COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France. The first thing you notice, at the end of the narrow roads that lead to this precipice, is how peaceful this place is. The cliffs are thick with rough green vegetation and drop down sharply, then more gradually to a Prussian blue sea and a windswept beach. Omaha Beach.
The pathway to the Normandy American Cemetery where more than 9,300 servicemen and a few servicewomen are buried—neat rows of milk-white marble crosses, 150 Stars of David, and 307 graves of unknown dead that read, simply, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms, known but to God.”
I had been told nothing quite prepares you for this place, and it was true.
Consider how many tens of thousands of individual decisions were necessary to achieve the cumulative effect of breaching the German defenses so enough Allied troops could pour into Europe to defeat the Nazis. At Omaha, the troops traversed more than 200 yards of beach, then had to scale 35 to 60 yards of cliffs, all while under enemy fire.
In all, about 225,000 service members were killed or wounded or went missing in Normandy from June to August 1944, including 134,000 Americans and 91,000 Britons, Canadians, and Poles, as well as 18,000 French civilians. The Germans lost more than 400,000 soldiers in Normandy.
Between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach is Pointe du Hoc, a steep, narrow cliff that juts into the channel. A unit of 225 Army Rangers scaled this cliff in bad weather under enemy assault, and Reagan memorialized their efforts in his speech below.
"When the front of these landing crafts went down, we just took off," said Zeitchik, now 93 years old. "We couldn't see where to fire. We just had to get off the beach and try to find the rest of the unit."
Along a 50-mile stretch of coastline in northern France, more than 160,000 Allied troops stormed Utah Beach and four other beaches that day to gain a foothold in continental Europe. By the end of the D-Day invasion, more than 9,000 of those Allied troops were either dead or wounded..........the majority of them Americans.
Army Pvt. Arnald Gabriel recalled wading through the cold ocean water after his landing craft failed to make it all the way to Omaha Beach. "The water, believe it or not, in June was awfully cold, and that with the combination of fear, it was quite an experience," he said. A machine gunner with the 29th Infantry Division, Gabriel described a how the chaotic scene unfolded.
"With the Air Force overheard, the Navy shelling enemy positions, the enemy firing at you and we're firing at them, it was just total chaos," he said. "Nobody landed where they were supposed to. I landed way over to the left flank and ended up with the 1st Infantry Division. It took me a day to get back and find the 29th Division. It was that kind of chaos."
Under the dark of night, even as an armada of vessels packed the English Channel with an invasion force, Henry Langrehr and several hundred paratroopers jumped into the French countryside to blow up bridges and prevent German forces from mounting a counterattack. The jump devolved into carnage, with planes shot from the sky and others forced to drop soldiers too low for their chutes to open.
Langrehr crashed through the glass roof of a greenhouse on the outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église. His friend John Steele was famously caught on the church steeple, only surviving because he hung there playing dead for hours.
Langrehr summed up that historic day: “I remember looking out from the plane, seeing the troops ready to take the beaches and the parachutes floating in the air around me, and thinking, ‘Only America could do this."