In Normandy

A German gun; Bob Klug at Red Dog Sector, where he was supposed to land (he came in farther west); Bob Carson (in blue cap) at the cemetery.
catherine calhoun2000_1_7

Going through the museum, I came upon Robert Carson and his son Steve standing in front of a wall-size blowup of a photograph of troops heading beachward on the deck of a LCI. Bob Carson had served with the 2d Division; the years had dimmed his sight considerably (but had left vision enough, along with his soldier’s reflexes, for him to later shoot out an arm and keep me from tumbling headlong down the granite steps of the monument in the somber German cemetery at La Cambe), and his son was describing the picture, saying that those troops looked as if they were part of the first wave. Bob squinted at the photo. “Are their rifles in the Cosmoline bags?” he asked.

He remembered well enough when he’d unwrapped his. “I was wading ashore, and I looked down, and there in the surf I saw a hand with a wedding band on it. That’s when I realized this was for real. I tore that bag right off.”

So it went, a week of the most intimate connections with an immense undertaking. As it turned out, everyone in the group had close ties to that war (perhaps everyone living in our country does). One of our party had a brother who served; another served himself and had a brother who died; one was born in Ireland and came over as a kid in 1947 to a home where there was a flush toilet and in some inchoate (and, I think, accurate) way connected this amenity with the recent struggle. I know all this because during one dinner, between the salad and the roast lamb, Cristy asked everyone to tell why he or she had come on the tour. The unforced eloquence, the earnestness, wit, modesty—the instinctive regard for the significance of the past—gave me at once a strong flash of pride in what I do for a living and a strong pang of shame over my initial petulance about the trip. And another feeling, summed up by one of the younger men: “I guess, in the end, I came to say thank you.”

Thinking it over on the plane back, I realized that walking the terrain had had the curious effect of lessening my understanding of the action. That is to say, when you visit Gettysburg, the arrangement of hills and fields makes it immediately clear why things happened there the way they did. But to stand on the high ground above Omaha, to look down from the German bunkers that will dominate that shallow sickle of beach until Judgment Day, is to stand in the presence of the unfathomable. How did they do it? How did they get ashore alive? How did they ever leave the lee of that seawall and get up those vertical bluffs?

“It’s just the way the world was then,” Bob Klug said to me while we were climbing over the remnants of one of those causeways the Allies built on the breast of the sea to pump two nations’ worth of machinery into Europe. “It all seemed normal at the time.” To me it all seems a profound mystery, and I am grateful indeed to have been able to spend a few days exploring that long-ago miracle with the people who worked it.

Richard F. Snow