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The Longest Day

If one has ever seen the movie The Longest Day there are a few scenes and stories that stick in one’s head. For instance, one probably can recall the clickers that John Wayne’s character introduces to his paratroopers. One can find those in souvenir shops here (€3). Many students bought these things. They’re a little bit like Overlord’s Fidget Spinners©.

More to the point, we did get to Utah beach, which is famously enshrined in The Longest Day when Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., lands to find his unit has landed in the wrong spot. That’s okay, “We’ll start the war from here.” He then proceeded to lead his division in a flanking maneuver that, at relatively low loss of life, neutralized the German defenses there, clearing the way for Utah’s successful landing.

General Roosevelt's grave at Normandy American Cemetery. 

Ironically, at Omaha beach, missed landing destinations paved the way for near-catastrophe.
Lauren and I talked a little bit about why Roosevelt won the Medal of Honor. She’s a little frustrated: Was it just because he led a flanking maneuver prefaced by a great quotable line? How often do little guys (the grunts) and their heroics get overlooked? Did Sgt. Strezcek win one for finding a way off Omaha?

Some of our students scale the bluffs at Utah. 

Along Utah beach, looking north (well, the student pictured is actually gazing east, but you get the idea). 

Flags over the bluff at Utah.

Utah Beach is a wonderful site to visit though there’s not as much there that catches the eye. A good museum exists there, and I spoke of it and it’s B-26 in another post. Also, some good memorials there.

Allow me to pause for a minute about those memorials. There are several spaces there to memorialize the Naval and Coast Guard personnel lost in the invasion. My roommate on this trip is Paul, a retired Coast Guard Commander, so I guess that has made more inclined to look out for such acknowledgements. But I also wanted to offer that this trip has made me much more aware of and curious about these sailors who made the invasion possible. The famous opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan begins seeing Captain Miller and his unit on a Higgins boat as they are about to land on the beach. In the background, though, though there is an anonymous sailor steering the boat. He never has a line. He’s forgotten as soon as the gates lower.

One view of the sailors memorial at Utah. 

A view of Utah from the approximate location of the sailors memorial. 

But I’ve learned a lot about these sailors. First of all, he might not have been a Navy sailor. He may have been a Coast Guard sailor. They were deployed to a great extent in the invasion, crewing landing craft and searching for survivors. I pause when I think of men who signed on the Coast Guard who might not have had expectations of serving their country in this particular way. But they served.
Higgins boats had crews of four: a coxswain, a mechanic, two anti-aircraft gunners. In addition to taking men to the beach, they brought the wounded and the dead back off the beach. And they would repeat this throughout D-Day.

U.S. Coast Guard Memorial at Utah Beach 

The invasion armada was the biggest assemblage of ships ever. There were hundreds of warships involved pounding the beaches, sweeping for mines, and defensing against submarines. One destroyer that was sunk, Corry, was brought down when the plane providing it with a smokescreen was shot down, thus exposing it to German coastal batteries. However, it might be that a mine sunk it. Uncertain. The chaos of combat sometimes makes the exact cause uncertain. And there were hundreds and hundreds of sailors in the midst of that chaos, getting the invasion troops to and from the beach at risk of great personal harm.

The Institute has heightened my curiosity about the role of Naval and Coast Guard personnel in the invasion. It’s an aspect of the campaign that I have taken for granted, which is a shame, for the Navy exists as a means of projecting national power. And that invasion might have been the greatest expression of how the U.S. and Britain could express that power in 1944.

Whew. I thought I was talking about sites from The Longest Day. It’s dawning on me that the men in blue didn’t come up much in the movie.

The original bridge.

Where the original bridge stood.

First liberated house.

Monument at Pegasus Bridge site.

Another famous scene from The Longest Day involves the assault on Pegasus Bridge. An attack by British glider troops, this was meant to secure a crossing over the canal so that British troops wouldn’t get caught on the beach. Their mission called for great precision: glider pilots landing at very precise locations, squads that could neutralize and secure the bridge before the Germans could defend it or blow it up, holding the bridge until reinforcements arrive from the beach. These British troops’ landing was one of the earliest operations on Overlord. In fact, many say that the house and restaurant on the west bank of the bridge are the first buildings liberated in Occupied France. The bridge, with its distinctive hinge, still exists though it now rests at a museum about 200 meters away from the canal. A sturdier bridge now serves as the means of crossing the canal. This site was our first visit after arriving in Paris.

The irony of us visiting this site first, a site famous from The Longest Day, on our longest day isn’t lost on me. We woke around 6 am in College Park on Thursday, June 22. We eventually got to the airport, made our flight easily, and arrived in Paris around 6 am their time (or midnight EDT). We then drove three hours to Pegasus bridge. After visiting it and the museum, we snuck in another site before arriving at Bayeux, where we had dinner (most places don’t open until 7 pm) and finally got to bed around 10:00 pm. That’s almost 36 hours on the move!

I guess this post on The Longest Day is becoming the longest post. I better get cracking.

The church at St. Mere Eglese taken at the corner from which Sgt. Steele was hanging.

Note the dummy hanging from the steeple on which Sgt. Steele was caught.

Most students I talked with told me that this exhibit at the Airborne Museum in St. Mere Eglese was their favorite museum.

Perhaps the most famous scene from the movie involves an American airborne trooper whose parachute was caught in the steeple of the church at Ste. Mere Eglese. That was our first visit on the morning of our first full day in Normandy. Sergeant Steele was shot in the foot and feigned dead while his unit landed in the square below. His unit fell right into an accidental trap: a fire had broken out in a building before the troopers landed, and the garrison had come out as firefighters did their work. The German soldiers were in the right place at the right time to wipe out the American troopers. I learned recently that most airborne troops land with their rifles unavailable. Their Garands are disassembled and holstered so as to prevent damage to the weapon upon landing. Steele had no choice but to watch helplessly as his buddies were gunned down.

Small village church used as an aid station.

Stained glass pays tribute to liberators. 

The grave of one of the American medics who died in 2013.

We saw a few spots not featured in the movie as well. We toured a house that Germans had used as a headquarters and barracks for much of the occupation. We visited a village where three American medics turned a church into an aid station where nearly 100 men were treated, men who were American, German, and French. The three earned the admiration of the village’s inhabitants for their fearless work on the fallen throughout a chaotic night in which the church changed hands several times between American and German troops.

One of those medics who survived the war requested that he be buried there. His grave is in the cemetery. It’s a relatively new grave, marked very simply with his initials and his identification as a medic.

Part of me wonders if there are more sites we could have visited. Then answer is probably yes. But the vastness of this battlefield makes it impossible to see everything. And I can’t take for granted that all on this trip find such sites as interesting as I do. The students came here to honors soldiers, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as seeing battle sites. And had we packed our days too full, had we tried to put ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack, they might not have been able to eulogize their soldiers and bond with one another as meaningfully as they did. 


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