Thursday, April 14, 2016

Guest Post : Omaha! Omaha!

Without further comment.

My daughter's grandfather, The Old Man,  grew up in Council Bluffs Iowa and got to the big city of Omaha Nebraska by crossing the Missouri River. During the Depression years he took the view, as many did and still do, that joining the military for good shoes, a full belly and warm shelter was far superior to living off the economy. He did and on 7 December 1941 the Iowa National Guard transitioned to regular Army. First Army. V-Corps.

He first set foot in France on the morning of 6 June 1944 and to get to Omaha Beach he had to cross the English Channel. But unlike many others who went and returned, he was not one of those veterans reluctant to tell of that day, that battle and the days and battles that followed.

The Old Man spoke of more than D-Day. Of North Africa facing the much-respected Rommel's Afrika Korps and much-loathed sand. Of Bradley and Montgomery, the Good and the Bad. Of liberating concentration camps, his photographs proving the horror of the Holocaust. Of racing to Berlin to beat the Russians to German weapon technology.  But he always came back to D-Day. Comrades in arms who did not make it off the beach. Those who did.

He saw the courage of young well trained soldiers facing the savagery of war executed with German precision, their machine guns and artillery pre-sighted awaiting the invasion. A dropped ramp was a dropped shield. The seas were higher, the LCI further out, packs heavier and the resistance stronger than expected. Some craft did not survive the mines and artillery. Some soldiers didn't get off the boat alive, others did but never reached the beach. More died on the beach. Survivors learned staying together, staying on the beach allowed the enemy to concentrate fire and continue the slaughter. Get on. Get away. Get over. Get up.

The Old Man was in ordnance and his job was to move fallen arms and munitions from the water's edge to infantry on the shingle--a battlefield supply line to the front. He spoke often of the young men, America's finest whose lives ended with their bringing this ordnance ashore.  Frequently he spoke of one young soldier, blond and handsome, cut down before he even had a life. Only medics had more personal contact with the brutality of war. On that day, in that hour, the most dangerous place on earth was Omaha beach. The Old Man's job required he stay on that beach.

My job involves travel, most recently to Paris. My drive north to Normandy was much easier than their drive south and I would have been remiss to not visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach. He would have haunted our home the rest of our lives.

The approach to the memorial is from the east into a garden flanked on each side by walls inscribed with the names of those lost but never found. Topping the steps of the colonnade I was confronted with a field of grave markers framed between two flags waving in a stiff, gusty wind.

A circular chapel rose from the center, a Mont Saint-Michel surrounded by white-capped sea. To the right below a steep cliff lies the beach they took that took many of them. Beyond that the channel that brought them here angered by the wind.

We have all seen pictures of military cemeteries with white markers perfectly aligned in rows and columns. Soldiers on parade.

We know the patterns in the field of these alignments, north, south and diagonal. These images are a pale, one dimensional ghosts of the reality.

Standing there I realized that every marker is the same height following the contours of the land like the whitecaps on the channel. They differ in no other way than Cross or Star. There is no rank, no prestige. Captains and Generals rest amongst their men, now their brothers in arms equal in their sacrifice and honor. Interspersed amongst the known dead are their fallen comrades who were never identified. Unidentified but equally honored.

As I left I paused at the colonnade turning for one last look at their field of honor and it struck me that I, and they, were facing west to the United States. Looking homeward. I found myself asking, to no particular one, Private Ryan's Unspoken Question: "Did I earn this? Have we earned this?"

Their answer returned in a gust of wind delivering a blow to the stomach. And this old man wept.