Saturday, June 6, 2009

Thoughts on D-Day, 65 years later

President Barack Obama in Normandy today paid eloquent tribute to the many who sacrificed so much to liberate Europe from the grip of the Nazis so long ago. President Nicolas Sarkozy, Prince Charles, PM Gordon Brown, and German Chancellor (“Kanzlerin”) Angela Merkel were also in attendance.

The “greatest generation” is dying; the youngest vets are now in their 80s. Poignantly, one very ill veteran made the trip to Normandy and died in his sleep last night after visiting the graves of his buddies in one of the huge American cemeteries near Caen; President Obama acknowledged his passing in today’s address.

It was a quiet day here in Aix-en-Provence. In between spasms of work, I am in the midst of reading Paroles du Jour J—“Words from D-Day,” a collection of first-person accounts and letters and diary entries from French, U.S., British, Canadian, and… German soldiers.

The cover photo is of a young Canadian man, Robert Boulanger, the youngest in his company, just barely turned 18, who had joined the expeditionary forces against his parents’ wishes. He was shot in the head as he hit the beach during the Allies’ disastrous attempt to return to the continent at Dieppe in August 1942. (Nearly 60% of the 6000+ Allied soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured during this raid, which occurred while the Nazis were at the height of their strength.) Robert’s last letter was an apology to his parents for causing them such grief by enlisting. Utterly heartbreaking.

Several other entries were written by young (oh, so very, very young in too many instances!)—by young men in transit from England to one of the bloody beachheads on D-Day, and… who were killed before the ink had dried, so it seemed.

The entries from the German soldiers were enlightening: they were so very afraid of the invasion to come: they knew they had no more air defenses. One such soldier who manned a machine gun at Omaha Beach wrote of his astonishment — he and his company very efficiently mowed down wave after wave of allied soldiers coming ashore, and yet — still they came! And more of them! He and his comrades couldn’t believe it. He was finally wounded and sent to the back of the line.

The casualty count for Le Débarquement (as D-Day is referred to in France — “the disembarkment”) was… oh mon Dieu, staggeringly high. As were so many battles in WWII: the daily count in some cases far surpasses our total casualty count for Iraq and Afghanistan combined. We civilians born after simply have no grasp of unimaginable scale of the carnage, the devastation, the horror.

So many casualties occurred because of error—in part due to lack of technology. I think of how many lives would have been spared had GPS been invented: so many of the parachutists (for example) were dropped in the wrong places behind enemy lines, simply because the instruments were too imprecise. These brave men were cut off from support and supply lines and huge numbers among them were killed or captured.

The French looked forward to D-Day with impatience, and when it arrived, they both cheered and went into mourning: yet another hideous war to be fought on their already blood-soaked land. The book has civilian accounts of the endless bombing and shelling, of homes destroyed, neighbors and family killed, of the stench of death. A 14-year-old French boy wrote in his journal of coming across the bodies of American soldiers, some crushed by Nazi tanks.

Last month I read Le Cahier Rouge du Maquis — “The Maquis’ Red Notebook,” the diary of “Lieutenant Vallier,” the nom de guerre of one Gleb Sivirine, a remarkable hero of the Resistance who operated in the Haut Var just across the Verdon River from where we live. D-Day for Provence was August 15, 1944 — the Allies’ southern landing was awaited with acute impatience and distress in a part of France that had suffered huge deprivations and starvation and oppression. In the days just before the June 6th D-Day, French Resistance units here in Provence were finally allowed to go into full battle mode to distract the Germans and deplete their ammunition and supplies. (By this point, the German occupation policy was to kill 100 civilians for every German soldier killed by the Resistance: the reprisals were ruthless, yet the Resistance still had overwhelming popular support.)

Would to god that we would actually LEARN something from these tragic wars.

On a family note: My father is nearly 81. He joined the navy the instant he graduated from high school, but by then the war in Europe was over. He was shipped to California to prepare to get sent to the Pacific theatre, but it was over before he could be assigned to a ship (he never served aboard anything, as it turned out). He spent his time in the service doing clerical work. I honor him for his willingness to go: he never saw combat, but as with millions of other young men and many women, he was willing to do his duty.

Addendum to the “family note,” 14 August 2021: Well… the patriotic account above isn’t exactly accurate, which I can say with some authority, having been editing my dad’s autobiography off and on for the past two years or so. My dad did try to join the army right out of high school, but was rejected because he had too much albumin in his urine (a lingering aftereffect of a serious kidney infection he’d had as a preteen). The following year, long after Japan had surrendered, my dad joined the navy by having some other young man pee for him. At that point, however, Dad’s motives were rather more self-interested than patriotic: he was absolutely desperate to be able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, without which he would not have been able to afford college, get a super deal on a home loan, etc. I was surprised and quite frankly a bit disappointed by this revelation, but as someone who directly benefited from my father being able to be covered by the G.I. Bill, I suppose I am not really in a position to judge or complain too much.