today, when sunbathers populate the sandy stretch, in 1962, I was completely alone. To the west was Utah Beach where the U.S. 4th Infantry Division landed. To the east, were Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches where the British and Canadians went in, but there was not a soul in sight in either direction.

On Omaha Beach, the fighting had been in the words of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, “A near run thing.” Two U.S. divisions came ashore there: The 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One, a renowned regular Army unit and the 29th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit, dubbed the Blue and Gray Division because it was made up of soldiers from Virginia and Maryland. The 116th Regiment of the 29th even traced its roots back to Stonewall Jackson’s famous Stonewall Brigade, but on Omaha Beach another form of fame attached: the regiment’s A Company included soldiers from tiny Bedford, Virginia, population 3,200, and 22 of them perished during the battle for Normandy. It was the highest casualty rate suffered by any American community during the war.

So here I was where they had fought, on a wide beach ending at the foot of a steep escarpment. How could they survive across the open ground? How could they get through or over the escarpment? Here were the obstacles to pierce the landing craft. Here were the German bunkers, positioned to create a murderous crossfire. The cemetery was up on the high ground, not visible from the beach, so these objects of war were the only monuments on this untouched battlefield – these and the conjured scene of duty-bound soldiers simultaneously striving to obey orders and outrace death. Surrounded by their images, I was not alone after all.

The mind expands in such an other-world expanse. It visualizes and senses the eerie reality of a time brought forward and creates a permanent imprint. So seven years later, when my time in combat came, it would not be my first encounter with the horrors of war. That came on my day at D-Day.

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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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