The Classic Epic of D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Cornelius Ryan
Reading this well-written and researched historical account of the D-Day invasion evoked powerful emotions. But when I visited Omaha Beach, nothing had prepared me for the overwhelming flood of grief and gratitude that swept me back to the pivotal events of June 6, 1944.
It had been drizzling on and off all day, and there was a slight chill in the summer breeze. The sea air filled my nostrils. When I bent down and sifted the sand through my fingers, it felt cool and damp. In front of me, waves crashed on the beach and the sound of children laughing as they enjoyed their day at sailing school floated on the air. But on June 6, 1944, the scene was one of unimaginable horror. The air was filled with the thunderous sounds of artillery, bombs and rifles that barely muffled the cries of the wounded. The air reeked of burning oil, gun powder, and death. The sand on Omaha Beach was strewn with mangled machinery and drenched in blood.
It was June 20, 2016 and I was standing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. This had been ground zero for the allied invasion that turned the tide of World War II and began the liberation of Europe from the unspeakable brutality and horror of Nazi tyranny.
I had always been fascinated with the D-Day invasion. Then, in the late 1970s, I read The Longest Day. In this classic epic of D-Day, June 6, 1944, Cornelius Ryan’s detailed account of the allied landing on the Normandy beaches. Since then, I have been in awe of those who participated in the planning and execution of the D-Day invasion. I yearned to visit Normandy some day and stand where D-Day unfolded on Omaha Beach.
Preparing for Normandy
In 2016, our travels took us to Normandy, and I finally had the opportunity to see and touch the reminders of D-Day. In order to prepare, we watched “The Longest Day”, the highly acclaimed 1962 film starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, and Eddie Albert. Cornelius Ryan wrote the screenplay for the movie, and it was an accurate representation of the book, but that wasn’t enough for me. I downloaded and began rereading “The Longest Day” on our trans-Atlantic flight to Madrid, read sporadically throughout our travels in Spain and Italy, and finished the book on an overnight ferry from Sicily to Naples.
“The Longest Day was first published in 1959. Irish journalist, Cornelius Ryan, conducted hundreds of interviews of D-Day participants, including military planners, troops on the ground, and French civilians. His painstaking research took him to five countries in order to gather the most accurate historical information and first-hand accounts to recreate events before, during, and after the D-Day invasion.
More than 200,000 Allied troops participated in the invasion. They came in 6,000 ships and landing craft, 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes. The landing beaches were code named Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno, and Gold. The American assault on Omaha Beach, saw the heaviest casualties – 6,603 killed wounded or missing – earning it the name, “Bloody Omaha”. By the time Paris was liberated in August, 72,911 Allied troops had been killed or declared missing, and 153,475 were wounded.
“The Longest Day” is far more than statistics, though. Ryan reveals the events surrounding D-Day with depth, insight, and compassion. This is a book I will most likely read a third time because this powerful account contains more information and insight than I can absorb in two reads.
We began our journey back to June 6, 1944 at Pointe du Hoc. From atop the cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, the Germans opened fire on the troops coming ashore. An elite troop of Army Rangers from the 2nd Ranger Battilion scaled the 100 foot cliff with ropes and ladders while bullets and grenades rained down on them. Casualties were heavy, but the Rangers ultimately prevailed. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the assault on Pointe du Hoc was necessary, but all I could think of that day was the bravery and sacrifice of the men who scaled the cliff face.
The battery at Longue-Sur-Mère was a formidable German defense. We walked among the big guns, awed at the amount of death and destruction they spat until they were finally silenced.
Next we visited the museum at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, after which we walked through the cemetery itself. Neat rows of marble crosses and stars of David seemed to reach on and on into infinity. Many of the men buried here were 18 and 19 years of age. It struck me like a hammer that these men gave their futures so the children of Europe could have theirs.
The cemetery was peaceful and meticulously maintained, with stands of trees providing shade for the 9,380 American graves and those who come to visit them. Standing amid the marble memorials, I felt truly humbled.
We then walked down to the sands of Omaha Beach itself. Already an emotional wreck, I gave myself up to the recollections of Ryan’s graphic descriptions of the D-Day landing. Those who choose to stand on Omaha Beach will experience their own private thoughts and feelings. I will leave it to you to absorb the events that took place here for yourself.
The Village that Never Forgot
Our last stop that day was the village of Sainte-Mère-Église, the first village to be liberated on D-Day. From the church spire, hung a representation of Private John Steele, the American paratrooper whose chute caught and left him hanging. Amid the chaos, the man went unnoticed for hours. He eventually was cut down and taken prisoner by the Germans; only to escape a few days later. John Steele did survive the war.
Inside the church, we were struck by two stained glass windows depicting American paratroopers. This sign of gratitude was both poignant and up-lifting.
I would highly recommend reading “The Longest Day”, watching the film, and visiting the beaches of Normandy. It took me four decades to complete the trifecta, but every step was well worth the time and effort.