Return to D-Day: 35 Men, 70 Landings at Normandy
It was just a rock, flat and slightly oval, completely nondescript except for its color. Of all the rocks on that blustery French beach, this one caught my eye and halted my stroll for long moments as I stared at it. It was a rusty red, a color familiar to me from other distant battlefields.
“Pretty rock,” the old man said in a tone hushed by the hiss of Atlantic surf and a certain reverence for where we were on that day in early June.
“Guess so…” I followed his gaze out to the horizon where he seemed to see something I could not. “It just reminded me of something.”
The old man adjusted the thick lenses he required to see after 80 years of watching the world spin through war and peace, staring once again at the rock amid the sands of Omaha Beach. “Dried blood.” he grunted. “Could be mine. I landed right near here. Got hit at the high-water mark; never made it off the beach.”
The incident stayed with me for the remainder of the day I spent walking Omaha and Utah beaches with a group of World War II veterans who had soldiered on or over those bloody sands back in June 1944. For several days prior to the beach walk, I’d listened quietly, in a constant state of awe, as they related their stories of what they’d seen, done, or suffered on that day when Allied forces finally cracked Hitler’s stranglehold on the continent and pushed on to liberate the people of Nazi-occupied Europe. There was always a tint of humor in the stories, a certain self-deprecating attitude about their individual efforts on that crucial day in the bloody history of World War II, but the common intensity of their reflections was almost palpable.
Pressed for details, the old soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fought on D-Day would often tell me they couldn’t remember one detail or another. “It was a long time ago,” most would say. And then they would proceed to relate the most intimate and personal feelings and impressions they still carried from that infamous day. “If there was ever a seminal experience in my life,” said one old 1st Infantry Division trooper, a rare survivor of the first wave to land at Omaha Beach, who went on to become a college professor, “that was it. Everything changed forever because of that experience. I was never able to look at life the same way after D-Day.”
All of his fellow veterans agreed on that point if not much else as they caroused, remembered, and re-visited the places where their lives changed forever. And they were all devoutly grateful for the chance to tour the place where the change took place. In a strange way, all seemed to view the visit like someone who has been gone for a long time and found himself back in his hometown, walking around and remembering the places where he was born and raised. “That’s it exactly,” said one of the veterans who had been shot out of his landing craft on the approach to Utah Beach. “You could say I was born on that beach. I was one man before D-Day and another man entirely after that.”
“The guy who said you can never go home again had it right,” the rifleman turned college teacher commented as he stared at a museum manikin garbed in the same uniform and carrying the same weapon he rememberd from his days as a soldier. “You go through something like war and nothing is ever the same again. It’s hard to believe it can change a man the way it does, and maybe that’s why I came back here — just to recall how that kind of change happened.”
It was author Thomas Wolfe who expressed the sentiment in the titles of his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again. After the D-Day visit with those old veterans, I re-read Wolfe’s book and found what he — and those old veterans — meant concerining life-changing events. “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,” Wolfe wrote, “back home to the old forms and systems of things that once seemed everlasting.” The author said something else that would make a fitting epitaph for any of those old soldiers and for combat veterans who survive other wars:
“This is a man, who, if he can remember ten golden moments of joy and happiness out of all his years, ten moments unmarked by care, unseamed by aches or itches, has power to lift himself with his expiring breath and say: I have lived upon this earth and known glory!”
Foreward by Capt. Dale A. Dye, USMC (Ret.) excerpted from Return to D-Day: 35 Men, 70 Landings at Normandy published by Warriors Publishing Group in collaboration with The Greatest Generations Foundation. A portion of proceeds from the sale of this book goes directly to the foundation.