EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final part of a series by Dave Lobeck, based on his visit to sites key to D-Day, ahead of the 75th anniversary of the invasion.
The Normandy Beach Allied Invasion on June 6, 1944, was the largest invasion by sea in world history. Logistically, the Allies had the beach broken down into five segments: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The Americans were responsible for Utah and Omaha, Omaha being the deadliest beach of the five, surrounded by heavily fortified cliffs and defended by the German Nazis. On Omaha, alone, there were more than 2,400 American soldiers killed, wounded or declared missing. The remaining three "beaches," Juno, Sword, and Gold, were invaded by the Canadians and British, our Allied Forces partners.
The heroes who perished on D-Day, as well as other soldiers, are buried at The Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. The 9,388 headstones are situated on the cliffs overlooking the beach where many of them perished on June 6, 1944. It was a beautiful day when we were there and the ocean and the beach were easily visible from the cemetery.
The average age of the soldiers buried at that site is a mere 24 years old. General Eisenhower made the decision to send in the youngest soldiers on the first wave, since unlike their more seasoned counterparts, they had never experienced the ravages of warfare firsthand and would be more bold in their assault. They were led by more seasoned and older lieutenants, many of whom also perished. There are two types of headstones, one being a cross for the Christians and the other the Star of David for those who were Jewish. When you entered the military in those days, those were the two choices you were given. If you didn't declare one or the other, you were "defaulted" to Christian.
Anywhere you stand in the cemetery, the stones line up in perfectly straight rows. Of the 9,388 burials, 307 are unknown. All of the bodies were wrapped in a bag or the paratrooper's parachute if the deceased soldier was a paratrooper. A jar containing any documents or tags that would identify the body was included. Many were buried in a temporary graveyard nearer to the beach and relocated to their current resting place in the cemetery.
While many perished on June 6, other burials show dates later in the year 1944, when the fighting continued inland for months as the Allied Forces drove southward to liberate France and all of Europe.
On the morning of June 6, nothing seemed to go according to plan. First, the weather was dreadful, with fog, wind and terribly rough waters. In the early morning hours miles off shore, the soldiers who were about to storm the beaches were given a huge breakfast of eggs, sausage, pancakes, biscuits, almost anything they desired. The well-intentioned thought was an effort to have them well-nourished for what was going to be a strenuous and dangerous landing. With 5-foot waves and being transported for miles by flat bottom transport boats, sea-sickness became a real issue for the majority of the men.
Prior to their landing, the Allied Forces were to bomb the landing beaches where the Nazis had manned bunkers and possessed the most powerful machine guns in the world at the time. However, due to the fog, the bombers couldn’t see the Nazi targets. The pilots were fearful of dropping bombs on the allied soldiers in the transport boats, influencing them to wait a few extra seconds to be safe before dropping their munitions. The result was the bombing took place inland, totally missing the beach and the hunkered down Nazis, meaning these seasick soldiers weighted down with 50 to 70 pounds of equipment had to storm the beaches with machine gun fire raining down on them. As the front gate dropped, the first wave of soldiers were immediately mowed down before getting out of the transport boat. Survivors recall the boats being ￼filled with blood, water and vomit. The smell was horrendous and something they have never forgotten. After seeing the fate of the soldiers at the front of their landing boats, others decided to jump off the side of the boat only to drown being weighed down with equipment and weak from extreme sea sickness. These were mere boys in their late teens weighing on average 160 pounds.
There is a chapel located in the middle of the cemetery, with two engravings on opposite sides of the room. The first says, "Through the gate of death may they pass to their joyful resurrection." The second says, "Think not only of their passing remember the glory of their spirit.” There are German Nazi bunkers still remaining in the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, the origin of endless and relentless machine gun fire. While some of these bunkers are visible, many of them can no longer be viewed, as they are now owned by private residents who live there. Many have been converted to less deadly uses, such as wine cellars, flower gardens, etc.
As you enter the cemetery, there is a large semi-circular wall displaying the names of those missing in action. As some of the missing were identified, a mark is placed next to their name. There are 1,554 names of missing on this wall. In the cemetery, there are 307 with stones naming the deceased as “unknown.” I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these men were listed on the wall of the missing in action and the match was never made. There is also a large map showing the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, D-Day. The length of each arrow displays the speed and the amount of territory the Allies secured during the invasion. The arrows with the star are the Americans. This map seems upside down, but it's the way the military positioned the map as they drew up the plans.
On Normandy Beach there stands a moving and emotional French statue displaying a soldier dragging a wounded soldier to safety in the midst of war. This map is engraved on the wall of the monument, which is at the entryway of the Normandy Cemetery.
This invasion literally saved the free world. The bravery and sacrifice of the “Greatest Generation” should always be considered one of our most sacred treasures. We all thrive and benefit in the state of freedom because of these young men.
I’ll finish with the prayer read to the nation by President Roosevelt as the invasion began.
“Almighty God: 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.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”