Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day: Let's Go!

Today, the media is flooded with commemorations and tributes to the men who fought for a foothold on the continent of Europe seventy years ago. The powerful ceremony in Normandy has done fitting honor to these veterans.  The BBC played recordings from seven decades ago, giving a sense of how precarious the operation must have seemed at the time to all who lived through that day.

What more can I add? There is little I can say that will further illustrate the scope or significance of D-Day. Books and movies capture the drama and emotions of that event far better than my mere words can.  So let me pay tribute to one man who set foot on Omaha Beach among the wreckage of his division and plunged into the cauldron of the Normandy hedgerows for six weeks before he received a million dollar wound outside of St. Lo: my grandfather.

Grandpop Rabuck fought in Company E of the 175th Infantry Battalion, which served in the 29th Infantry Division.  The 175th was in reserve, landing on D Day+1. They missed their landing point by a mile and a half, and they had to walk along the beach seeing the carnage that had been wrought upon their fellows in the 115th and 116th.  Their struggle was portrayed in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Journalist Ernie Pyle accompanied them, and his words capture both the hope and horror of that moment.

The photo above is the memorial to the men of the 29th, sitting at the base of the Vierville draw, the path up the bluffs from Omaha that the early assaults failed to capture.  The 29th is still remembered fondly in France, and a candy maker in Isigny produced a commemorative box of caramels in their honor.  Below is the larger (and sort of ugly) memorial to the National Guard units who fought in WWII, of whom the 29th was one. They were true citizen soldiers.

The blue and grey design of the 29th Divisional patch signifies that the unit was originally raised in the border states. Most of the men in the unit came from Maryland and Virginia. I'm not sure how my grandfather ended up there.

This is the view of Omaha from Vierville-sur-Mer looking east. The beach has changed a lot since 1944.  That changeability was one of the challenges planners had to contend with on D-Day. Normandy tides and weather can be brutal.  I'm glad I got to visit on a day that evoked June 6, 1944. Our guide said many people appear puzzled on sunny summer days, when locals treat the beach like a beach.    

This has to be the saddest miniature golf courses in the world.  We're at the same spot looking west here. The Pointe du Hoc is cropped off on the right of the photo.  You can see the students I accompanied heading up to one of the German gun casements.  No wonder the preliminary bombardment did little to make the beaches much safer for the landing force.

After our visit to Omaha, we took a tour of a calvados distillery just off the beach (yeah, I took high school students to a place where they make booze. Deal with it).  The owner's parents were present for D-Day. I have no doubt that their property was devastated in the assault.  But he showed nothing but gratitude to the Allies. He even told us about his trip to the states and brought out this banner for a photo op.

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