Thoughts From Normandy

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.  ~Ambrose Redmoon

Words.

That’s all the above quote really is – a collection of words until it’s put in context.

Here’s the context:

You’re cold, wet, and scared. You’ve been on a small boat made of plywood with about 40 other men on a choppy sea for three hours. Circling. Circling.

You had a great big breakfast for the task that lay ahead of you – and somewhere around 90 minutes later, you threw it all up. So did your buddies. And now your standing in a mix of seawater and vomit and it’s sloshing all around your lower legs. Your feet are so cold and wet, you can barely feel them.

The signal is given and your plywood boat and all the other plywood boats stop circling and all head out in the same direction.

Overhead, guns roar. Planes scream by.

After what seems like an eternity, another signal is given and the boat slows down and hits what seems to be ground. The metal gangway on the front of the boat drops open like a giant mouth and suddenly, machine gun fire opens up all around you.

Several of the men in front of you collapse like rag dolls under a barrage of tracer rounds that cut them down like a lawnmower.

You have a choice – stay there and face certain death or jump over the side of the boat into the unknown.

You jump overboard into freezing water and instantly go under due to the 70lbs pack on your back.

When you finally get your footing and your head above water there’s the smoke, blood, bodies and the sound of screaming and machine gun fire. The noise is deafening.

As you make your way to the beach, tracer rounds from heavy machine guns whiz by all around you. And all around you they find their targets – your friends and fellow soldiers.

You somehow take cover under one of the “hedgehogs” on beach.

There are cries for “Medic!” Just ahead and slightly to your right you see a soldier with a red cross painted on his helmet run to aid a wounded comrade. He is immediately  mowed down by machine gun fire and crumples in a heap atop of the one crying for help.

Ahead of you, about 100 yards, another soldier heading for the rocky outcropping at the top of the beach, turns back toward you to grab the guy next to him who was just hit and now lay on the beach screaming in agony. He too is gunned down.

Where do you go when death is beside you, behind you, and most certainly in front of you?

What I just described is based on what I learned about in Normandy, the Battle of Normandy, specifically Omaha Beach – Operation Overlord, the start of the invasion of Fortress Europe, to rescue Europe from the jack boot of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs.

The fact that so many men willingly gave their lives in the face of certain death still haunts me.

That is courage.

Here is a picture of Omaha Beach.

Omaha Beach - Weiderstan Nest View

Just above the gentleman’s head is a little square opening. That was a machine gun nest. Just to the right of the second house from the right was also a machine gun nest.

I cannot remember the exact number, but there was something like six to ten machine gun nests that formed a perfect semicircle around the beach at Omaha. So the men who landed on this beach were caught in multiple crossfires.

The carnage was just horrific – beyond anything you could’ve seen in the movies. One veteran recounted that if the beginning of Saving Private Ryan was R-Rated – it wasn’t even close to what really happened. The real thing was X-rated. Horrifically worse.

The death toll after Day 1 was approximately 5000. Only 1000 of those were killed outright. The rest died of wounds inflicted or drowned in the incoming tide.

That was just one beach.

Then there’s Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du Hoc - Bunker View

This was a target that was tasked to be taken by the newly formed Army Rangers.

Intelligence reports showed that there were four large guns that used to be mounted on trains, big, big guns left over from WWI. This was a HUGE problem because they were all pointed toward the English Channel and could sink the Allied Naval Fleet.

So the Rangers head to the Pointe in five landing craft. One of them hits a mine and they lose 20% of their men. The water is so choppy their gear gets soaked, including the ropes attached to the rocket propelled grappling hooks they need to scale the cliff face.

Running over an hour behind because the tide carried them off course, and presumed “Mission Failed” by the Allied Command because of failure to check in at 0630, and therefore without any re-enforcements, approximately 225 Rangers attacked Pointe du Hoc.

Here’s where it gets crazy.

The average Ranger was a little heavier than the average GI of the day, weighing in at 160lbs. He carried a pack that weighed approximately 100lbs. Remember those wet ropes attached to the grappling hooks? Well because they were wet, when the grappling hooks fired, they fell short of the cliff face. Some failed to fire at all. Each rope weighed approximately 100-150lbs. The Rangers still needed the ropes at the top of the cliff so they cut them from the ships, coiled them around their bodies, and scaled the cliffs with over 200lbs of extra weight attached to their bodies!

And of course, these are Rangers, so many of them scaled the cliff face by plunging one K-bar knife at a time (one in each hand) into the cliff face and climbing up, hand over hand over hand.

And this was done under the watchful eye of the Nazis who rained down machine gun fire on them all the while!

Eventually, the Rangers captured Pointe du Hoc, but not until they fended off multiple counterattacks by the Nazi garrison stationed there and were relieved by a US Infantry division that broke through enemy lines the next day. After all was said and done, there was an 80% casualty rate.

What allows a man to face certain death under insurmountable odds and act above and beyond any call of duty?

Certainly it is necessity.

But it is more than that.

It is the unwavering belief that something is more important than your fear.

For the men who landed on the beaches of Normandy that day, June 6th, 1944, it was a rescue mission. It was a mission of mercy. It was a mission of hope. It was a mission of love. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That is true courage. That is true strength.

The American Cemetery - Normandy

Somewhere between 14,000 and 19,000 men were killed during the Normandy Landings.

One of their resting places is the American Cemetery in Normandy. Every American needs to visit this place. Indeed, I dare say every European needs to visit. Without the sacrifice of these brave men, today’s world would be a much different place.

A truly moving moment was seeing an elderly woman find the headstone of a loved one – perhaps a father or brother. As I stood there and observed, it appeared to me that it was her first time at the cemetery and she was very relieved to finally have some form of peace. Since we arrived at the cemetery at the end of the day, we were there for “Taps” – where the bugler plays in remembrance of the fallen and the Stars and Stripes is lowered, and folded. This lady must have travelled with her family, because she was presented with the flag in remembrance of her loved one by a member of her family, in what appeared to be a police uniform. It was truly emotional watching the tears of healing flow.

For me, visiting the Normandy beaches, Utah, Pointe du Hoc, and Omaha, has been something I needed to do for a very long time. Fortunately, none of my family died there. I was able to schedule the trip for the 66th Anniversary of D-Day and was able to tour Normandy on June 6th.

There is probably so much more that I could write about the courage exemplified that day by countless individuals, like Major General Teddy Roosevelt (the son of President Theodore Roosevelt) who walked ahead of his men on Utah beach without a helmet.

But the most amazing thing to me and the thing that I will ALWAYS be grateful for is that these men thought of  not only those who couldn’t defend themselves, but of future generations, like me. And you.

And they fought and died for us.

10 comments… add one
  • Maria Jul 20, 2010 @ 12:36

    Inspiring! Thank you for this post, Geoff. ml

  • Tom Jul 20, 2010 @ 12:43

    Great writing about strength from a different angle, not physical, but still even more true to the meaning! Always wanted to visit there when I was in the Navy on a “Med Cruise” or “North Atlantic”, will have to go on my own.
    This is true ” Every American needs to visit this place. Indeed, I dare say every European needs to visit.Without the sacrifice of these brave men, today’s world would be a much different place”

  • Rick Jul 20, 2010 @ 12:59

    I took care of a Ranger when I was in med school that had climbed Pointe du Hoc. He told me that he was about 3/4 the way up when the man in front of him was killed, falling and knocking him also off the ledge. He fell about 20 feet before a British commando caught him with one hand and pull him to safety telling him to “follow me.” As I heard this story, I kept thinking BS. About a year later and the 50th anniversary of D Day, I saw him receiving a medal from the French and the TV commentator telling the same story.

  • Philippe Jul 20, 2010 @ 14:30

    You know I’m from France, Geoff. I took my wife there too, 2 years ago, driving through all the beaches. The American cemetary was an emotional scene. Despite what some people say, that aspect of the French and American culture is something NO ONE ever forgets.

  • Chris Jul 20, 2010 @ 14:39

    Thank you very much for writing this. We live in an ungrateful world full of people with short memories. I hope and pray that we are not destined to repeat the history that most don’t seem to remember.

  • Chuck Jul 20, 2010 @ 14:45

    You wrote very eloquently, Geoff.
    Mental toughness, in the histories of wars, has always been at least as important as physical strength. Past the level of strength and fitness needed to complete a mission, the ability to persist in the face of unimaginable conditions, pain, and fatigue has often been the deciding factor. The Allied forces that participated in the invasion of Europe, particularly on those beaches, exemplified both kinds of strength.

  • Tom Jul 20, 2010 @ 21:35

    Thanks Geoff and all true.

    My uncle Earl was a young captain in the coast guard with the commanding brass on his ship and 20 LSTs in his charge at Omaha. He always played it down. Not until my Dad’s funeral a few years ago did he finally talk about it and shed tears for the many in his command that were lost. 50+ years later he still felt responsible for their deaths.

  • Bob Jul 20, 2010 @ 22:19

    If only our current administration could recognize the valor and sacrifice that is exemplified throughout the history of this God blessed United States of America! Perhaps they would realize that if it weren’t for the unselfish sacrifice of all those brave people they might not even be here in the freest nation in history methodically dismantling what was so courageously fought and died for. Pray for the salvation of this exceptional country!

  • Nicholas Wind Jul 21, 2010 @ 11:05

    Anyone with any depth will get emotional reading about this.
    Folks like you and I Jeff.
    My parents are from Holland and saw their neighbours being of Jewish
    back ground executed in front of their homes.
    Weekly.
    Lined up and shot.
    Dad was 6 and Mom 5 when the war started and now both pushing 80 they can still barely talk about it.

    They where saved because of those men that day.
    I know you know this but there were other beaches
    also with our great Canadian soldiers who performed awesomely
    that day.
    And the Brits and all the rest.

    We as boomers have no concept of that type of toughness.Mental or physical.
    We have been given so much because of these tough as nails soldiers.

    I mean some of us think a catastrophe is when our cable goes down.
    I can’t get my hockey game (Canadian ehh) …the cable’s down honey!

    You and I are doing the same thing…online marketing and in my case
    having to reinvent myself after 50 years young.

    It’s been really challenging for me.. but so what!
    My friends and family can’t believe I parked my car for 2 years to rebuild and go big.
    Still parked. Til I get to my financial goal.

    So what!
    Not quite the same as being in a floating box with a steel door opening at the front and 50 caliber bullets ripping your buddies apart in front of you.
    We are building nations of wimps Jeff with all the never ending PC crap coming into our society.
    I read and think daily before I start my work.
    Writings like this help me keep my perspective of what “hard” really is.

    Thanks for the reminder of what tough really is.

  • Sean Jun 6, 2014 @ 15:20

    Beautiful, thanks for sharing. Also glad Hitler was too slow to have the Panzers waiting. That would have made things much worse, if that is even possible.

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