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As a young boy growing up in the 1950s, I worshiped the heroics of our World War II soldiers through the movies of Audie Murphy and John Wayne and often played “war games” with my buddies. Of course over time and after a tour of duty in Vietnam, I learned that our games were simply boyish fantasies and that war was actually violent and ugly.
Like many Americans, I had always wanted to visit the beaches of Normandy to pay my respects to the brave soldiers and sailors who invaded France to liberate Europe from the Nazi regime. I also wanted to see for myself, as best one can after over 60 years, what it might have been like for those soldiers.
On Nov. 6, 2011, I finally had the opportunity to spend a day at the Normandy beaches. I was overwhelmed by emotion as I witnessed firsthand the effects of real war. This was not the hit and run tactics of the guerilla war that I experienced in Vietnam, but war on scale that is almost impossible to imagine.
Most of us know the history of the invasion of Normandy including the five beaches — Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold and Sword — where the largest amphibious assault in history was launched on June 6, 1944. On this day, over 150,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel and landed along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coastline.
The American units landed on Utah and Omaha Beaches and took heavy casualties. The 29th Infantry Division, made up mainly of Virginia National Guard Units including the unit from my home town of Berryville, Va., was the first unit ashore at bloody Omaha Beach. Almost all of us have seen the movie “The Longest Day,” which graphically depicts the horrors of that fateful day.
I began my tour at Omaha Beach. With the exception of a few monuments like the one to the 29th Infantry Division, there is little physical evidence of the battle that occurred there in 1944. As I stood on the wind-swept beach with the sea at my back and the cliffs of Point du Hoc looming in front of me, I tried to imagine the chilling and heroic realities of the invasion —soldiers arriving on rough seas in landing craft under heavy fire. These young soldiers had to run 200-300 yards over open beach through heavy machine gun fire, mortars and artillery, barbed wire, and mine fields to reach relative safety of the low sea wall at the edge of the beach.
My next stop was at Point du Hoc, where the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion used grappling hooks and ropes to scale the 100-foot cliffs to destroy the German heavy artillery and machine gun positions firing on Omaha Beach. These brave Rangers had to climb up ropes while the Germans above threw hand grenades and fired down on them from fortified positions. Of the 260 Rangers involved in the attack, only about 90 were still standing at the end of the day. This is one of the few places in Normandy that still has reminders of the great battle — partially destroyed German bunkers, rusted barbed wire, and bomb craters.
After leaving Point du Hoc, I traveled through the small town of St. Mere Eglise. I stopped at the church made famous in the movie “The Longest Day.” This is where the trooper from the 82nd Airborne Division got his parachute caught in the church spire and hung there pretending to be dead for almost a day. He was later captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war for several months. The church still had a replica parachute hanging from the spire in honor of that incident.
Perhaps the most moving experience during my trip was the visit to the American Cemetery located appropriately on a hill overlooking Omaha Beach. In the cemetery there are over 9,000 graves of the brave American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice during the invasion. I defy anyone to walk among these perfectly aligned rows of headstones without a tear in their eye.
I concluded my tour with a visit to the D-Day Museum near Gold Beach. The museum contains many exhibits and artifacts depicting the invasion. Along the beach, there are still remnants of Mulberry Harbor, the huge artificial port floated across the English Channel that was used to re-supply the Allied troops after the beachheads were secured.
As I reflect on my visit, I can finally recognize the true significance of what our “greatest generation” accomplished that day. Their courage and sacrifice preserved our way of life and made the world a better place. I have a renewed respect for these brave young men.