December 11, 2008
Day at the beach—Omaha Beach
June 6, 1944, may have been the most important day of the 20th century. The Allied invasion of France breached Hitler's Atlantic Wall and decisively turned the war against the Nazi regime.
The invasion itself was a combination of great leadership, detailed planning and a brilliant campaign of deception to convince the Germans that the attack would come at Calais instead of the Normandy beaches. But the final ingredient was the courage of the invasion forces, of which 75 percent were American soldiers. To the Americans fell the nightmare beach to attack: Omaha. It was the most heavily defended and dangerous beach, and it cost by far the most lives.
Had D-Day failed, what would have happened? Would the war effort in the West have become exhausted? Would the concentration camps have been liberated by 1945? Fortunately, these questions will never have to be answered.
Last month, my wife, my daughter and I went to Omaha Beach. We have been in France since September, and this is a trip that I had longed to take. Each semester I spend a full class session on D-Day, because I think it reveals so much -- not only about world history but also about the American character.
The Omaha Beach memorial has three important pieces: a creatively designed museum with audiovisual displays, the American cemetery and a path that winds down to the beach itself. The whole D-Day story unfolded at beaches to the north and south, as well, because the attacks took place for miles up and down the coast at other beaches named Juno, Utah, Gold, Sword.
British and Canadian troops joined Americans on those beaches. Attacks on German installations inland were already under way in coordination with the invasion by the French resistance, alerted by coded radio messages from the Allied command.
The museum traces all the intricacies of the invasion planning and execution. The intense secrecy of the invasion plan was dictated by the need to divert the strongest German forces away from the landing site.
Massive deception fooled the German high command right up until the attack and even in the first few days after. The planning was not perfect; in a training exercise for the full invasion force on the English coast, German submarines sneaked in and attacked, costing the lives of more than 700 Allied soldiers.
Even with these snafus, the depth of the planning and training process comes through. This was a well-led project. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's recorded talk to the troops before the invasion is simple and moving, as are accounts of his visit to paratroopers on the way to Normandy.
The decision to attack (moved from June 5) during a break in the stormy weather on June 6 was critical and was, after all, based on something as tricky as a weather forecast. Bad weather would have doomed the invasion.
From the museum you go down to the beach on a winding path. There you can see some remnants of abandoned equipment left as a visual display.
But the real shock is to see how open the beach is, with no real cover or protection for the incoming soldiers. Looming behind you are the hills where the Germans had their guns, with months to set up their lines of fire.
Despite horrific losses in the first wave, the soldiers just kept on coming and somehow made it up the hills and cliffs to silence the German positions. Bold parachute drops behind enemy lines helped turn the tide, but ultimately young American soldiers led by junior officers (taking over for higher-ranking officers who had been killed) had to get their men off the beaches and up the hills.
The cemetery is extremely simple and quiet, as it should be. In neat rows are crosses and Jewish stars with very simple descriptions, all of Americans buried far from home on the soil they had died to liberate. Some are dated June 6, but others are as late as July, a reminder that it took well more than a month to break out of the region and begin in August the push toward Berlin.
Still to come after D-Day were the awful battles of the French hedgerows and the German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge. Paris was only liberated in late August.
The French have carefully maintained a network of museums and displays all up and down the Normandy coast. Memories of the American GIs who fought and died to liberate Europe and who marched through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris are still strong.
I thought of all those still with us or who have passed on who served in uniform in that war -- including my father, my father-in-law, my uncles (two of whom fought in France and helped liberate concentration camps) -- and of my mother, my aunts and the many women who served overseas but mostly on the home front.
Much has happened in the U.S.A. and in the world since that day in June 1944. Our relations with Europe have gone up and down, although our alliance remains strong.
Things may never be quite as crystal clear as they were then, when the fate of the world hung in the balance. I listened again this week to the sober address that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered to announce the invasion -- in the form of a prayer:
"Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith."
No one knew what the outcome would be.
In facing tough times, Americans have historical resources to fall back upon. Those soldiers who fought their way onto French soil had already lived through the worst of the Great Depression. With great leadership, careful planning and a worthy goal to aim for, Americans have a way of getting there.
It is worth remembering.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the Institut Français de Geopolitique at the University of Paris VIII.