Mission Impossible for American troops at Omaha Beach...
Bill Bonner, reckoning today from Normandy, France...
On our way out of Ireland yesterday, we stayed overnight at the Conrad Hotel in Dublin. This is the hotel where Joe Biden stayed when he was in town. It’s a favorite for Americans.
We’re traveling with a 15-year-old grandson.
“Did you see them?” he asked at breakfast.
“Is that a breakfast drink?”
“Grandad, the Wu Tang Clan are staying here. I saw them in the lobby.”
“Is that a Scottish clan?”
“No Grandad, they’re a famous band. You’re not keeping up with popular culture.”
“I try not to.”
We set off later for the ferry, spent an agreeable night, and arrived in Cherbourg in the morning.
“Can we go see the D-Day beaches?” came the question.
A Bit of History
Normally, we drive down the Cotentin peninsula without stopping. Many times, we have driven past the Pointe de Hoc, Utah Beach, and Ste. Mere Eglise. But yesterday, by request, we paid a visit to honor the WWII dead and give a 15-year-old a bit of US history.
First stop was Ste. Mere Eglise, the little town made famous in the movie, ‘The Longest Day.’ On June 6, 1944 John Steele, a young US paratrooper, with the 505th Parachute Infantry found himself hanging from the church steeple with the Germans beneath him. His parachute had gotten caught one of the spires. His only option was to play dead.
Finally, the Germans realized he was alive. They cut him down and took him prisoner. Later, in the confusion, he escaped and rejoined the battle.
Today, in Ste. Mere Eglise, a dummy dressed as a paratrooper dangles from the spire and restaurants and bars around the square invite tourists. There is also a museum where visitors get a more detailed and personal look at the WWII battle.
The paratroopers were dropped on the eve of the D-Day invasion. Their job was to secure the roads and bridges to prevent the Germans from sending reinforcements to the beaches. They floated down from the sky at night, hoping the darkness would hide them from German gunners. At Ste. Mere Eglise, however, a large house somehow caught fire that night, lighting up the night sky. Many of the paratroopers were shot before they touched the ground.
The Drop Zone
In the museum, too, is a life-sized replica of a WACO glider, built in Troy, Ohio. It is a remarkably flimsy aircraft, with an aluminum tube frame covered in a tough fabric of some sort. In it were packed a group of 12 soldiers and their gear. The gliders were towed to the drop zone. Then, with no lights and no motor, the idea was for the plane to land, unnoticed, behind enemy lines.
As you can imagine, things went wrong. Many of the paratroopers drowned in fields that had been flooded by the Germans. Many were simply lost, scattered over a large area and unable to form up into fighting units. And many of the gliders crashed into trees or swamps, killing their passengers.
France was controlled by the pro-German Vichy government in 1944. So, when the allies landed in Normandy, the toady press went to work dutifully reporting on how the assault had failed. This is a newspaper on display at the museum. It tells us that in the Cotentin peninsula, the “American paratroopers are encircled, suffering enormous losses.”
The headline might have been literally true. The paratroopers did suffer huge losses…and they were encircled (that was the idea; they were dropped behind enemy lines). But they soon went to work. They took control of roads. They blocked bridges. And they seized towns, including Ste. Mere Eglise.
Much of the town was destroyed. But the exhibits focused on the victory…and how it was quickly followed by amity between French civilians and US soldiers. The French had been living on short rations for the four years of German occupation. They were happy to see the well-supplied, friendly yanks sharing their cigarettes and chewing gum.
Revisionist WWII historians have tried to show how the American army was not very different from other armies – brutish, racist, sexist…mistreating prisoners and indifferent to the suffering of civilians. But there is no evidence of it in Ste. Mere Eglise. American soldiers are portrayed as heroes, who sacrificed their own lives to liberate the French. There are photos of them, from Pittsburgh, Boston, Amarillo… they appear as a genuine cross-section of America in the 1940s. We can read their letters home. We see them happily fraternizing with the local people.
“Wasn’t your father in the Army, Grandad?”
“Yes, he was…almost everybody was, I guess.”
“Was he here in France?”
“No…he was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed…and then he fought the war in the Pacific.”
“Oh. I guess you’re proud of him.”
The theme continued at La Pointe du Hoc, down the coast, dominating Omaha Beach. We were looking at America in what many people think was its finest hour.
Driving into town, there were photos of American soldiers hanging from light posts…Sgt. Tawney…Pvt. Lansdale…Cpl. Johnson…and hundreds of others. They did their deeds almost 80 years ago. But they are still remembered here…though perhaps more for the tourists than the locals.
The landscape is impressive and beautiful. High cliffs surround the now-deserted beaches. At the center is the ‘pointe,’ where the Germans had built a remarkable cluster of concrete fortifications to anchor their ‘Atlantic Wall.’
In the early days of the war, it was thought that Normandy might provide the Germans with a threshold from which to invade England. But by 1944, the war was clearly going the other way. And now the Germans needed a wall to keep the English out.
As the gliders and parachutes were coming down a few miles inland, the bulk of the invasion force was gathering off the coast. More than three hundred thousand soldiers and sailors, from more than a dozen allied nations, were preparing the assault. Among them were 225 members of the US Army Rangers, who had practiced on the Isle of Wight and carried with them 100-ft ladders taken from London firefighters. Their mission was to climb up the rock face and take the Germans’ gun emplacements.
Walking around yesterday, it looked to us like a ‘mission impossible.’ The Germans had dug in and created elaborate fortifications of reinforced concrete 2 meters thick, connected by tunnels and trenches. Some of the structures had been damaged by artillery, but even today, many are intact and appear invulnerable. At the ‘pointe,’ for example, is a round stronghold with an open gun port that sweeps around covering much of the coast. How anybody could have gotten near enough to capture it, against determined defenders, is not at all obvious.
A Mobile War
But they did. The first Ranger had scaled the cliff within 5 minutes of the landing. He was able to provide covering fire so that others could make it up. It was only a few minutes later that they discovered how the fog of war had completely obscured their mission. They were supposed to put the German’s big artillery out of action. But there were no big guns; they had already been removed. Nor did the Germans miss their heavy fortifications. The real battle quickly left the beaches and shifted to the fields and hedgerows of Normandy. It was a mobile war…not a war of trenches and battlements.
Of the 225 Rangers who attacked the Pointe du Hoc, 77 were killed and 152 were wounded. All are heroes in Normandy.
“Grandad, do you think they have museums and monuments like these in Iraq? I mean, honoring Americans for liberating them?”
We presumed it was a provocative question; we didn’t need to answer.