The day of days.

It's a long long bloody beach, with no cover and all of it overlooked by high ground.

I caught the tail end of a news item last week about a space rocket launch, I think taking supplies to the International Space Station. It only got a mention, because it also was carrying up the ashes of the actor James Doohan. The name might mean nothing to you but if I said he played Scotty in the TV series Star Trek, you’ll possibly know who I’m talking about. His ashes, as per his last request, are to be scattered in space.

Despite arguments in various Scottish villages, he wasn’t Scottish at all but Canadian. A rather obscure claim to fame I knew he had, was that his hand was the most “doubled” in television history. Every time they did the cut shot of his hand sliding the warp drive up a notch, it wasn’t his hand doing it. The reason for this was that he’d lost part of it as a young Lieutenant in a Canadian regiment on D-Day at Juno beach in Normandy. After an experience like that, the life of a jobbing actor can’t have seemed so perilous.

Incidentally, he was also known as the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force, even though he was actually a fire control officer in the Artillery, for slaloming a light observation plane between a line of telegraph poles, just to prove it could be done. He had led a full and interesting life.

The conjunction of his war service, Memorial Day just past, a chance conversation in the blogosphere and the anniversary of D-Day coming at us this week, made me recall some stuff from far back, that I haven’t thought about in a long time.

When I was a young man, I was prone to falling deeply and desperately in love, and occasionally, just as deeply and desperately in lust. I really wasn’t too sure of the difference at the time. On reflection, it was all a bit foolish but I don’t regret any one of them – not one. To contradict Oscar Wilde, youth was not wasted on me. I went at it head on like a young bull, cracked the bones, supped the marrow and made all the great marvelous mistakes. I have a few tender memories, a lot of very fond ones and not much in the way of regrets over any of it.

There was a Catalan girl of mine, who went home to Spain, and we’d agreed to keep in touch, so I set off to hitch hike over half of Europe to see her, as one does. France, as usual, was in the way. If you’re thumbing your away around, you don’t get picky about exact destinations; you just want to go west, so anybody heading in that general direction is welcome. Never knowing exactly where you’ll finish up at the end of the day, is part of the adventure. It’s that sort of leap of faith into the unknown that only the very young or very foolhardy do. There’s a whole psychology about picking up hitchhikers but it’s never discussed from the other side. Given how much travelling I did as a kid, on nothing more than my thumb and an ability to rough it, there’s most certainly the makings of a decent article in it.

On the way, I ended up in Normandy. A sleepy little village with a bar, which served food. It was cheaper to get what you wanted standing at the bar in France; sitting down at a table cost more, so since I was potless, I did a lot of eating at the bar. You can actually live on croque-monsieurs, which are really just toasted cheese and ham sandwiches, but then again, when you’re young, you can get by on road kill and not be too bothered about it either.

I met an old man in the bar, and when I say old, bear in mind that I was, as they say, very much in my green and salad days, so anyone over thirty was old. We started chatting and by way of introduction, he bought me a drink of Calvados, which is the local poison in Normandy. It’s actually a brandy made out of apples but it looks and tastes more like a Whiskey and it’ll very quickly put you on your butt, if you’re not careful. He was probably in his late forties at the time. Looking back on it, I’m sure he regarded me as some hopeless young Don Quixote on a romantic mission and was probably highly amused by me, which I wouldn’t blame him for, since I would be too. I tried to pay for a drink in return but somehow, he insisted and the barman smiled good-naturedly every time I tried, which is always a good sign. It was one of those relaxed and friendly bars it’s all too easy to settle into.

I don’t know, you’re young, stupid and a bit suspicious. Somewhere through the evening, I asked him why. Why this generosity to a foreigner, who barely speaks your language? Pourquoi? Why? C’est pour les autres – it’s for the others.

You see, as a young teenager, he’d seen the Omaha beach a day or two after D-day. Tout ces corps, sur la plage – all these bodies washed up on the beach. I don’t know what that’s like but he’d seen the thing and he was never ever going to forget it either. All those bodies bobbing in the surf and covering the beach, for as far as you could see. Incroyable, pour nous, pour la France – Unbelievable, for us, for France.

I have an image of a child wandering about, totally ignored amidst the frenetic organised chaos of thousands of men and hundreds of tons of equipment being unloaded and just concentrating on getting off that open beach and into the relative safety of the interior.

The invasion began at dawn on the morning of the 6th of June 1944. Over the day, a hundred thousand soldiers came ashore at Normandy, to eventually liberate Europe, but ten thousand of them became casualties. In one day. In one single day. That was the blood price of the freedom we enjoy. Ten thousand good young men. I suppose he’d looked at me; a young English-speaking man of about their age, and felt he was giving something back, and I do understand that so much better now.

When you consider that the people of Normandy suffered so badly in the pre-invasion bombardment, and yet still celebrate that day, you can see how much liberation meant to them. Buying a few drinks for a wandering soul like me was nothing.

I camped that night on Omaha beach, below the bluffs and woke, just before first light the next morning. I prodded the embers of the fire back to life, boiled some water and made a coffee. I sipped it as I sat having a smoke and watched the sun coming up.

Even at that age, I’d read a lot of modern history and knew a fair amount about the D-Day landings. I knew for instance, that the amphibious tanks which were supposed to come ashore with and support the infantry, had all foundered and sunk in the heavy swell that morning, drowning most of the crews. The poor bloody infantry were going to be on their own again.

I knew the standard German machine gun of the time was the MG-42. It was light, accurate, effective out to a range of 1000 metres and had the ferocious firing rate of 1,500 rounds a minute, which if that means nothing to you, is 25 bullets per second coming at you. The whole of the heights overlooking the beach at Omaha, were studded with the damn things. The allies took 3000 casualties on the stretch of beach I was looking at.

I thought about what it would be like advancing up that long, flat, bitch of a beach, no armoured support, no cover and under murderous machine gun fire. I’m a good shot and it would have been so easy, oh so bloody easy. Ducks in a barrel. Such brave young men.

I imagined what that must have been like for them and then, because I have too good an imagination, I wept for them. The saddest sunrise I’ve ever watched. Think of them, this coming Wednesday.

©Pointman

Related articles by Pointman:

Love is simply not an option.

Living with ghosts.

Click for a list of other articles.

Comments
15 Responses to “The day of days.”
  1. Jack Wilder says:

    Dennis Franz recounting the story of his life, from Vietnam to today, and what that means for the guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan now. Moving stuff. I spent my early twenties talking about wars, not fighting them, what did I know?

    • Blackswan says:

      Thanks for this link Jack, it should be compulsory viewing for all.

      The young Aussie Vietnam conscripts of the late 60s & early 70’s were my contemporaries, people I went to school with. Of course there were voluntarily enlisted men and women as well, but the conscripts were lads whose birth-dates were drawn out of an old lottery barrel when they turned 18. Those were the days when you had to be 21 to be considered an adult, to vote, to drink alcohol, to marry without your parents’ permission.

      ‘The luck of the draw’ assumed a ghastly significance.

      Franz describes their post-war conflicts so graphically – I knew or met so many of them.

      We should heed his timely advice on receiving our returning men and women from this current war zone.

      • meltemian says:

        I have no experience of war, being born as WW2 ended, but I agree the first part of “Saving Private Ryan” was just the most amazing piece of film I have ever seen!
        My father-in-law was in Normandy during that time. He almost never talked about it, but he loved the calvados. I think the reason he never spoke much about the war was because he was among the people who discovered the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. That must have scarred him for the rest of his life.

  2. Truthseeker says:

    I have always thought that the best film treatment of the Normandy landings was done by “Saving Private Ryan”.

    It is good to know that the ordinary people of the region deeply acknowledge the sacrifice made by so many young men. A lesson for us all I think.

    • Retired Dave says:

      HI Truthseeker – I was about to make a similar point. A few years back, after seeing the film, I heard a man who was there interviewed saying that watching the first 20 minutes with a good surround sound system was as near as anyone else would come to understanding what it was to be there.

  3. Retired Dave says:

    Pointman – A fine post to remind us Brits that in all the Jubilee celebrations we need to remember the sacrifices made by all Allied personnel that made the Queen’s reign possible.

    In a few weeks time I am visiting Northern France to see my Grandfather’s grave. I am 66 and have never been. He was killed in action in the last month of WW1 and had only just returned to France after being wounded. We always say a Father and Grandfather never known – Never Forgotten. My mother was born 5 months after his death – on such slender threads, ones own life swings.

    Am I the only one who contemplates the sacrifices made in WW1 and WW11, looks at my country and feels we let these guys down??

    • Blackswan says:

      Dave, you aren’t the only one.

      Both my grandfathers were WW1 Gallipoli veterans, both wounded, one repatriated, one ‘recovered’ to be sent to the Western Front. Both ultimately died of their injuries in the same veterans’ hospital in Australia in 1924. An entirely volunteer force sent to defend the Mother Country. My father defended our own country against the Japanese invaders of WW2.

      Have we let them down? Looking at my country, it shames me to know how we have let ourselves down.

  4. Pointman says:

    A gal like that is worth a regiment.

    Pointman

  5. Blackswan says:

    Pointman,

    Isn’t it interesting how a random train of thought can lead us down tracks we never expected, stopping at stations along the way and with switching points that can lead us into the past, the present and the future?

    You bid us climb aboard that train to take us all back with you to that windswept stretch of Omaha beach, and a poignant tale it was. Such memories always focus on our soldiers but those in military uniforms are not the only heroes on a battlefield, especially when battles are no longer fought on open plains, fields and mountain passes. They are fought in the very homes and streets and cities where civilian populations do their best to survive.

    This spawns many unexpected heroes whose names will never be engraved on any military Honour Rolls.

    I was reminded of this some years ago when I was asked to transcribe the WW2 diaries of an elderly Hungarian woman who was anxious for her story to be published as her only legacy of any real worth to her children and grandchildren.

    At first her manner was brusque and defensive, but as our friendship and her trust grew, she gave me a wonderful gift … an insight into a life and times in war-torn Europe that I never knew existed. In the words of the Readers’ Digest, that lady became ‘My Most Unforgettable Character’. She had an amazing story to tell, and I sometimes wonder whether those grandchildren of hers ever read it at all, or is her story gathering dust in some old filing cabinet or attic trunk?

    We should remember all the heroes and heroines of war, not just the ones in military uniforms.

    Rest in peace Dora.

    • Pointman says:

      A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be in the French city of Lille for the Bastille Day celebration. There was a huge parade with all the armed services as well as other public services, such as the fire brigade. I noticed a lot of women, not in uniform, but wearing medals and carrying flags in the march past. I met some of them afterwards, as the town retired en masse, to the cafes for a glass of wine.

      I asked about their medals and they said they received them because their husbands had been killed or wounded in various conflicts. They were always invited to actively participate in all military events and were proud to do so. Not for the first time, I struck me that the French military really do look after their “family”.

      Pointman

  6. Twodogs says:

    My great- grandfather survived the Somme in WWI. Had he not survived, no me. Nor my children, my father, brother or grandfather. I will always be in debt, and I will never forget. My spoilt, naughty children face the west and stay quiet for that one brief minute whenever they are at the RSL at 6pm. That makes the rest of their behavior acceptable.

    • Blackswan says:

      They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
      Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
      At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
      We will remember them.

  7. Pointman says:

    A number of people referred to the Omaha beach scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” As usual, it’s on Youtube. It’s fairly brutal but I think it gives you an idea of what they went through.

    Best not to click on it, if you’re upset by depictions of violent death.

    Pointman

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