Round Two: Reflections from Omaha Beach, June 5, 2002

Photo by Wim van 't Einde

A stiff breeze whipped off the English Channel as its waves angrily crashed ashore behind me.

In front of me lay a vast expanse of sandy beach, and behind that, bluffs rising as high as 160 feet or more dominated the landscape.

I was standing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. And I was alone.

I was here because my wife and I were part of a group taking a two-week bus tour through Western Europe visiting the famous battlefields and sites of World War II in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium and Luxembourg. The tour took us, among other places, to Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam, the Bridge at Remagen over the Rhine River in Germany, the courthouse that hosted the Nuremberg War Trials, the Nazi Parade Grounds in Munich, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest on a mountain summit in the Bavarian Alps, American military cemeteries throughout the region, “A Bridge Too Far” at Arnhem in the Netherlands, the Battle of the Bulge area at Bastogne in Belgium, and of course, Normandy.

And there I stood, at Omaha Beach, alone. Everyone on our tour had taken a pass on navigating the tricky path down the bluff to the beach, mainly because it traversed a wooded ravine from the top of the bluff all the way to the bottom, which would make for a rough trip down and a rougher one back up.

Everyone, that is, but me. A history buff since birth, I was going down to that beach if I had to roll down to it and crawl back to the top.

After carefully picking my way down the bluff, I reached the sand, walked the couple hundred yards across the beach to the water, squatted down and swished my hand around in the cold English Channel waters that hovered somewhere around 55 degrees (being careful not to get my tennis shoes soaked), stood back up, turned around and took in the scene around me.

The date was June 5, 2002. Nine days after Memorial Day and almost 58 years to the day – June 6, 1944 – since the most famous, and quite possibly most momentous, military battle in human history took place on that very beach and four others near it: D-Day. The day when Allied forces, in the largest seaborne invasion in history, began their assault on Hitler’s vaunted Atlantic Wall defenses that comprised the outer ring of Nazi Germany’s Fortress Europe.

Omaha Beach was soaked with American blood the morning of June 6, 1944. It was the most heavily defended of the Allies’ five-beach landing sector on D-Day, with soldiers of the U.S. 1st Army’s 5th Corps staggering ashore amidst a hail of unrelenting machine gun and artillery fire delivered by 12,000 well-entrenched troops of the German 352nd Infantry Division, which featured some of the Wehrmacht’s most experienced fighting forces that were dug in at the top of the bluffs.

I stood there, closed my eyes and tuned in to each sensation I was experiencing: the roar of the channel behind me, the sea breeze tousling my hair, the sand giving way beneath my tennis shoes.

And somewhere in this strange cacophony of nature merging with silence, I could hear the agonizing screams of young American soldiers meeting their deaths as a wall of German fire and steel swept across them on Omaha Beach. I could hear the explosions, the rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of German machine guns spraying the beach from high above, of soldiers frantically shouting commands, of the wounded pleading for help or for God to end their misery, of American and RAF planes roaring overhead bombing and strafing the German positions on the bluff to help alleviate the horror unfolding on the bloody sands below.

I could hear hell on earth.

I opened them again and looked around. Like June 6, 1944, the weather at Omaha Beach on June 5, 2002, was overcast with strong winds and rough seas. Many American soldiers were killed before they even reached the beach, cut down by German fire as they waded through hip- and chest-deep water, drowning under the weight of their equipment or trapped in their tanks that became swamped with water and sank to the bottom, or dying when the landing craft they were riding in was blown out of the water by artillery or a mine.

The U.S. Army suffered 3,686 casualties on D-Day, 2,400 of them coming on Omaha Beach. As I looked around at the lay of the land – American soldiers had to run a gauntlet of 300 yards of open beach from the water’s edge to the base of the bluffs – I wondered how anyone could have possibly survived. Somehow, by nightfall on D-Day, 34,000 troops had landed on Omaha Beach, gaining a tiny but tide-turning foothold in Hitler’s Fortress Europe. From where I stood, though, it was a miracle that every single American soldier who fought at Omaha Beach hadn’t been killed.

There was nowhere to hide. The only cover available that day had actually been provided by the Germans, who had placed steel obstacles on the beach which American soldiers used as makeshift shields as they bravely made their way to the base of the bluffs. There was also a low sand embankment on the beach that soldiers could crouch behind, but to advance beyond it meant climbing up and over it – and into the teeth of the deadly German fire.

Otherwise, Omaha Beach was a killing field.

I imagined what it must have been like to be one of those American soldiers on that June morning in 1944, wide-eyed as the landing craft I was in pitched and bobbed its way to a beach already cluttered with bodies of the dead and dying, huge splashes rocking the craft as German artillery shells barely missed their mark.

I imagined the smoke rising from the beach as American tanks and landing craft burned from German shells that did find their mark, then our landing craft skidding to a stop at the water’s edge, the craft’s door dropping to the ground and our group charging onto the sand as bullets whistled and zinged past my helmet.

I imagined the sheer terror I would have felt when I saw how high those bluffs were and how much beach I had to cross to find even a modicum of shelter, hoping and praying that our pilots above us and Navy ships behind us could wipe out enough of the Germans on the bluff before they wiped out all of us on the beach.

I imagined running as fast as I could across the beach to find whatever cover might be available as machine-gun fire danced across the sand and explosions rocked the beach in every direction.

I imagined that in this fight to free a continent, all that would have really mattered as a soldier on June 6, 1944, was finding a way to survive until June 7, 1944.

And I imagined all those American soldiers on the very beach where I now stood who gave, as President Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address in 1863, “the last full measure of devotion.”

I stood there on that windswept beach, the wild English Channel churning behind me, the bluffs above me now containing an American military cemetery filled with the bodies of men who died on D-Day. I soaked it all in, figuring I might never make it back to this hallowed ground.

I looked at my watch. It was time to head back up the bluff and rejoin the tour group. I slowly strolled across the beach to the base, taking in my final glances as I casually traversed the same few hundred yards that so many American soldiers had died on. Then I walked up the bluff path, greeted at the top not by the German 352nd Infantry Division but by my wife and our new friends in the group, asking me all about what it was like on Omaha Beach.

I told them what I could, but really all I experienced was a windy beach on a cloudy day. The real tale of Omaha Beach can only be told by those who fought – and died – there on June 6, 1944.

We honor these American soldiers and all others every Memorial Day. But I feel a special connection to those who were killed on the sands and in the waters of Omaha Beach, primarily because, unlike a lot of battlefields, I was the only person on the beach at the time.

It was just me, the sand, the water.

And the memory of those American soldiers who gave their last full measure of devotion.

+ posts

Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.