As you walk the beach at Vierville-sur-Mer, you marvel at the serene beauty, topped by imposing bluffs.
You noticed that this peaceful Normandy, France beach has a monument amid the tranquility, dedicated to National Guard soldiers who landed there on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Many met death or maiming on that beach, which is better known as the code-named Omaha Beach.
You walk along the beach, and your imagination takes hold. How did any soldier escape that beach 76 years ago unhurt? How was that possible?
In the adjacent town of Colleville-sur-Mer, you encounter the beautifully manicured Normandy American Cemetery, populated by roughly 9,300 white marble crosses and Stars of David. At first you’re impressed by the extreme care and attention bestowed on the hallowed ground. Then, you face reality.
Thousands of young men, many from Maryland and Virginia, never rejoined their families and friends at home. They had participated in the greatest amphibious assault in military history.
In 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I accompanied veterans of the famed 29th Infantry Division (Blue and Gray). They were men in their 70s. Some had walkers. They all had memories of their dead buddies.
Many cried. It was their last farewell in most cases to men who fought together during the treacherous Normandy Campaign. The veterans had witnessed horrific human destruction. Omaha Beach was a killing field that they would never forget.
A surprise assault in Normandy, instead of the expected Calais, benefitted the Allied forces. Still, German firepower took its toll.
I’m unsure whether the citizen soldiers understood the enormity of their mission on D-Day. They struck a blow, like no other, for freedom and democracy.
They fought for their country; they fought for their comrades-in-arms. They overcame fear. They were brave, relentless souls.
They were young men. That’s always the case. Many had children whom they had never met.
On a visit to Normandy in 1988, I walked around a small cemetery in Normandy containing the graves of German soldiers. They too were young, some 18 or 19. Did they embrace the Nazi vision of a great white, Aryan race, or did they serve because they had no choice?
Memories of past wars, including great victories and ignominious defeats, may fade, overcome by daily concerns and everyday calamities. Some memories, however, deserve to be emblazoned on our collective memory.
Waves of soldiers assaulted the French resort beach on an overcast morning, delivered by U.S. Navy landing boats. Some Navy boat commanders moved in as far as they could; many did not because of the overwhelming German firepower.
The beach became littered with bodies and frightened soldiers. Chaos reigned as it often does at the beginning of combat despite exhaustively designed plans. Reality often overcomes hope.
I’ve written before about Harold Baumgartner, an enlisted man badly wounded and evacuated to England. He later became a family practice doctor in Jacksonville, FL. He told me that his wartime experience prompted him to provide health care paid sometimes by patients with vegetables and fruit.
Were I to walk Omaha Beach again, I would continue to be unable to forget the personal destruction that imposed itself 76 years ago on a waterfront slice of sand and rocks. I will remember forever the battle-hardened veterans who walked tearfully through the rows of a lovely, well-kept and somber cemetery on the French coast. Their generation typically did not show emotion.
D-Day, June 6,1944, brought the beginning of the end for the Third German Reich at an incalculable human cost.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.