Tomorrow is the 65th Anniversary of the Normany landing. This is an appropriate piece to be on the front page -- promoted by teacherken
(This is a companion piece to go with "I Remember Pearl Harbor," posted on RaisingKaine)
By June of 1944 I was at the end of eighth grade in upstate New York public school; next year would be high school, but first we students had to survive the New York State Regents' exams, a series of lengthy state-wide examinations in each of our subjects, conducted with all the formality and tension of ancient Chinese Mandarin exams, and every bit as crucial to one's future. In those days graduating from what we called Junior High (now known as "middle school") was a real milestone; many if not most of my fellow students would go straight into the work force and never attend school again. In fact, finishing eighth grade in those days was quite an honor since many left school after sixth grade, so the hurdle of the fiendish Regents' caused fear and trembling. My first Regents' exam was on the 6th of June.
During the previous winter I had had polio, was temporarily unable to walk, and had just recovered but was still unsteady on my pins. School was about a mile from our house; thanks to gas rationing (we had an "A" card) I had to waver to school and back every day on my own, but on the morning of the 6th my Mother drove me to school. Not because I had trouble walking, but because we wanted to listen to the news on the car radio. The Allies had started landing in Normandy, and we knew my father was there, since he commanded an infantry battalion in the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.
|This would be his third amphibious landing, having landed at Oran in Algeria (Vichy French North Africa), fought in Tunisia at the Kasserine Pass against von Rommel, and then going ashore in Sicily where he survived a gigantic tank battle at Gela and suffered from malaria throughout the campaign.... But this was going to be a thousand times worse, attacking Festung Europa defended by the determined Wehrmacht and Nazi SS. In these days of television and ubiquitous journalists with their cameraman sidekick embedded in a combat unit recording everything for television, it is hard to convey how listening to a scratchy radio voice embedded in the dashboard can fill your mind with horrifying, vivid pictures, or convey so much desperate fear and bravery. Every word was important, even if it made no sense.
We were going into Normandy, not Calais? There were no harbors there, how would we land, how would we re-supply our soldiers? Everything was confused, according to the reporters: wave after wave of fighter-bombers, airborne landings inland, continuous bombardment from naval vessels, literally thousands upon thousands of landing craft loaded with troops, some were sunk before they ever reached shore, everyone drowned; huge German bunkers facing the water, big iron tank traps that looked like gigantic jacks from ball-and-jacks; a first wave of landings, a second, a third coming one after the other, thousands upon thousands of troops; cliffs that had to be climbed by the troops after wading ashore through heavy machine gun fire, loaded with combat packs and weapons, and no cover anywhere.
The Canadians, as I recall, were at Juno, we were at Omaha Beach, Easy Red; the Allies were sinking their own vessels off shore to create an artificial harbor, that's how we were going to accomplish re-supply. Then I had to go into school for my two exams that day (I took a brown bag lunch since I could not walk well enough to make it home and back during the noon hour). Many, many years later I saw the movie Saving Private Ryan and, based on what I heard my father and his companions say later, this is one movie that got it right (it was so true that I saw old men sit in their theater seats with tears running down their faces).
Of course there was no identification of units, so we had no idea where my father was, and there was no indication of casualties, but we were certain he was at Omaha Beach. Between questions on the Regents' exam I wondered what the news was now, but it would have to wait until late afternoon when I could leave school. As it happened, I remember nothing about the exams, but it turned out I did well, even acing the first one on the 6th of June, and would have been given a big fifty dollar award (quite a sum of money in those days) by the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion but for the fact that the ladies refused to give the award to a female, and instead gave it to the top boy behind me. Such were the times back then.
It was well over a month before a V-letter arrived (V-letters for "victory" were tissue thin stationery with a blue and red border that we used to write letters back and forth; they were censored). Yes, my father had landed at Omaha, the First Division suffered "quite a few" casualties, why conceal something by then well-known. After the war, I heard him talk with buddies, and learned that the young Navy Ensign commanding his landing craft was afraid he would lose his ship to German bombardment if he took the craft to the shore, he wanted to open the doors and dump the troops into deep water where they would have drowned, so my father pulled his 45 (officer's side arm) and threatened to shoot; the ensign did take his vessel closer in. By the time we received his first V-letter, they had fought off the beaches and were inland. Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, whom we knew, son of T.R. the President, was killed accidentally by our own bombers in Normandy. Our men linked with the 82d Airborne which landed in the early hours of the invasion behind enemy lines, (my father was later Assistant Division Commander of the 82d at Fort Bragg). Our troops were now into the hedgerows of Normandy. I seldom hear anyone talk about the hedgerows now, but they were a nightmare, dense thicket-fences that cris-crossed the fields and shielded sunken roads which too often held Germans in ambush.
My mother knit khaki colored ribbed wool socks for my father throughout the war, and she sent off big bundles every month. In that war, the infantry still usually walked to work (no Humvees then), and he wore the socks out in vast numbers. She never sat with idle hands, but click, click, click went those British steel needles, turning the heel without ever having to watch what she was doing, though even then she suffered from the beginnings of arthritis in her fingers. Meanwhile, German V-1 and then V-2 rockets began hitting London and ports like Antwerp. Thank heavens they did not begin to fall until after our troops and supplies had moved off the island and into the invasion. British friends told us the V-1s were terrifying because you could hear them whistle as they dove to earth and you could anticipate your death for several minutes until they hit; the V-2's were probably more destructive, but being ballistic you never heard them ahead of time.
After working their way through the hedgerows, they raced across France (that was the time Patton's tanks outran his supply of gasoline and he had to slow down). We expected the next horrendous battle would be crossing the Rhine into Germany, but as it turned out it was the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.