Today marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. My husband Roland and I were there Memorial Day weekend. As we drove about, the story of D-Day Plus took shape. Many of the grim engagements in the early hours and days after D-Day involved hand-to-hand combat. It wasn’t long before we became overwhelmed by the enormous cost of liberation. Crossroads are marked with memorial stones. American flags fly alongside French at public buildings and in town squares where monuments to the fallen are on solemn display.
You can read about these sacrifices in the history books, but seeing evidence of it in the French countryside is nonetheless sobering. It makes you ponder past, present and future.
The people of France continue to remind us of the steep cost of hate, division and war. They go to great lengths to honor sacrifices of Allied troops. They know war’s awful burden. They have in their history been the refugee. They have been the homeless and the hungry. They know the cruel ironies of war, even in victory. Collateral damage from Allied bombing raids wiped out thousands of French civilians in the midst of saving the rest. As the French say, “C’est la vie.”
D-Day 2019 marks the last big reunion of men and women who were actually there. Soon it will be up to us to tell the story. What we saw in the countryside is heartening. They honor and remember. And they make sure their children and their children’s children remember.
On D-Day, 31-year-old Army Private John Steele’s parachute was snagged by a gargoyle on the Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption church in the very first village liberated in the Allied invasion. The Illinois native dangled there while the battle raged below in the town square. The Germans eventually cut him down. He was held prisoner a few hours. Somehow he escaped. He survived the war. Today an effigy of Pvt. Steele still hangs from that corner of the church, complete with billowing parachute. A tavern a few blocks away is a shrine to what happened that night and to the friendship Steele developed with the people of Sainte-Mère-Église.
Allied troops were slowed by the hedgerows that lined the fields in Normandy. Progress was measured by meters and casualties. Two soldiers, Sgt. Curtis Culin and a “hillbilly” soldier we know only as Roberts came up with a crazy idea: Take the iron from German beach fortifications and make teeth to go along the front of tanks. Much like a rake, these teeth cut through the dense foliage. This put the Germans on the run. A young man from New Jersey and a farm boy from Tennessee put their heads together and developed a solution that saved lives.
Farther south, we climbed famed Hill 314 in Mortain. There Army Capt. Reynold Erichson’s unit from the 30th Infantry Division found itself surrounded by Hitler’s army, whose mission was a counteroffensive to drive Allied forces back into the sea — an effort that required removal of Erichson’s hilltop advantage. French Resistance smuggled in what they could to help these besieged infantrymen hold their roadblock. With the troops running low on food, ammunition and medicine, the Air Corps tried unsuccessfully air-dropping supplies. Then Lt. Col. Lewis D. Vieman, an Army artillery officer, decided to empty propaganda canisters, reload them with supplies and fire them into the area held by the 30th Infantry. This quick thinking allowed the Americans to hold the high ground on Hill 314 and direct fire against the Germans for several days. Again, innovation kept the unit going till the Germans were forced to retreat. The march on to Berlin continued. Abandoned: any notion of pushing the Allies back into the sea.
Then there is the story of the Red Ball Express. Predominantly African-American truck drivers were tasked with hauling in fuel and supplies as Allied forces fought their way farther and farther into the interior. These convoys ran day and night, and on roads scarred and pitted by bombs and battle, to keep Allied forces supplied with food and ammunition. Night driving had to be done without headlights to avoid detection. With the skill and determination of these drivers, fighting troops had what they needed to continue pounding away at Hitler’s army. The Red Ball Express provided the momentum for the Allies to push the German Army back toward the Rhine.
As we traveled, signs of the struggle to defeat the Third Reich remained evident. Museums celebrate stories of the home front, the children, teachers and clergy. The message is clear: Many thousands of people under the thumb of the German occupation did not go quietly. They collaborated. They provided intelligence. They brought food and water to the hard-pressed GI.
June 6, 1944, was just the beginning of a long and costly struggle to rid the world of a brutal dictator. The price the Allies paid on the beaches must never be forgotten. But the tedious, thankless work of trucking supplies, fighting from town to town, pushing back four years of oppression and cruelty must be remembered too. The fields of Normandy are serene and peaceful today because of the dogged determination of what Allied forces did on June 6 and every day afterward till the job was done.
To remember is to honor.