April 30, 2016


On Seeing Omaha Beach (REGIS MARTIN, 4/29/16, Crisis)

Of the dozen or so cemeteries scattered across Europe where the remains of America's fallen heroes may be found, the Memorial at Omaha Beach is surely the most moving, its nearly two-hundred acres covered with the crosses of over nine thousand soldiers, including their 149 Jewish comrades, whose graves are adorned with the Star of David. Destined to spend their last desperate hours on the beaches and cliffs of Normandy, they died as Americans; which is to say, without distinction of creed, color, or condition, enfolded forever as brothers in a common cause. And should you decide to visit the American cemetery in Normandy, as I and my family recently did, which stands gleaming and white upon the hill high above the wide and now deserted beach far below, and walk row by row through all those lovely marble graves marking the spot where so many young men are buried, it will break your heart.

The sheer scale of the sacrifice borne by those brave men is staggering. Not only were thousands pinned down by withering machine gun fire coming from hidden bunkers embedded in the hills high above the beach, but so many young lives were lost even before reaching the line of shore, their bodies washed up by the sea. So bloody and chaotic a mess was the battle for Omaha Beach that General Omar Bradley, who commanded American ground forces in what became the largest and most ambitious amphibious assault ever mounted in human history, very nearly ordered an evacuation. Such was the level of carnage along the disaster-strewn beach that by midday he was prepared to believe the worst--that his men "had suffered an irreversible catastrophe," and the German positions simply could not be overrun.  It was only later, of course, on learning that the attack had indeed moved further inland that he began to hope the outcome might be different.

And as everyone now knows, the fabled Atlantic Wall, which had been so carefully constructed and massively maintained by the armies of the Reich, once breached, could mean only one thing: Germany had lost the war. D-day was, without doubt, the single most decisive military engagement of the Second World War. All that followed was really only a series of mopping up exercises pursuant to persuading the enemy to lay down its weapons; which Germany definitively did, less than one year later, on May 7, 1945, leaving the Thousand Year Old Reich in ruins.

But who could possibly have known any of that on the morning of June 6, 1944, when wave upon wave of American infantry hit the beach, inching its way ever so tenuously up the most heavily fortified coastline in the world?  Surely not the soldiers of the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions, who fell by the thousands before finally breaking through what had clearly been designed as an absolutely impregnable series of coastal defenses. "It is on the beaches that the fate of the invasion will be decided," observed the famous Desert Fox, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, whom Hitler had personally dispatched to the scene, ordering him not merely to hold the line but to repel the invaders, throwing them all back into the sea. "The battle belonged that morning," as Gen. Bradley was later to express it, "to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the channel coast of France." Who would not retreat, would not cut and run, despite every possible obstacle arrayed against it.  As Colonel George A. Taylor bluntly put the matter, reporting from the very thick of it: "There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here!"

We stayed in Paris for a week several years ago and it was a dump.  The museums are cool, but any time you were outside of them it was dirty, noisy and the people were unpleasant.  But we also went to Normandy to ride the train and see the beaches, cemetery and the Bayeux tapestry.  That trip was totally worthwhile.  One of the most interesting things that you notice is just how small the beaches were where combat took place.  It seems like the cemetery is bigger.  And the sea of white grave markers is as overwhelming in its own way as the Vietnam Memorial.

Posted by at April 30, 2016 8:52 AM