Guest column: Commemorating D-Day at Omaha Beach (opinion)
Editor’s note: This column was originally published in May 2000. It has since been updated by the author. The Tribune is republishing the piece due to the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
It looked almost like any other beach. The sand was tan, smooth and fine. The surf was rough as the waves rolled in raining spray into the foggy mist along the shoreline. A few yards inland the hills were plush green, making a beautiful verdant landscape.
This isn’t any ordinary beach. To a visitor from the United States, one wonders whether beauty should ever abound here. This is where blood and carnage and valiance and heroism were rampant 75 years ago as Americans led allied forces in the great invasion of France.
In May 2000, my wife and I were part of a group of 61 Americans to visit the site. The group included 12 veterans of World War II, including several who participated in the invasion, and wives and descendants of other participants. We went back to this Normandy landing site as part of an American history tour of the war’s final chapter.
Their stories, and those of countless others that are told on the walls and pictures of scores of museums that dot the area like strategic battle maps, give special meaning to the word “poignant.”
The Normandy American Cemetery, which is seen briefly in the film “Saving Private Ryan,” is set upon a bluff with a panorama of miles of shoreline, commanding views of Normandy as though it is a protective umbrella. Visiting this hallowed ground is riveting. One gazes into the distance and tries to imagine what the scene was like in June 1944 when the horizon was filled with all types of allied naval vessels.
But walking the grounds of this cemetery cannot adequately be represented in film. Normally the definition of the words “stillness” and “moving” are contradictory. Here they merge into one. The stones have their own beauty. The rows, the files and the diagonals are in perfectly straight alignment.
At the cemetery, several of the gravesites display fresh flowers and/or small American flags. On the day we visited, a special wreath-laying ceremony was conducted by the group. The veterans in attendance stood at attention, flanked by the others.
To the bugle strains of taps and the sound of chimes playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” they moved forward and placed the wreath at the foot of the 22-foot bronze statue named “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves” and saluted.
Among the cemetery’s other features, interior walls of loggias contain large maps displaying the 1944 landings, air operations, amphibious assaults and military advances into May 1945’s final victory. But perhaps the most stirring structure is a semicircular wall in “The Garden of the Missing” displaying the names of 1,553 servicemen whose remains were never positively identified.
The juxtaposition of the Normandy beaches’ history and their current serenity is striking. It’s somewhat incongruous to hear birds singing and to see flowers blooming and baby strollers being pushed along the rims of bomb craters and the remains of what were once German defense bunkers.
This was especially true at Pointe-du-Hoc, the special location above Normandy where 225 rangers assaulted 100-foot high cliffs while German machine-gun fire rained down upon them. By June 8 only 80 rangers were left, many of them wounded.
Group participants Wanda Cooke and Linda Moore of Phoenix were mother and daughter. Lewis Cooke was Wanda’s husband and Linda’s father. A member of the 299th Combat Engineers regiment, he came ashore in the first wave at Omaha.
Carrying 50 pounds of dynamite plus additional equipment, he felt himself drowning as he struggled toward shore. He managed to cut himself free, injuring himself in the process. Cooke survived the war, passing away from cancer in 1998.
Wanda and Linda told the group that they came to Normandy because Lewis had been very closed-mouth about his war experiences. Because he would answer questions with only two or three syllables, they never knew what theatre he had been in.
About 10 years before he died, Linda asked him specifically where he had fought. His one-word answer: Omaha. So these ladies were intent on visiting the specific location their husband and father had gone ashore.
FATHER WAS A SOLDIER
Marion Mizutowicz Chorvat of West Chester, Pennsylvania, also a member of the tour, never knew her father. She told the rest of the group that she joined this historic tour because she wanted closure.
She was barely 2 years old on Sept. 20, 1944 when Walter Mizutowicz, 29, a member of the 51st Battalion, 4th Armored Division, fighting under Gen. Patton, was reported missing in or near Chateau Salins. His family never received confirmation of his death.
Nearly 56 years later, Marion claimed she was moving toward closure. She pulled out of her purse a plastic bag containing two items: one was white flowers she had picked off the beach; the other was a pair of wedding rings that had belonged to her parents.
“Today would have been their 60th wedding anniversary,” she said.
By the numbers
Statistics about this, history’s greatest armada and sea-based assault ever, tell an increasingly incredible story:
Although green American troops had trained for the Normandy landings for two years, extremely rough seas caused havoc. Many were so violently ill that the invasion was postponed for one day; additionally, only three of 32 “floating tanks” launched 10 miles out made it to the beaches intact.
Much of the Americans’ 2,200 tons of equipment was rendered inoperable. By the end of the day there were more than 10,000 allied casualties. The Germans believed the allies’ attack had failed.
The battle for Normandy is considered to have ended on Aug. 21, 1944. By then the Germans had suffered more than 400,000 casualties.
Michael Zucker is a resident of South Lake Tahoe. His wife Diane Zucker contributed to this article.