In Normandy

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“…right out there. We were coming in on the LCI—I had the helm—and there was a destroyer in front of us, it was practically in the surf. Let me tell you, they knew what they were doing. Guns over there”—Bob Klug gestured to a headland a mile or two away—“were firing on us, and that destroyer let loose a few salvoes—bang, bang, bang—and that was that, they were gone. Best shooting you ever saw. But I always wondered, Where were those German guns?

On the tour: barbed wire at Utah Beach; the group at the Forbes chateau, Balleroy; and a stretch of impregnable-looking shoreline at Omaha.
 
catherine calhoun2000_1_6

“…right out there. We were coming in on the LCI—I had the helm—and there was a destroyer in front of us, it was practically in the surf. Let me tell you, they knew what they were doing. Guns over there”—Bob Klug gestured to a headland a mile or two away—“were firing on us, and that destroyer let loose a few salvoes—bang, bang, bang—and that was that, they were gone. Best shooting you ever saw. But I always wondered, Where were those German guns? I thought that was Pointe-du-Hoc, but I know the guns weren’t there on D-day.”

Bob was looking out over Omaha Beach, the first time he’d seen that mortal shore since June 1944, and I was with him because American Heritage had sponsored a tour of the Normandy-invasion beaches.

This was the inauguration of a new enterprise for us (we’ll be doing more tours this year), so I’d gone along, as had our publisher, Ed Hughes, and our general manager, Katie Calhoun. I went with a certain amount of ill grace; early fall is the busiest time in the editorial year—we’re just coming to the end of a run of four monthly issues—and the annual meteor shower of tiny calamities was thick about me.

My editorial duties seemed considerably less pressing in the red and gold of the Lion d’Or’s dining room. The old coaching inn in Bayeux was Eisenhower’s favorite restaurant all his life, and here we had a welcoming dinner, during which it became clear that the long strands of the war had drawn together an extraordinary group of people. There were some sixty of them, ranging in age from a newly married couple in their twenties to a dozen men who had been in this part of the world in 1944 and had not returned since.

The next morning these veterans laid a wreath before the bronze statue The Spirit of American Youth in the immaculately maintained cemetery above Omaha Beach. Behind them ran the white geometry of crosses and Stars of David that mark the graves or their comrades—9,387 of them—the marble bright against glowing grass, for even under low clouds and gusting rain the sky here is charged and radiant with ocean light.

After the wrenching, consolatory notes of taps sounded, our group wandered among the graves, eventually gathering at the overlook on top of the bluffs scaled by some of the men buried here—and, as it turned out, by some of those with us. This is when I heard Bob Klug wondering about what guns had been firing on him.

Ray Pfeiffer, who, with his wife, Cristy, operates (with formidable knowledge and energy) Historic Tours and had arranged this excursion, explained that that prow of land wasn’t Pointe-du-Hoc, but the smaller Pointe-de-la-Percée; the U.S. Rangers had made the same mistake on D-day, he said, heading for Percée instead of their objective, and had had to claw their way west under heavy fire. The destroyer had been the McCook .

Bob smiled. “I’ve wondered about the name of that ship for fifty-five years.”

How different was this, I found myself thinking, from what it would be like visiting, say, Gettysburg and having one of Winfield Scott Hancock’s aides come over and talk about what happened when the general realized that if the Rebs moved in from the northeast, they could punch through and cut the Union supply line on the Baltimore Pike?

I experienced this same feeling again a bit later on, at the museum on Utah Beach (the whole Cotentin Peninsula is peppered with fascinating small museums). On our way there I’d been leafing through a book that recounts in the most exacting detail all the special preparations for the landings, from the techniques for waterproofing tanks and bulldozers to what the troops carried. This thoroughly exhaustive study comments that nobody today can remember what the soldiers called the “Pliofilm wrappings” that protected their rifles from the surf.