Prelude to Day Seven- A Word About Dates
Updated: Feb 25
From an early age, I instinctively kept track of important dates. Not just the ones that any kid learns to remember--birthdays, Halloween, Santa’s annual visit, and so on--but also any event or moment that stood out to me as worth remembering. For years I remembered the date I saw my first professional baseball game, the date I got my first award in elementary school, the date I scored my first ever goal in a soccer match. I remembered not-so-fun dates, too--the day I got in my first schoolyard fight (yeah, that went poorly), the day I got lost in the mall, the day I first got dumped by a girlfriend. As those date anniversaries looped around the calendar, I’d note them as they neared, arrived, and receded, making meanings out of them somehow, for better or worse. It made for a rather rough emotional roller coaster ride for me, most of which I kept to myself until I was well into my adult years.
But there was a great benefit to my date-remembering skill - it really helped me in my history classes. It might seem obvious to say, but dates matter in history. Dates, names, and places are the foundations of history just as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are the foundations of math; you’d be hard-pressed to succeed in either discipline without those foundational pieces. Unlike with math (which just befuddled me most of the time), I nailed my multiple-choice tests in social studies and history and found it pretty easy to remember chronologies of events once I’d read about them. I was That Kid who raised his hand to every “can you tell me what happened on [insert whatever historical date here] and where and why it’s important” question from the teacher and wrecked the grade curve in history class. I may have been extraordinarily sensitive to name-calling and labeling as a kid and especially as a teenager, but I wore the moniker of History Nerd proudly. I still do--except now it’s “Dr. History Nerd” (damn right I’m proud of that).
June 6, 1944, was one of those dates that stuck with me from the moment I first read about it in a social studies textbook in the fifth grade. I remember the date standing alone in boldface type as a section heading with no explanation of what it meant--as if the date itself was so important it needed no other title. Which, of course, is true. Within a few lines, though, the date had a name to go with it: D-Day. With as much detail as a fifth-grade textbook provides, I first read about the Allied invasion of Normandy, what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “Great Crusade” to begin the liberation of France and Western Europe from four years of Nazi-occupation. I remember being so enthralled by what I read that I promptly went home and read more about it in our encyclopedia set (yeah, that dates me. But so what? It was a golden time of actual card catalogs in libraries, too. Now get off my lawn...).
Every year since, the anniversary of D-Day comes and goes marked by news reports on TV, in newspapers, and more recently (well, the past twenty years or so), the internet. In high school, I did a major project on the Normandy landings, and in college, I dug even deeper into the subject as a History major. In 1994, on the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, I remember watching Tom Brokaw open the NBC Nightly News from the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach and cover the commemoration ceremonies in detail. A few years later came Steven Spielberg’s epic cinematic treatment of D-Day and the first days of the Normandy campaign, the unforgettably visceral Saving Private Ryan. A few years after that, in the fall of 2001, the HBO series Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose’s famous book of the same name, portrayed the airborne portions of the D-Day mission memorably--including the harrowing flights of C-47s over the beaches under heavy ground fire in the dead of night. In the popular imagination, few events of World War II rival that of D-Day, and for understandable reasons. The date of June 6, 1944, is right up there with December 7, 1941, as one of the most well-known in the American history of World War II.
June 6, 1944, in France, rises to another level as a date of significance, of course. I’d seen that on my previous visits to Normandy, but not on an actual anniversary date; that fact made the VFT visit to Normandy on the 75th anniversary of the landings something unprecedented for me, despite my familiarity with the event and with the battle sites throughout Normandy. All of us on the VFT team were up early on June 6, 2019, ready to cover all we could. All that remained was deciding where to go….
The American cemetery at Omaha Beach was the obvious answer to us initially, and would likely be for anybody. Our original plan before we’d left the States was to do just that, and accordingly Julia secured us passes and filming releases to attend the main D-Day remembrance at the cemetery where heads of state from around the world would gather along with surviving veterans of the landings, their families, and screened/approved members of the general public.
However, once we’d arrived in Normandy and seen just how packed the entire region was for the week, we began to rethink our strategy. Traffic to the cemetery from where we were staying in Bayeux promised to be a nightmare, and the guidelines and program for the event would have put a lot of restrictions on where we could go and who we might be able to talk with on camera. In addition, we wanted to be able to capture a sense of the places we were visiting, of the terrain and the sense of place so vital to connecting with history in person. The more we thought about it, the more we became convinced that covering a vast ceremony that would already be accessible to people around the world via television coverage was redundant. In the end, we decided to leave our Omaha Beach visit for the following day, when it was likely the crowds would be smaller and access to more points of interest would be easier.
But that was where we wouldn’t be going for the 75th-anniversary commemoration. So where would we go instead? The evening after our visit to Sannerville, I scanned through my notes and resources, then took a look online at the various options throughout Normandy where we might find unique access and options for coverage. The process took a few hours, but by the end of it I felt strongly about being right in the middle of it all for June 6, 2019--literally. Come back soon to find out what I mean by that.
In the meantime, crack open an encyclopedia for old time’s sake--if you can find one.