Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day, then and now

U.S. troops in Weymouth, England, in June 1944 march to the ships that will carry them to Omaha Beach. The picture is
one in a series of then-and-now shots through which The Atlantic is observing the 70th anniversary of the invasion. A
link to the website is embedded in the last paragraph of this blog post. (Getty Images)
Years ago, Monique and I and Misha, our youngest son, visited the Normandy invasion beaches. We drove into the area with no place to stay, hoping to find a chambre d'hote (B&B). The first place we stopped was full for the night, but its owner made a phone call and told us to follow him.

We drove through the hedgerows and across an open area and pulled up at a nondescript one-story house. It turned out we were two short blocks from the cliff overlooking the English Channel. It took us a moment to orient ourselves, but we were near the point between the landing areas of the American and British troops on D-Day.

"The Path to Port en Bessin," by Monique Pride 
For three days we toured the beaches, cemeteries, channel-side towns and museums. A couple of times we walked along the cliff's edge to Port en Bessin for a meal. That village was where the U.S. and British armies converged. It was a stunningly beautiful walk in summer, with the blue channel to the right and, to the left, fields of wheat edged with poppies. In places the pulled-in bellies of the cliffs were white. Monique later painted this scene form photos we took, and the painting hangs on our kitchen wall.

Other sights were more sobering, of course, but nothing beat out luck in winding up in this particular B&B. On our first morning there, as the women who owned it served us a breakfast of fresh croissants and jam, she told us she had been there on D-Day. She was a young girl then. When she saw the British troops approaching, she went out with her family to greet a couple of soldiers in their yard and ask what they needed.

The answer was: Milk!

In such momentous times, such mundane realities

The landing happened 70 years ago today. Seven years ago, I interviewed a veteran of it for the Concord Monitor. His name was Elwood Thompson. He told his story in vivid detail. One scene that sticks in my mind is what he saw in the mud when he reached Omaha Beach. It was the camera of a news photographer who had been on his landing ship.

When Ken Williams went to take Mr. Thompson's photograph, Mr. Thompson put on his uniform jacket, which engulfed his shrunken frame. He stood leaning on his cane before the Franklin, N.H., veterans' monument with a resolute look on his face. Mr. Thompson is gone now, as are most of the men and women who could tell you firsthand stories of D-Day.

Here's a link to The Atlantic's fine effort to bring this history to life in another form. And here's my friend Morley Piper's speech in France (see below).

Barack Obama D-Day
As my friend Al Hutchison points out, that's our mutual friend Morley Piper (second from right) standing behind
President Obama's left shoulder today at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy. On Obama 's right (second from left in picture) is Francios Hollande, president of France. Morley landed on Omaha Beach with the 29th Infantry Division on D-Day. For many years he was director of the New England Newspaper Association. (Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images.) 

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