Monday, October 7, 2019

A Tribute to Those Who Fought in Normandy


I have been watching war movies almost my entire 70-plus years, one of the earliest I remember being a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis romp called “At War with the Army,” set in 1944 in a stateside training camp. A sergeant, Martin is chafing at the bit to see real action overseas. As I recall it, by the end of the film he gets his wish and is part of the D-Day invasion. Being a comedy, “At War with the Army” does not relate the fate of Martin’s character. 

The beaches of Normandy, code named Utah and Omaha (for American assault), Sword, Gold and Juno (for Allied forces) are hardly sources for humor, as Gilda and I observed during our recent trip to the battlefields. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the ensuing campaign through August 30 to rid Normandy of German forces, more than 53,000 Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen died in the largest amphibian-based attack in history.

Britain and America treated their dead differently. Britain buried casualties in the soil on which they perished. 

Next of kin of U.S. dead had three options: burial of a deceased where they died, internment in Arlington Cemetery, or burial in a plot back home chosen by the family. Three times the choices were provided the next of kin. After the third time, if the remains were buried overseas, moving them would be at the expense of the next of kin. 

Today’s U.S. military treats the fallen differently. All bodies are returned to America. As Arlington is running out of room, the privilege of burial there is restricted to those awarded military honors.

More than 9,380 gravesites in rows upon rows of white crosses sprinkled with the occasional Jewish star is a solemn, beautiful sight at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. A cross or Jewish star were the only religious options. As the saying goes, “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” Nor in American military cemeteries. Nor, apparently, were there any Muslims. If dog tags were not found on a fallen serviceman the grave was marked with a cross. 

Only about 150 white Jewish stars break up the uniform look of white crosses. As many Jewish servicemen removed their dog tags prior to entering combat, it is suspected casualties among them were buried under crosses. A rabbi is painstakingly researching Jewish sounding names on crosses to determine if a change in grave marker is warranted.

The only serviceman buried in the NAC who died without service in the Normandy campaign received presidential dispensation to be laid to rest next to his brother. Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, died during World War I, on July 14, 1918. He was a pilot in the Army Air Service shot down in an aerial dogfight. His body was relocated in 1955 to a grave next to his oldest brother, Ted, a brigadier general who died of a heart attack July 12, 1944, weeks after leading the first wave of troops ashore at Utah Beach.  

Last week’s crash in Connecticut of a B-17 Flying Fortress World War II bomber coincided with my viewing a worthy HBO documentary, “The Cold Blue,” aired last D-Day. The film uses outtake footage taken by director William Wyler in 1943 for a morale-building promotional film about the Memphis Belle B-17 and its crew that flew 25 missions. 

Released last year, “The Cold Blue” was directed by Erik Nelson. It intersperses the reminiscences of flight crews (not from the Memphis Belle), now in their 90s, with film shot during missions over Germany and occupied Europe. 

Do the math—more than 70 years ago, the now elderly men were in their low 20s, or younger, when they took to the skies in planes that were not pressurized or heated. At 25,000 feet, with gunports open to the wind, temperature inside was said to be equivalent to the top of Mount Everest, in the minus 20 to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit range. Frostbite could occur within 10 minutes.

At the beginning of the war, according to the documentary, America had but a few hundred B-17s. By 1945 our wartime arsenal had manufactured 12,731. Close to 5,000 planes were lost in combat over Europe. 

The Flying Fortress was known as a durable aircraft which makes last week’s tragedy all the more sad.


Military Units: As noted at the beginning of this blog, I’ve spent many an hour watching war flicks. But I never quite understood how many soldiers comprised each unit size until Rob Dalessandro, deputy secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, provided an overview during our recent Smithsonian Journeys trip to Normandy. So, here goes:

Squad. 12 men. Led by a sergeant.
Platoon. 50 men. Led by a lieutenant.
Company. 184 men. Led by a captain.
Battalion. 900 men. Led by a major.
Regiment. 3,200 men. Led by a colonel.
Division. 15,000 men. Led by major general.
Corps. 75,000 men. Led by lieutenant general.
Field Army. 300,000 men. Led by general.
Army Group. 600,00+ men. Led by general.

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