Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day: the day of a lifetime

          (23rd in a series)
          It was the most monumental day in the modern world's history, and the reason I say that is because that's what my Dad always told me.
         If not for the events of June 6, 1944 -- a day of great heroism and great tragedy -- Dad likely would not have been a Holocaust survivor. Same for my mother.
         Because they survived, because of the unprecedented surge of military force on a foreign shore, my life became a reality three years and 10 days later.
The American cemetery at Normandy
(from commons.wikimedia.org)
         Without the D-Day invasion, without those American, Canadian and British troops storming the beaches in Normandy, France, and marking the turning point of World War II, what would have happened?
         Who knows how much longer they and the fellow concentration-camp prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau or, in Dad's case, the Janina mining camp, would have survived the Nazi hell.
          My Dad, and my mother, were forever grateful for D-Day. As soon as he thought I was old enough to understand, Dad explained how much June 6, 1944, meant to him and to us. And, of course, to the whole world.
          We talked about it over the years, especially on June 6, but I don't remember what, or if, he talked about the question that's on my mind now, one of those hundreds of questions I wish I could go back and ask.
           When did the people being held in the concentration camps, people like my parents for whom the outside world had been closed by the Nazis for almost two years and who had been under German control for more than four years, learn about D-Day?
           They must have, I am guessing, heard rumors in the camps or noticed the increased worry shown by the SS and other Nazi guards. Dad alluded to that in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview on the Holocaust when he noted that in June 1944 the prisoners in his camp were forced to stand at attention for 24 hours.
           It took another half year, with the prisoners' physical and mental conditions deteriorating even more than they already had and the Germans becoming more desperate -- it was obvious by then they were not going to "win" the war -- before the Allied forces, the Russians from the right and the (mostly) Americans from the left -- discovered the camps.
           They found the harrowing barracks and heavily fenced-in enclosures and -- yes -- the gas chambers, with the smell of death, all around ... and the survivors, many of them devastated and clinging to life.
           Dad was one of those, probably in better condition than many. It was the Russian Army that came into the camp hospital at Janina where he and 27 others remained when the Nazis bolted in January 1945.
           My mother also was rescued by the Russians after she and a dozen other women from Auschwitz's infamous Block 10 -- the medical-experiment block -- had been forced to walk through the southern Poland woods for a couple of weeks. 
            In both my parents' cases, the Russian Army provided some basic necessities but not much comfort. My Dad began a circuitous route back home -- Antwerp, Belgium -- where he'd been living with his first wife before the German occupation.
            My mother and her buddies were told by the Russians that an American Army camp was nearby, and they went there to receive -- as my mother always told it -- royal treatment. There, she decided, America was a place she wanted to live.
            They would not have been there without the D-Day invasion. I think it's natural to assume that.   
---
              I am no student of wars and, frankly, don't relish reading about their history. I read enough about World War II and the concentration camps because I've heard about them almost all my life and because I needed background for writing the chapters in my Dad's Holocaust story.
             In preparing to write about D-Day, I read some Internet stories and watched a few minutes of a couple of YouTube videos. It was difficult.
             I have always thought of the nearly impossible mission the Allied forces had storming those beaches, with the German machine guns set up to mow them down.
             It took wave after wave of men jumping from the boats into water deep enough to drown many with their packs of equipment sending them to the bottom and, if they surfaced, making their way to the sand, somehow dodging bullets hitting rapid-fire all around, and then fighting through obstacles such as hedgehogs and stakes and a sea wall and rows of barbed wire ... and land mines.
             How the heck did they do that?
             I could go on and give you the facts and figures, the details, but there are a hundred thousand sources for that. I just marvel at how it all happened.
---
             When the movie The Longest Day came out in 1962, it was billed as the story of D-Day. My Mom and Dad wanted to see it; for some reason -- I guess because they thought we could handle it -- they took (my sister) Elsa and me along. We saw it, as I recall, at the old Sunset (Acres) Drive-In in Shreveport.
             Tell you now, I couldn't handle it. I've not forgotten how uncomfortable it made me. Never wanted to see it again.
             I looked this up online to recall the movie. This was a helluva production, the story told from the Allied and German perspectives, with a spectacular cast. The billed stars, from imdb.com, were John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Richard Burton and Henry Fonda. Some of the other notables in the cast (alphabetically): Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Red Buttons, Sean Connery (he wasn't yet Mr. Bond), Richard Dawson, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Tommy Sands, George Segal, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner.         
             Here's what I remember most: The scenes of the men crossing the beach, stepping on the land mines and being blown away. Too graphic for me then. Six years later, that scene would play out in real life, in Vietnam, to Trey Prather, a good friend and one of the greatest athletes I've known.
             The Longest Day and the "greatest generation" (thank you, Tom Brokaw, who helped made that term for those World War II veterans a common expression). That was D-Day.    
---
            On June 6, 1944, Dad was exactly one month short of 25 years old. My mother was 22. Dad lived another 64 years; Mom lived another 66. Without D-Day, who knows?
             It strikes me today -- on the 70th anniversary of D-Day and as some of the world leaders and the veterans of the invasion gathered on the beaches at Normandy to honor the day -- that most of the Holocaust survivors and most of the men in the armed forces have left us.
              Even the veterans who might've fudged their age and enrolled in the military before they were 18 are nearly 90 now. But as they leave us, it is up to the generations who followed to honor their memory -- and we will.
              God bless those people, the leaders' vision and the courage of the men who carried it out and ended the insanity of World War II. God bless those who were lost on D-Day and those who survived ... including the two people who gave me life.
              Greatest generation indeed. Monumental day. My Dad told me that.
              Next: Finding the way back (but heartbreak, too)
                   

16 comments:

  1. From Dr. Donald Webb: Thanks, Nico. Well said. I value your blogs, good friend.
    A couple of small demurrers, though? For strange reasons which we needn't go into, I was as familiar with the D-Day landing (and sacrifices) of the Free French as of the Americans, Brits, and Canadians. You mentioned only two of the four.
    And though we don't talk of it much, maybe your parents, around D-Day time, were in fact also indebted to the enormous sacrifices of the Soviet soldiers, as to any?
    But I'm just niggling. Your writings are powerful, and deeply necessary.

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  2. From Mark Murov: Super post. Your writing style is utterly consistent -- substantive and casual at the same time, a real tapestry. You may have had a hard beginning in this world, but it certainly gave you all the content any writer could ask for.

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  3. From Casey Baker: Thank you for your blog. Another thing we should never lose sight of is that those were mostly 18- and 19-year-old kids who helped save the world. (Son) Brian said that one of the things he regrets he didn't do while in France was to
    go to Normandy.

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  4. From Patrick Booras: To long life. To happy life. Remembering with honor those who sacrificed to provide it.

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  5. From Sandi Tison Atkinson: My Daddy was a part of the D-Day invasion, but in a trailing group. By the time his group reached the shore, it was under Allied control. He seldom spoke of it and, like you, I wish I had asked more questions. His older brother was in one of the lead groups and, although he survived physically, he was never the same again, mentally or emotionally. Back then it was called "shell shock," but now we know it as PTSD. I never knew my Uncle Doyle to be anything but a sweet, but melancholy, man.

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  6. From Tom Arceneaux: Blessings to you, Nico. I've reprinted my thought for the day ... President Roosevelt's prayer to the nation on June 6, 1944. ... We have young men and women today who are fighting once again to preserve our values and our way of life. Let your prayer for them ring forth as did President Roosevelt’s 70 years ago. And if, today, you see someone who is serving or has served in our armed forces, thank them for your good sleep last night.

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  7. From Tommy Youngblood: Good comments and everyone should always hold on to those principles.


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  8. From Barbara Spinks: I loved this, Nico. You are so good at expressing yourself.

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  9. From Mike Richey: I really enjoyed your blog on D-Day. I say with sadness that I never really thought about it from the perspective that you wrote. Oh, my heart has ached for all of the Jewish families that suffered so greatly, but had just never put two and two together that D-Day was such a big reason so many like your parents survived.

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  10. From John Morris: Enjoyed your blog. I do enjoy the history and the stories because I want to always remember what so many endured and sacrificed so that future generations, like us, could enjoy the benefits of freedom. I regret that too many young people don’t know the story and are not interested in hearing it. Last October I got to walk along Omaha Beach, see the cliffs and gun emplacements, and to marvel at what those young people achieved. I stood reverently in the cemetery at Normandy. In fact, one of the first crosses I saw bore the name Gladys H. Couch PFC 2nd Infantry Division Texas June 12, 1944. It was a trip on my bucket list and one I will never forget. So many young lives ended on June 6, 1944, and in the ensuing days for the price of freedom from a terrible tyranny. We take it all for granted while those who actually lived through the experience are quickly passing away. The world should not forget. Thanks for the reminder, Nico.

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  11. From Maxie Hays: Awesome, Nico. God bless you, your parents and all the other members of your family. And yes, God bless those who lived and died at Normandy on June 6, 1944. I was 4 years old on that day and my oldest brother was flying 19 missions over Italy as a nose gunner in a B-17 bomber. He was born in 1923 and died in 1973 at the age of 50. Those missions contributed in part to his early death.

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  12. From Vince Langford: Wanted to say how much I enjoyed your D-Day blog. That was great, really well crafted. D-Day is special to me because it was special to my mom and dad. That blog piece helped set the day for me.

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  13. From Tommy Canterbury: My wife and I took Dad (who passed away 4 months ago at 93) back to Omaha Beach where he landed a month after D-Day. That was about 15 years ago. We followed most of his steps from Normandy, through Paris, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and mainly to his action in Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge.
    Unbelievable trip for us. Sad, happy, etc. Dad's closure was not words but his face/eyes as he saw a beautiful day on the Rhine River near the end of the trip. Quite different from his "first group in Germany" crossing the Rhine to liberate at the time. So special. He saw Europe /Germany, not on fire but happy and beautiful on that day. Fantastic for all of us.
    He had and we have many black and white pictures of the horror of a Nazi concentration camp finally taken over by Americans in Germany. Again, the horror of the prior five years. A life-changing trip.

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  14. From Pat Flenniken: Thank you so much for sharing this again and for the remarkable story of your parents. I think many of us today lose sight of the bravery and sacrifice of those young men.

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  15. From Doug Nicholas: It's hard to imagine the magnitude of the sacrifices made then, and too easy for many to forget, or never know, in this increasingly self-centered, self-absorbed world. But some will always remember, and be supremely thankful.

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  16. From Donna Albritton: My Daddy is alive and well, and sharp as a tack at 93. ... As a junior naval officer, he delivered troops to shore on D-Day.

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