Day Seven- "Want to come.....?"
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read through my “Prelude to Day Seven” post before continuing below. It’s all about the context, context, context, of what follows below.
What’s fifty miles away from you? Pick any direction. For me on the outskirts of Seattle, that could be places like downtown Tacoma or up and into the Cascade Mountains eastward, or
down to where my parents now live their dream retirement life. Wherever it is for you, imagine that distance--and how long it takes you to cover it by car, motorcycle, bike, skateboard, Segue, or on foot--and you have an idea of the length of the D-Day invasion landing zone.
On June 6, 1944, approximately 150,000 troops from the United States, Great Britain, and other allied nations assaulted a fifty-mile long stretch of coastline, all of it lined with the heavy gun emplacements, machine gun nests, minefields, and soldiers of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.” Behind those defenses, among the hedgerows, farms, and dozens of small villages and larger towns, sat hundreds of long-range artillery guns pointed at the beaches and anti-aircraft guns pointed skyward. Thousands of German troops stood at the ready to reinforce the Atlantic Wall defenses, all of them interspersed among those same villages and towns where thousands of French civilians hoped for liberation and--more immediately--hoped to live through the battle to see it.
In their planning, the Allies divided that fifty-mile stretch of sand, bluffs, and cliffs into five assault zones, beaches they codenamed (in order from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. American forces would concentrate on Utah and Omaha, British troops would land on Gold and Sword, and Canadian forces on Juno. The plan was for American and British airborne forces (landing behind the appropriate beaches assigned to their nations) to land in the darkness behind the beaches before the troops splashed ashore to secure crossroads to prevent German reinforcement of the coast. By the end of that day, almost 4500 Allied troops had died, with thousands more wounded and missing, but their comrades had secured the beaches along that fifty-mile stretch deep enough to allow for thousands more troops and heavy equipment to come ashore. Though it took nearly two more months for the Allies to “break out” of Normandy and liberate the rest of France, the success of D-Day finally marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, if we weren’t going to be at Omaha Beach (for reasons I discussed in my previous post), then I figured why not be right in the middle of that fifty-mile stretch of land? That spot rests just between the Omaha and Gold Beach assault zones at the seaside commune of Arromanches-les-Bains, a spot the Allies identified as strategically vital. British seized the town on D-Day from land--not the beaches--to secure it as a location for one of the two massive artificial harbors the Allies would set up on the Normandy coast to bring in reinforcements and equipment. Known as “Mulberry” harbors, Arromanches still has the remains of its out in the shallows of the Channel, with some gigantic slabs of it accessible on foot during low tide. Built along the English coast, then submerged to hide them from enemy reconnaissance, then refloated and towed across the Channel after D-Day, the Mulberry Harbors were gigantic feats of engineering, essentially creating harbors in a place where there are few natural ones. Arromanches was one of the epicenters for the consolidation of the D-Day triumph, helping ensure that the sacrifices made that day wouldn’t be in vain. Arromanches also had the advantage of being quite close to where we were staying in Bayeux--the first sizeable town liberated by the Allies--so we hoped it would be easier to reach and navigate than our other options.
Arromanches central role, and location, made it an ideal place for us to center our 75th anniversary livestream. We knew it would be crowded with revelers and other visitors, and a ceremony with dignitaries and veterans was also on tap for the afternoon. We took back roads to get there, aided by Das’s seemingly all-seeing and knowing mega-GPS system (it makes Google Maps or Waze look like Pong compared to Kerbal Space Academy. There’s your shout out, Twitch gamers!). After dodging a couple of roadblocks along main roads, we found parking in an open field at the edge of Arromanches, the bulk of which lies on a downward slope from the bluffs down to the shoreline. With the stone cottages, narrow cobblestone streets, church spires, and quaint storefronts, the town is about as idyllic a scene as could be imagined. A fairy tale kind of town right out of a nursery rhyme or, as Julia saw it, “the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast.”
But our thoughts were on what was happening in town that day, and what it must have experienced seventy-five years earlier. We zigged and zagged down towards the center of town--which runs right along the beach--the crowds around and ahead of us growing in size steadily. Flags--France, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and more--flew from practically every window and rooftop. A brass band played relentlessly throughout the day, the sounds of wartime songs reverberating through the town over the bustling noise--and regular cheers--of the massive crowds filling the streets. Beer and wine flowed freely, as did laughter and reverential applause and cheering when World War II vets appeared--which was often. Everywhere we looked, too, were World War II vehicles--trucks, jeeps, tanks, motorcycles--all meticulously restored and manned by people decked out in the gear of the troops that landed seventy-five years previously. It all cast a level of realism to the scenes that none of us expected but delighted in--as if we were getting just a small glimpse of how it had been all those years before. As we found out later--and memorably, in one case (more on that below)--these were all local and regional residents, all of them dedicated to remembering the historical importance of D-Day by restoring and showing off all the equipment used by the Allies, so much of which ended up being left behind in France after the war.
Working our way into the throngs took time, and we had one eye on our watches--yep, had to get on in time for Twitch Front Page. So we needed a vantage point, one that didn’t consist of just holding the camera up above the heads of the people milling about. When we reached downtown, I quickly spotted what looked like a viable spot--the top of a hill along the beach, straight up a hill from the bulk of the crowd. It turned out to be a small park and memorial built on top of an old German bunker and gun emplacement from the Atlantic Wall. Adorned with an American Sherman tank, the top of the emplacement provided a full view westward over the town, the remains of the Mulberry harbor among the waves, and the surrounding cliffs and bluffs lining this section of coastline. We weren’t the only ones who’d identified the spot--camera crews, tents, and vans from the BBC and other international news outlets had also set up shop there. Miraculously, though, there was still a lot of space up there for us (yet another advantage to having all we needed in two backpacks--while they needed VANS. Just sayin’, BBC--LiveU has you beat).
Once set at our vantage point (where a number of the pictures you see with this post were taken), we got the livestream going and immediately had thousands of viewers. What we’d covered on previous days had built us a significant, dedicated following in Chat, and the questions and comments came flowing in from around the world. A number of onlookers became interested in what we were doing, including the news crews nearby. We handed out small cards to let people know what we were doing and where they could follow us, while we waited for the day’s agenda to play out--parades and music below us along the waterfront, equipment displays out on the beach (including amphibious vehicles in the water), and flybys overhead of some of the same planes we saw at Duxford, along with a special appearance by the Red Arrows--the British equivalent of the American Blue Angels or Thunderbirds.
In the meantime, being stationary in that particular spot presented a lot of opportunities for us to reflect on the day itself, on all we’d done and seen so far, and how interesting it was to see jubilant celebration going on alongside somber commemoration. They both certainly fit the occasion, but it was quite the paradox to see right in the locations where the monumental events happened. There was something “off” about it at first, and I thought about how such a party would be received if it were being held at a place like Gettysburg. Or Pearl Harbor. But those battles, as monumental as they were, weren’t moments of liberation like D-Day turned out to be (or, at least, the beginning of liberation). The restoration of freedom and peace would be cause for a party anywhere it happened for years to come. As I put it on the livestream, we can celebrate that result and simultaneously remember, honor, and commemorate the sacrifices made for it.
The day was a bustle of activity around us. We covered a wreath-laying ceremony by several high-ranking officers of militaries from around the world, watched a veteran’s parade led by bagpipes, and watched people make their way out onto the beach to take in the Mulberry ruins and get close up looks at the historical vehicles gathered there. About mid-afternoon, a British C-47 Dakota and a Spitfire did multiple flyovers of the beach, and not long after the Red Arrows blazed right over our heads at low altitude from the west, trailing red, blue, and white smoke behind them. Once that furor died down and we found ourselves surrounded more by staggering, drunk revelers than by topics or people of interest, we left our perch and went down to the beach. With the festivities coming to a close, soon it was us and a bunch of military vehicles, most of them zipping around on the damp sand, splashing up water and beach gunk behind them.
Out near the water, we could look eastward down Gold Beach to Juno, whereas the westward view to Omaha was blocked by a bluffed peninsula that jutted out just enough into the water to obscure any coastline that direction. The giant blocks of the Mulberry--each one several stories high and wide--loomed over us when we got close to them. They sat unevenly in the sand, their bottoms covered with algae and various sea life from its years sitting amid the shifting tides. Turning back to look at the waterfront of the town, it was easy to imagine the bustle all around the beach on D-Day and especially the days after. I wondered what it must have looked like to stand there and watch the Mulberry be slowly towed into position as Allied personnel organized the beach frantically into a working port with access roads leading further inland. The historical vehicles around us only added to that realism, and I found myself watching them for long periods of time. I must have looked a bit odd, standing out there in the middle of the sand taking it all in.
As our day began to wind down, we headed towards the western edge of the beach, deciding we wanted to cover the entire waterfront. Several Army Corps of Engineers bulldozers moved ahead of us into the town, us filming them closely with Das providing commentary. When we slipped past them off the sand and back onto the cobblestones, we came upon a middle-aged man and a teenager sitting in a beautifully-restored American jeep--a “Willy.” Both were dressed in full battle fatigues of soldiers in the American 101st Airborne, the younger one as a medic. The older man sat behind a mounted machine gun and, looking at Das and Saber filming them, beckoned to them and said in heavily-accented, broken English, “Want to come?” He gestured out onto the beach, and Das and Saber nearly lost their minds.
A ride. A jeep ride. On Gold Beach. On the 75th anniversary of D-Day...
Within seconds, both were in the jeep as the young man--the driver--hit the gas and sped back onto the beach and swung eastward, leaving the rest of us behind. Livestreaming the entire way (about a twenty-minute duration or so), Das and Saber bounced along roughly, laughing the entire way, conducting an ad hoc interview as best they could with their hosts. They were father and son from a region not far from Normandy, enthusiasts of World War II vehicles and memorabilia, who spent hours together restoring the jeep, which they often took out to anniversary celebrations of all kinds. They were so excited to be at Arromanches that day, and planned to be driving to various spots along the coast over the next few days. They talked about the importance of June 6, a date they remembered and commemorated every year along with the rest of their country. This specific year was bigger than most, but not that far out of the ordinary. It was a revealing exchange that underscored something that we’d sensed but hadn’t seen spelled out for us so clearly--for the French, this massive event in history was decidedly personal. Local. Immediate. Defining, even after seventy-five years.
For all of us, this encapsulated what we were doing that day, and on the VFT--experiencing and livestreaming out the depths of meaning involved in what D-Day was then and remains today, showing viewers firsthand the results of that liberation so long ago. It was a moment that began the process of giving millions of people--then, and now--their lives back, restoring their freedom of choice and expression and, above all, from tyranny.
So often those words, these days, sound like sloganeering or suspicious, or overly sentimental.
Not on this day. Not in this place. And not for these people.
June 6, 2019 turned out to be the day we witnessed the results of D-Day, in the long term. It had been a day of death, but it helped restore lives, too, and made new ones possible free of the Nazi jackboot. We celebrated with all those gathered who knew why it mattered so much. For that day, we were all the same people--and wow, did it feel good.
When we got back to Bayeux that night and reviewed the day, the juxtaposition with our next day’s destination couldn’t have been clearer.
Celebration and joy today at Arromanches. Commemoration and tears tomorrow at Omaha Beach.