A Day at the Beach
By Patrick F. Cannon
Today is the 74th anniversary of the landings in Normandy of the American, British, Canadian, French and other Allied troops, who came early that morning to begin the liberation of Europe from the frightful tyranny of Hitlerism. I spent last Friday visiting the landing sites at Omaha Beach, and the American cemetery that overlooks it.
Over the years, I have been to many cemeteries. My wife Jeanette and I spent several hours one day in Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where one can see the tombs of Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Balzac, Proust, Edith Piaf, and even Jim Morrison. In our own beloved Chicago, Graceland Cemetery contains the graves of George Pullman, Marshall Field, Ernie Banks, Ludwig mies van der Rohe, and Louis Sullivan, among many others. It’s a must visit for anyone interested in Chicago history, but only Sullivan’s evoked any emotion. The greatest American architect of his time, he died broke; his modest monument paid for by his friends.
The Normandy visit came at the end of a small-ship cruise to Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Among the lecturers aboard were D-Day commander Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson David, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Allen Packwood, head of the Churchill Archives at England’s Cambridge University. Their talks gave context to our day at Omaha Beach.
Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled the sheer cliffs to prevent the Germans there from firing from above on Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east. To do this, they used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks. If you’ve seen the movie about D-Day, The Longest Day, you will have some idea of the bravery it took to climb Pointe du Hoc in the face of fierce opposition. They succeeded, but only some 70 of the 225 Rangers who went into action that day were fit for duty when it was over.
The majority of the 2,499 Americans who died on June 6 died on Omaha Beach, which now shows little evidence of what happened that day. Above it is the American Cemetery. Our group approached it from a parking lot. When the grave stones came into view, I had an immediate physical reaction. I had to work very hard not to sob out loud, but tears did come. Others, I could see, had similar reactions. There are 9,387 graves there, marked with white crosses and Stars of David. They represent only a portion of the approximately 280,000 American men – and women too, let’s not forget – who died in the European Theatre of Operations during the war.
The 2,499 who died on June 6 were thus only a down payment on the cost of liberating Europe. When the war ended, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Italy – and yes, even parts of Germany and Austria – had their freedom restored. It took longer – and thank God not another shooting war – to liberate the rest of Europe from Russian domination. I think it can be fairly said that Europe is freer now than at any time in its long history.
And the long process, and the sacrifices it took, all started on June 6, 1944, 74 years ago today. It was truly one of those days that changed the world. Think on it.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon