Sainte-Mère Église, Normandy, France
During a week in which many of the comrades of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl have expressed outrage at what they say was his betrayal of his country in Afghanistan, it’s refreshing to return to the beaches of Normandy for a celebration of the authentic heroes who stormed ashore here 70 years ago this week.
Northern France was under the boot of Nazi occupation, and was defended by an intimidating array of fortifications and gun emplacements all along its coast. But on June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of beaches whose names have gone down in history — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword — in what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and at the cost of 9,000 killed or wounded soldiers, the Allies gained a toehold in Europe that became the staging area for the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.
The passage of years has taken its toll on the veterans. Take Pointe du Hoc, a series of 100-foot cliffs that were scaled by U.S. Army Rangers at great peril on June 6. “In 1984, when President Reagan gave his famous speech
at Pointe du Hoc, there were 15 busloads of 82nd Airborne troops who had parachuted into France there,” recalls Keith Nightingale, a retired colonel with the 82nd Airborne who has visited Normandy 30 times since his first visit in 1977. “This year, the unit will only be represented by two men.”
But while the ranks of the original veterans are thinning, their places at the lavish commemorations that are held here every five years are being taken by younger generations. Schoolchildren in Normandy are required to learn about “the Liberation,” and many know more about the battle’s disposition of various units than some of the returning veterans. More than 200,000 people are crowding into the Normandy region this week, and more than 12,000 of them — including world leaders from many countries — will attend the main memorial services.
Some of those attending take D-Day very seriously. Al Clayton is one of hundreds of “reenactors” who have come over from England to set up camp and play Allied soldier for a week. Clayton is proud of his completely restored American jeep and his uniform that marks him as part of the “Red Ball Express,” the units that supplied the front lines by truck. “I know most of the drivers were black and I’m clearly not, but I still want to honor what they did,” he told me.
At the beautifully landscaped American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, a map lays out just how the invasion took place and how strenuously the Germans tried to push the Allies back into the sea. In a gathering around the map on Wednesday were two returning D-Day veterans, patiently giving interviews and having their pictures taken with tourists. Clifford Dill, a 90-year-old peppery former combat infantryman from Greenville, S.C., regales us with stories of how he still drives a large truck around the country and was just stopped for speeding. Asked about his experiences at D-Day, he told me: “I had two thoughts always in my mind. It was ‘kill or be killed,’ and my job was to shoot as many Germans as possible. I did that, which is why I survived.”
Bill Prinlible is a 92-year-old vet from Pennsylvania who flew C-47 missions during and after D-Day to resupply the troops on the ground. He says people would be astonished at how much younger than he many of his fellow pilots were, and just how many missions they had to fly in a day. “We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how we were making history,” he told me. “We just had a job to do and did it.”
I am visiting Normandy along with members of the Reagan Legacy Foundation, which was founded by Michael Reagan, the president’s oldest son. At a welcoming dinner last night at the château of Alexis de Tocqueville, Reagan noted that his foundation was unveiling a film on the significance of D-Day at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère Église this week. He reminded his listeners that his father died exactly ten years ago, on June 5, 2004. “We are here to honor the veterans but also to honor a president who spoke so eloquently about their sacrifice,” he told me. Indeed, after the dinner a French businessman came up to me clutching a brochure bearing Reagan’s words from his 1984 speech at Pointe du Hoc: “The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next.” The man was visibly moved by the dinner we had just attended, but also moved by Reagan’s long-ago words. “He explained the meaning of it all the best, and we remember both D-Day and him,” he told me.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.