Visiting D-Day beaches: The morning of liberty

Seventy-five years later, June 8, 2019, I stood and gazed at that very same beach and watched the calm, still waters of the English Channel wash up onto the peaceful shore.

By BEN G. FRANK
July 13, 2019 23:20
Over 9,000 graves fill the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France

MORE THAN 9,000 graves fill the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)

 
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Seventy-five years ago, my cousin, the late Manny Charach, landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on June 8, 1944, two days after the initial landing on June 6 – which is known as D-Day – the day which initiated the Allied invasion of France in World War II.

Seventy-five years later, June 8, 2019, I stood and gazed at that very same beach and watched the calm, still waters of the English Channel wash up onto the peaceful shore.

Looking over the cliffs of Normandy, it wasn’t hard to recall a childhood memory: On D-Day, 1944, our elementary school teacher asked her very young class to stand up and say a prayer for the American soldiers fighting to gain a foothold in France to defeat the Germans. That day, seven decades ago, would be defined by the French newspaper Le Figaro as “the morning of liberty.

As I walked along Omaha Beach, I was accompanied by thousands of visitors, who also felt the need to come to this historical site. Joining me were the last few surviving veterans of the Allied armies – less than a thousand D-Day veterans are alive today; young soldiers who now serve and are clad in their respective military uniforms; as well as seniors, the middle aged, young adults and teenagers, all paying homage to the men and women who died in Operation Overlord.

Most visitors are American and French, but there are contingents from all over the world. I was surprised to meet army veterans from Sweden, clad in their old battle fatigues. Somewhat apologetic that their “country wasn’t in the war,” they quickly added that Sweden took care of  RAF pilots who made emergency landings on Swedish airbases after bombing runs in Norway.

The day I visit is breezy and sunny. On D-Day itself, as the invasion landing craft moved in, waves were five to six feet high in mid-channel – higher than expected, but not impossible to get to shore. Still, some of the craft were swamped and some were wrecked. In one sector, of the 32 tanks going onto Omaha Beach, 27 were lost.

Our guide shows us the famous hedgerows that bogged down the American advance. This landscape of thick, banked hedges proved difficult for tanks to breach. In an effort to restore battlefield mobility, various devices were invented to allow tanks to navigate the terrain.

The US, Great Britain and Canada had assembled an attack force of more than 150,000 soldiers, 50,000 vehicles, 11,000 planes and 6,000 ships and landing craft to cross the channel.  More than 12,000 from those nations were killed, wounded or declared missing by the end of D-Day, nearly 8% of the invasion force. It was here, on the four-mile wide Omaha Beach, that the bloodiest engagement of D-Day was fought. Many of the soldiers who left the landing craft were drowned because of the weight of their field packs. As other waves of troops came ashore, they had to step over the bodies of dead soldiers floating in the surf.

While I’m on Omaha Beach, where American troops landed, I must mention that US troops also stormed Utah Beach; the British landed on Gold Beach; the Canadians on Juno; and British/French troops on Sword. All five beaches were secured by the end of D-Day.

Although the invasion took the Germans by surprise, they responded fiercely. Omaha Beach became known as “Bloody Omaha.” After viewing bombed-out German bunkers, I tried to imagine the beach that day in 1944 and conjured up scores of burning tanks as well as crumpled trucks and jeeps littering the sand. Today, one still sees destroyed pillboxes near monuments.

“Had the Allied landings failed,” historians say, “the Nazis would have probably strengthened their hold on Europe, lengthening the war for at least two years. As a result, millions more Jews and others would have been murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

ONE OF THE most impressive sights on the D-Day Beaches is Pointe du Hoc, a rocky peninsula on the Normandy beach. Here, US Rangers scaled the straight-up, 100 ft. high cliffs of this strategically important location. First, they climbed free hand despite a rain of German grenades. Then they used grapnels and braided ropes fired from mortar tubes. They then hauled themselves over the lip of the cliff. Finally, they used thermite grenades to wreck five German shore guns.

I visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, which is lined with crosses as well as Stars of David. Nearly 10,000 people are buried here. I stop by several graves of American Jewish soldiers, and I place stones on the headstones. One, Robert M. Pierson, may he rest in peace, died August 20, 1944. He was a first lieutenant in the 411 AAA, BN, from the State of New York.

Our guide tells us about an American Jewish soldier – Private Harold “Hal” Baumgarten, Company B. 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division – who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Baumgarten endured murderous enemy fire and was wounded five times in just 32 hours of fighting and had to be evacuated by hospital ship. He underwent 23 surgeries and later received many medals, including the Silver Service Medallion.

A visit to the Caen Memorial Museum is a good place to start when touring the Normandy beaches. Located in the city of the same name, which was almost completely destroyed by bombing during the invasion, the city proudly preserves an impressive historical legacy.

The memorial stands in the form of a Museum for Peace. The façade of the building of Caen faces Esplanade Dwight-Eisenhower. One display at the museum deals with the interwar years. A panoramic projection of D-Day is excellent.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the 20-year old museum is presenting a Norman Rockwell exhibition showcasing the “Four Freedoms” in Europe.

As for my cousin, Manny Charach: He survived the Battle of France, and the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. The recipient of a number of medals, he went on to meet up with the Russians, at the Elbe River in Germany in April 1945.

The writer is a travel writer and journalist, and is the author of the just-published ‘Klara’s War,’ a story of ‘danger, separation and love,’ depicted in this historical World War II novel. The new novel is part of the Klara Trilogy and is the sequel to ‘Klara’s Journey.’ Follow him on Twitter @bengfrank. www.bengfrank.blogspot.com.

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