February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
“…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?
“…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.
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.