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June 6: A walk across a beach in Normandy

Today your job is straightforward. First you must load 40 to 50 pounds on your back. Then you need to climb down a net of rope that is banging on the steel side of a ship and jump into a steel rectangle bobbing on the surface of the ocean below you. Others are already inside the steel boat shouting and urging you to hurry up.

Once in the boat you stand with dozens of others as the boat is driven towards distant beaches and cliffs through a hot hailstorm of bullets and explosions. Boats moving nearby are, from time to time, hit with a high explosive shell and disintegrate in a red rain of bullets and body parts. Then there’s the smell of men near you fouling themselves as the fear bites into their necks and they hunch lower into the boat. That smell mingles with the smell of cordite and seaweed.

In front of you, over the steel helmets of other men, you can see the flat surface of the bow’s landing ramp still held in place against the sea. Soon you are within range of the machine guns that line the cliffs above the beach ahead. The metallic death sound of their bullets clangs and whines off the front of the ramp.

Then the coxswain shouts and the klaxon sounds and thenyou feel the keel of the LVCP grind against the rocks and sand of Normandy as the large shells from the boats in the armada behind you whuffle and moan overhead and then the explosions all around increase in intensity and then the bullets from the machine guns in the cliffs ahead and above rattle and hum along the steel plates of the boat and the men crouch lower and then somehow together lean forward as, at last, the ramp drops down and you see the beach and then the men surge forward and you step with them and then you are out in the chill waters of the channel wading in towards sand already doused with death, past bodies bobbing in the surf staining the waters crimson. Then you are on the beach.

It’s worse on the beach.

The bullets keep probing along the sand digging holes, looking for your body, finding others that drop down like sacks of meat with their lines to heaven cut. You run forward because there’s nothing but ocean at your back and more men dying and… somehow… you reach a small sliver of shelter at the base of the cliffs. There are others there, confused and cowering and not at all ready to go back out into the storm of steel that keeps pouring down. And then someone, somewhere nearby, tells you all to press forward, to go on, to somehow get off that beach and onto the high ground behind it, and because you don’t know what else to do, you rise up and you move forward, beginning, one foot after another, to take back the continent of Europe.

If you are lucky, very lucky, on that day and the days after, you will walk all the way to Germany and the war will be over and you will go home to a town somewhere on the great land sea of the Midwest and you won’t talk much about this day or any that came after it, ever.

They’ll ask you, throughout long decades after, “What did you do in the war?” You’ll think of this day and you will never think of a good answer. That’s because you know just how lucky you were.

If you were not lucky on that day you lie under a white cross on a large lawn 74 long gone years later.

Weak princes and fat bureaucrats and traitors mumble platitudes and empty praises about actions they never knew and men they cannot hope to emulate.

You hear their prattle, dim and far away outside the brass doors that seal the caverns of your long sleep. You want them to go, to leave you and your brothers in arms to your brown study of eternity.

“Seventy-four years? Seems like a lot to the living. It’s but an inch of infinite time. Leave us and go back to your petty lives. We march on and you, you weaklings primping and parading above us, will never know how we died or how we lived. If we hear you at all now, your mewling only makes us ask, among ourselves, ‘Died for what?’

“Princes and bureaucrats, be silent. Be gone. We are now and forever one with the sea and the sky and the wind and the steel rain. We march on.”



Normandy Today. From the Comments– Chris:

“I took the image on the link at low tide in Normady in 2006. This is literally at the edge of the water looking back to the bluffs where the American cemetery is. Look how damn far that is… it took a good 20 minutes to walk down from the cemetery to the water’s edge. I cannot imagine having gone the other way wet, seasick, with a 60-pound ruck on my back, a rifle that weighed a friggin ton unloaded, and with bullets and mortar shells raining down on me.

It could not be done by the men of today.

Alert the Authorities!

{ 27 comments… add one }
  • pbird June 6, 2018, 9:08 PM

    Ineffable piece of music. Wise too.

  • Anonymous June 6, 2018, 9:21 PM

    Gerard, you are honored by your commemoration of others.
    And the Dire Straits, their lyrics to Taps.
    Blessings.

  • Casey Klahn June 6, 2018, 10:18 PM

    We were a dinner party at the Irish Pub, I think it was 2 years ago. I was away from home, but did discover that each diner at our gathering was the offspring of a WW II veteran, and each of those was in action. I called for an extra Guinness to be set on the table, untouched.

    One’s father was a Seabee, one’s father in law, an infantryman in Italy. My father was in North Italy, and raided behind enemy lines with the famous Col. Darby. One amazing father in the OSS, in China (!). My hostess told how her father was a belly gunner on a B-24, who suffered a wound that took him off flight status. This resulted in his being transferred to the infantry. On June 6th., 1944, he was ordered to jump over the side of his Higgins Boat as it hung-up far short of the Normandy beach. He was instantly pulled under by the weight of his gear, and commenced to drown. The big hands of his oversized lieutenant grabbed him up, saving his life by the completely random luck of proximity.

    He went over the side because he was ordered over. Ordered to die. Over he went, throwing his life away as you would toss the coffee from your cup. 417,000 did just that; countless others did the same but it didn’t take. they survived by dint of the miraculous. Like my Oregon-born friend who was sprayed by 155mm shrapnel in a foxhole on a mountain in Italy. The 2 men on either side of him were killed instantly, but he was evacuated to the battalion aid station. No matter; they tossed him on the dead pile. An orderly remarked to the surgeon: “that one is moving.” They all do, don’t you know?

    It’s all a crap shoot, isn’t it? My friend survived to tell the story, and we laughed together and drank another glass of wine. I, who am not worthy to, yet by some grace have lived and drank among these giant men. Our fathers.

  • Jaynie June 7, 2018, 3:34 AM

    Thanks for the D-Day post. What men did!

  • PA Cat June 7, 2018, 4:07 AM

    My dad was not one of those who had to walk across a Normandy beach– he was one of the paratroopers (82nd Airborne) who had to jump out of a glider on D-Day behind the German lines and hope the pilot didn’t drop him and his buddies into a river or crash the glider before they all got out. Yes, he was one of the lucky ones who made it back home, or I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this comment. True, he didn’t talk about it much, but he took me to see The Longest Day the year before he died of a heart attack– the coroner thought it was an aftereffect of combat stress. What I remember most about the movie was asking my dad afterward whether he was afraid when he jumped out of the glider that had carried him to France. He told me that courage doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid– it means doing what you have to do anyway. I never forgot that, I’ve tried to live my life accordingly, and I bless God that I had such a father.

  • arcs June 7, 2018, 6:17 AM

    One man have I known who went across that beach that day but I didn’t know it until his death. Another man I’ve known was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross but he Would Not talk about it. I consider myself blessed and lucky to have breathed some of the same air as those giants.

  • Chris June 7, 2018, 6:20 AM

    PA Cat… Paratroopers did not jump out of gliders. You either jumped from a C-47 or you were in the glider troops and rode the glider (WACO’s I believe) all the way down to the ground. Having jumped out a perfectly good airplane myself a few times, I’d much prefer that route to letting some cab driver plow an unpowered plane into the ground with me in it!

  • Chris June 7, 2018, 6:28 AM

    I took the image on the link at low tide in 2006. This is literally at the edge of the water looking back to the bluffs where the American cemetery is. Look how damn far that is… it took a good 20 minutes to walk down from the cemetery to the waters edge… I cannot imagine having gone the other way wet, seasick, with a 60 pound ruck on my back, a rifle that weighed a friggin ton unloaded, and with bullets and mortar shells raining down on me.

    It could not be done by the men of today.

    http://s26.postimg.cc/h10428wl5/030623_023.jpg

  • ghostsniper June 7, 2018, 7:01 AM

    I remember reading Eddie Albert’s take on that landing. Yeah, THAT guy. He was there.
    Haunting, terrifying.
    Now look in the right column, toward the bottom, the one on the right.
    Imagine that, that thing taking that on.
    Look what some of “us” have chosen to become.
    Baggage, fodder, trash.
    A good sweeping is past due.

  • Casey Klahn June 7, 2018, 7:32 AM

    I think a valid argument can be made that a glider infantryman’s job was probably the very worst one you could have. I think my dad said that, once. The take my father had…it was so amazing. He always had something to say about how hard the other guy had it. His basic training platoon was broken up, and 5 of them went on to Normandy; all were killed. Dad went on to fight in the hell of the Italian Apennine winter. Pick the worst terrain fought over in WW II; Bougainville, Tarawa, Okinawa? Italy, Burma, the North Atlantic? The Aleutians, North Africa, beneath the Med?

    They ought to erect a statue in the main thoroughfare of every city, so big you can’t get around it. It would be just for the clerk typists, alone. The infantryman, artilleryman, tanker or pilot you cannot approximate in stone. Possibly Gerard’s art, that of poetry, may be one of the best ways to show what The Greatest Generation was and did. I also like this guy’s artwork:

  • Casey Klahn June 7, 2018, 7:36 AM
  • Candy June 7, 2018, 8:02 AM

    Once again Gerard your unique insights are inspiring. Such a great choice of music to tie things together. To all commenters, you have shared some thoughtful and heart felt stories – Thanks You.

  • Candy June 7, 2018, 8:05 AM

    p.s. This post linked at my fb page. Hope others will follow here today.

  • OldFert June 7, 2018, 1:04 PM

    Chris, it *is* being done by the men of today.

    Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, and some Airmen, also, patrol around Afghanistan and the Middle East with up to 120 lbs of gear per each. And I’m not talking just about “special ops” folks.

    I’m sure most of them would, if ordered, fight their way across the Normandy sands.

    Probably just as well that most of those who took part in the invasions of Sicily, Italy, southern France, Greece, and Normandy and other places I don’t remember at the moment are gone now. I don’t know if they’d think the Europe of today would be worth their sacrifices. Personally, I’m not sure the Europe of today is worth the cost.

  • Remus Marsilvia June 7, 2018, 1:27 PM

    Gerard,

    “… you feel the keel of the LST grind against the rocks and sand of Normandy”

    True, if you were offloading trucks and tanks. It probably should read,

    “… you feel the keel of the LVCP grind against the rocks and sand of Normandy”

    I served on an APA and did this for a living. It was fun. All the ordnance was outgoing.

    Remus

  • Vanderleun June 7, 2018, 2:18 PM

    Correction made, Remus.

    Thanks.

    You are, as Eliot said of Pound: “il miglior fabbro”

  • ghostsniper June 8, 2018, 4:55 AM

    “…120 lbs of gear per each…”

    Stop passing this BS around.
    Go pick up 120 lbs and throw it up on your back, and get walking.
    I dare ya.
    You might go 10 steps, but you’re not going to be worth a damn when you get there.

    And what’s IN that 120 lbs anyway?

    I was in a line platoon for 4 years and did more than 50 extended field exercises, a week or more, and another 50 of a few days.
    Entire TA50 rig was less than 50 lbs and it was carried maybe 50 feet.
    After that basic field equipment was used the whole time, less than 20 lbs.
    At the end of the training the TA50 was picked up again and carried maybe 50 feet.
    Artillery base plates are the exception not the rule and aren’t carried very far, less than a mile and are swapped amongst squad members. Same with the 50’s, etc.

  • Casey Klahn June 8, 2018, 7:36 AM

    Ghost, you mean mortar base plates; the four deuce was the worst.

    90 would be a mean rucksack. I did hump those, and after my service I sometimes humped that in the mountains, but most often my max load was 70. On McKinley, with skis and a sled, 200 lbs. Note that it is sliding over snow, but uphill at a slight grade. Yes, that sucked. The best load is about 50-55 pounds, if you must have a heavy load.

    I do believe an infantryman might pick up a 125# load, total gear, but yeah, that shit is limited. What’s worse is the military backpack systems are wrong-headed and engineered poorly. Proper load bearing for a monster load begins with getting it tight to your center of balance, and over your pelvic center. If you say use a frame, you’re disqualified from this conversation.

  • OldFert June 8, 2018, 1:09 PM

    Ghost, I’m glad you’re the only one who knows anything here.

    The 120 reflects Casey’s 90 lbs ruck, plus about 30 lbs of body armor, weapon, plus misc. other junk (radio, intercept equipment, so forth). Assault load is a lot less, of course, but they still hump a lot.

  • ghostsniper June 8, 2018, 1:44 PM

    @Casey, I still have my Mountain Large, issued at Bad Tolz, Ger., circa 1975. For it to weigh 90 it would have to be filled with concrete. I have (4) 90lb bags of sakrete on a shelf in the garage, just a few feet from my Alice and it looks like one bag would be a tight fit. So I have to ask, what is in that pack that weighs 90 lbs and how big is that pack? All of my TA50, not including gun, bayonet, and gas mask, MIGHT have weighed 40 lbs max. That stuff was only carried from the truck to the CP and after that we only carried web gear and/or Alice. On patrols/guard we only carried stuff critical to the mission, NOT the entire gear.

    I keep hearing all this stuff about HUGE volumes of gear but have never seen anything regarding substance. Basically, web rumors and counterfeit piks.

    @Old Fert, I know what I know cause I was there. Were you? Or are you just rumor mongering without thinking?

  • ghostsniper June 8, 2018, 2:02 PM

    @Casey, I agree with your assessment on packs in general.
    After perusing more than 200 packs over the past year I recently chose one and it is now in my possession. It needed to fit tight to my body and was not supposed to stick way out in the back like 90% of the packs in the market now. I don’t need to carry the entire world but I do need some stuff and it needs to not rattle, shift around, or be out of balance. It needs to sit up high but not higher than my neck so that I can maintain 360 degree visibility. No molle straps all over the outside to catch on branches and rattle and snag. Heavy duty, at least 4″ wide, waist strap and 3″ wide shoulder straps and a chest strap and all straps must have quick release latches.

    I’m taking a series of local tactical courses this summer and this pack must hold up under extreme conditions. I don’t need a lot of compartments, for all of my gear is already categorized in individual pouches and easy to retrieve. Money was another major factor. I am not wealthy and most of the packs that do what I want are in the $200″ range and I’m not gonna spend that much. It’s just a bag to carry my other bags. The pack I chose is not perfect but it cost less than $100 (barely) and requires some slight modification on my part.

    Right away I loaded it up with all my gear and put it on and my neighbor helped me to get the straps adjusted just right. Nice and tight and compact. Feels like a 2nd skin. I’ve climbed ladders and trees with it on, walked a mile or so, even swam across the pool with it a couple times. Yes, it’s waterproof, and packed as it is it doesn’t try to float. Next I will fit my battle rattle under it and see how that works out. Like I said, some adjustments will need to be made.

  • JoeB June 8, 2018, 3:01 PM

    Great article. I visited Normandy for the first time in April. Just awed beyond words. Brothers in Arms was a good choice. But I also like Nora Jones – American Anthem from the Ken Burns series “The War”. I found my visit very gratifying because the people in the small towns and villages still remember what was done for them. And they are still great ful. And it WAS a Europe and a world worth fighting for.

  • Old Fert June 8, 2018, 6:48 PM

    Ghost, I remember you guys at the Enlisted Club.

  • Casey Klahn June 8, 2018, 6:53 PM

    As always, the infantryman’s load is an all over him affair. In pockets, on shoulders, in his hands, on his web gear, and on and in his pack. I think the D Day Normandy soldiers had some type of load bearing vest (not including the Mae West).

    Ghost, when I was mountain guiding on Rainier and in the North Cascades, I had the big, expensive pack we all used – the same one you’d take to Everest, and that the SEALs chose for their Adak teams. The army pack I used in the service, an ALICE, was stupid in the extreme. I did pack it out to must’ve been 90 lbs one time, in an infantry platoon in the defense exercise, but we only walked it about 100-200 yards. My father’s unit, the WW II Tenth Mountain Division, had a mountain ruck that was a no-shit 90 lbs ensemble, and you skied with that bitch. I wasn’t there, but the legend is real.

    Anyway, I’m embarrassed to talk @ things I’ve done in the context of this post. The packing of gear on one’s person is a fun conversation, isn’t it?

    My respects, and never-ending, to the great men who fought on D Day.

  • ghostsniper June 8, 2018, 8:07 PM

    “…an all over him affair…”

    Well there ya go, and I agree, I do the same, still.
    If it’s in my pack I can’t get to it immediately.

    My platoon did a 1 month “Platoon Confidence Training” in Bad Tolz in Oct-Nov 1975 that was conducted by a fleet of Rangers, Green Berets and French SF’s. The first 27 grueling days were training leading up to the last 3 days of an FTX – Escape and Evasion.

    All 30 of us were loaded into 2 5 ton trucks at midnight with our immediate gear, in my case, my Alice minus the frame. I was cutting as much weight as possible to cover as much ground as possible. C-rats were stripped to the essentials, etc. Nothing unessential went for the ride. My house was my ponch and liner.

    10 miles outside of camp in pitch darkness each of us was dropped off one at a time along a country road, several miles apart. The goal was to use what was on our person and in our heads to get back to camp and we had 3 days to do it. The difficult part was the Rangers and others were now the aggressor forces and were out actively searching for us in the woods. If caught we would be tortured and caged. I’ll remind you it snows in Oct-Nov in Germany. 19 people got caught. 2 fell into a gasthaus got drunk and arrested by the polizei, and 9 made it back to camp unscathed. I was one of the 9. Of the 19 that got caught and tortured a few went to the doctor and a few more went to the field hospital. Stripped naked, beaten with fists and kicked, dragged into a pond of 40 degree water, repeatedly dunked backwards then thrown in a heap on the ground to freeze for a spell.

    My alice weighed less than 20 lbs and that didn’t include the other gear “all over me”.
    Mission specific.

    I still can’t imagine what is in these 90-150lb packs.

  • ghostsniper June 8, 2018, 8:10 PM

    Sorry Old Fert, the EM club wasn’t my bag.

  • Fred Z June 10, 2018, 6:57 PM

    My dad fought in WWII, not at D-Day and on the wrong side. Reichsmarine. On D-Day he was a POW in western Canada and had already had his mind and opinions turned upside down by what he found here.

    He was one of many Germans also grateful for D-day, and the sacrifices of the allied troops. He was deeply embarrassed and ashamed by what he, and his, had done, said and thought.

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