Today is the 70th anniversary of Operation Neptune, the largest seaborne invasion in history. 70 years ago, kids from England and Canada, from the U.S. and Poland and Czechoslovakia, France and the Netherlands and Norway and New Zealand, from Greece and Australia, landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, and began the invasion of German-occupied western Europe. But I think most of you already know that.
And I think just about everyone I know has seen Saving Private Ryan (1998), and most guys about my age rank it among their favorite movies. And that’s fine.
I say read this book, D-Day, by Stephen Ambrose because I think that quite a bit of the human-ness of the whole thing is lost in Saving Private Ryan. I mean, there’s guys crying and everyone knows that scene in the silence with the guy looking around for his arm that got blown off, but this book is full of interviews of the guys that were there- not your archetypal southern bad-ass sniper and Brooklyn wiseass, but guys who were the only ones left from their whole platoon and who got up the grassy slope and found themselves alone, and it relatively peaceful.
The book, for me, offered some deeper insight into the whole thing- the plan from Eisenhower and SHAEF, down to Lt. Den Brotheridge, a twenty six year old soccer player with a wife eight months pregnant at home, specifically chosen to lead the first troops into action on D-Day. He would have gone pro had he not become the invasion’s first Allied Casualty, ‘lying on his back looking terribly surprised, just surprised.’
The horror of Omaha beach is clear, and brutal. The book clues you in on why this had to be, and the decision to send men that way, despite the knowledge that it was pretty much sending them to their doom.
It tells the story of General Teddy Roosevelt Jr., at 56, the oldest man in the invasion force and only General to land with the first wave of troops, at his own insistence. After personally doing a reconnaissance of the immediate area with a pistol and his walking cane, and finding that they’d landed more than a mile south of their intended landing zone, famously told his commanders, ‘We’ll start the war from right here.’ (His son, Quentin Roosevelt II, was a captain in the first wave of landings at Omaha Beach, making them also the only father and son to land together on D-Day)
What makes the book so interesting is that it brings home, for me, the point that after these guys got off of the beach, through the slaughter and the blood and sand and bombs, they had to start fighting a war. The objective was not the beach.
Anyway, it’s an outstanding glimpse at a day in history, both in the sense of what it meant for how the world is shaped today, and down to the view a normal guy caught in this situation had on June 6, 1944.
How are you going to spend today?