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Remembering the Day the Tide Turned


Austin American-Statesman
Sunday, June 6, 1999

D-Day - June 6, 1944 - may have been the most important day of the century. On this date, 55 years ago, the United States and its allies began the liberation of western Europe from the brutal rule of Hitler's Nazi Germany.

More than 5,000 ships and 10,000 aircraft made the attack on Hitler's vaunted Atlantic Wall. By nightfall more than 155,000 soldiers — American, British and Canadian — were ashore in northwest France, along the English Channel in Normandy. The event not only changed the course of World War II; it also established the United States as the superpower it is today.

memorial near 90-foot cliffs with Omaha beach in immediate background

A memorial built by the French at Pointe du Hoc, near Omaha Beach, honors the 225 U.S. Army Rangers who scaled the 90-foot cliffs at this spot on D-Day. The Rangers captured two German gun emplacements here and then fought off counter-attacks for two days. Eighty-one Rangers died; 58 were wounded.

From the moment I heard about the D-Day invasion on the radio as a nine-year-old boy, I have been on a quest to know Normandy, to understand what happened there and its significance in our history. During the past 45 years, I have made more than 20 trips there — as a student, teacher and writer. I have hiked and bicycled across the countryside. And I have swum in the water off all five invasion beaches, including "Bloody Omaha," the American landing site where some 1,000 soldiers perished on D-Day. While
in the region, I have slept in medieval castles, old monasteries, barns, and tents.

Each visit has been a calling, a pilgrimage to soil hallowed by the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen. Like Gettysburg and Yorktown, Normandy is a site that defines us as a people. As the late French president Francois Mitterrand once said. "There is nothing to compare with D-Day. Without it nothing anywhere else would have been possible. The sixth of June sounded the hour when history tipped toward the camp of freedom."

The Route of Sgt. Rouse

I visited Normandy for the first time in 1954. I was a UT sophomore, 19 years old, pedaling a three-speed Raleigh bike across Europe. The beaches were still strewn with rusting landing craft then; hulks of tanks lay in remote ravines. The ground was punctuated with bomb craters.

German bunkers nestled in the flat portion between two hills

German bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer.

The slender spirals of many Norman churches, once admired for their beauty by artists but coveted as observation posts by troops of both sides during the war, had been shot away. In the midst of such destruction, I had the eerie feeling that there was still danger.

The steeples have since been reconstructed, and the landscape has healed. Normandy had been known for centuries for its fine cows and horses — and so it is today, as animals graze among orchards of cherry and apple trees that once hid German snipers and tanks.

My boyhood hero in Bandera County, a ranch hand named Tommy Rouse, had come ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day but died 10 miles inland on July 11, 1944, after being hit in the chest by small arms fire. Fascinated by his story — and seeking some sort of closure to his death — I spent years seeking out the men who were with him that day. These men were able to tell me, within a few feet, where Tommy had fallen during the American drive on St. Lo.

By the mid-1970s, I had compiled enough information to retrace the entire route of Sgt. Thomas B. Rouse, "F" Company, 2nd battalion, 38th regiment, Second Infantry Division. Carrying only a backpack, I walked the entire path from Omaha Beach alone. I slept under the stars as he had, found a café in the village of Trevieres where he signed his name, got lost in the maze-like hedgerows, and ultimately located the fatal site at a crossroads called Le Calvaire, near St. Lo on the Bayeux road.

It was a satisfying experience — but the best part was meeting empathetic, compassionate folk among the way.

low angle shot of the aged church showing clear blue sky with hanging replica of paratrooper

A replica of paratrooper Private John R. Steele of Kentucky hangs on a church in Ste. Mere Eglise where the paratrooper was caught by his parachute in the early hours of D-Day.

The Normandy beaches

During the late 1970s, I rented a house at St. Aubin-sur-Mer with sweeping views of the D-Day landing beaches. On the horizon to the east, across the Bay of the Seine, I could discern the great port of Le Havre. On the far shore, 100 miles across, lay England — whence the invasion came.

Five minutes' walk to the west along the beach is a small German concrete bunker, its 50 mm gun still in place and pointed to fire length-wise down the beaches, just as it was on June 6, 1944. To stand by the German gun is to get a gut-twisting sense of what it must have been like on D-Day to have run down the ramp of a landing craft and across an open beach. At low tide, almost a quarter-mile of beach is exposed between the seawall and the water's edge; the soldiers had no protection from the gunfire.

Many times I have walked or run the Normandy beaches in the soft light of dawn, every sense at the peak of exhilaration: a wet wind in my face, blue-gray clouds shifting above, the shuffle of golden sand under shoe, the crashing waves on the shore and the bright luxuriant inland greenery. Looking out to the sea, I have imagined the Allied landing craft emerging from the fog and mist on the stormy morning of June 6, 1944, when the largest armada in history plowed through rough, wind-whipped seas.

For a sense of what it was like to approach Normandy from the sea, I have swum from all five invasion beaches, snorkeling off Omaha, looking for the ridge that hung up landing craft before they reached the shore and, in vain, for any of the 27 tanks known to be there.

Here, from the ocean, I've gained a better understanding of why the D-Day landing was difficult. A strong current flows from west to east, making swimming almost impossible, even on a calm day. The rise and fall of the tide is enormous, often unmasking 1,000 feet of beach. The water might be ankle-deep one moment and over one's head the next.

To walk in from 100 feet out is strenuous. And Omaha Beach has off-shore depressions and ridges that parallel the coast and shift unpredictably with the tides. On D-Day, some landing craft hit the ridges and GIs ran down the ramp thinking that they were running onto the shore only to find themselves sinking deep in the depressions between the ridges. No wonder drowning was common on Omaha Beach that day.

Coming ashore, I am often struck by scenes in sharp contrast to the violence and death that occurred in the same place. Men are casting for fish. Horses are being exercised and children building sand castles. The scenes are peaceful, a living portrayal of freedom and happiness, vivid evidence that the wartime sacrifices were worthwhile.

'We're glad you came'

Throughout Normandy — in cities such as St. Lo and Caen — I've encountered a host of people who love America. I have never been treated discourteously here. In fact, many men and women in Normandy are more pro-American than some people in our own country. Older folks, in particular, have not forgotten 1944. Gratitude and affection are as enduring as the half-timbered farmhouses that lean into the stiff north wind that blows from the channel.

"No, I will not take your money, " a farmer's wife said to me and an American friend when we offered to pay for a cheese sandwich and a small jug of cider. "I was a girl, but I remember that day…how the Americans came, big and strong and gentle. One caught our calf that had run away. To give you food is only to repay a very little bit."

The Normans reinforce the old myths that many Americans hold dear about themselves — that we are invincible, kind, tough, fun-loving and generous. In Ste. Mere Eglise (the center of American paratrooper landings) the stained glass windows in its 11th-century church depict well-armed American paratroopers floating down around the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Lofty company, indeed! Bullet holes from the morning of June 6th are visible near the pulpit.

I took my lunch sitting under a tree on the church square, while gazing up at the steeple where hangs a replica of paratrooper Private John R. Steele of Kentucky. The mannequin is hung where Steele was caught by his parachute in the wee hours of D-Day. A man walking by stops and says to me in English with hesitation, "Well, you're a long way from home, aren't you? You're enjoying yourself, aren't you?"

"Yes," I answered. He replied, "We're glad you came."

The resting place

In Normandy, one is never far from a military cemetery. By my count there are more than 20 military cemeteries bearing the remains of soldiers who died in the invasion of 1944 — including 18 sites for the British Commonwealth, two for Germany and one for the United States. An elderly Frenchman told me he was grateful for the military cemeteries "because they are a reminder to the young of what we have endured, and that life is not all dancing and frivolity."

Each nation's cemetery has a distinctive tone, reflecting the values and attitudes of its society. The British cemeteries are laid out in the style of English lawns, with strips of roses and low shrubs at the head of each row. They contain the graves of many nationalities in the British Commonwealth, as well as Poles and French who fought in Normandy against the Germans, and, surprisingly, Germans, too.

For U.S. visitors, the most moving place in Normandy is the American cemetery, where seemingly endless rows of white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David rise from a perfectly manicured emerald green lawn that's set against the sea. Spread over a plateau above Omaha Beach, the grounds are encircled by rows of cypress, oak and pine trees. American flags snap in the brisk breeze from tall, sturdy poles. The sky is a great blue-gray dome that covers a magnificent panorama.

There are 9,386 Americans buried here. A memorial honors 1,557 more whose remains were never found. Among these graves are four women, 33 pairs of brothers laid side-by-side, a father and a son, and the son of an American president. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was a brigadier general who died of a heart attack five weeks after the invasion. He was 57 years old and may have been the oldest active combatant on either side on June 6, his fourth invasion assault of the war!

To stroll among the graves and read the headstones is to recognized the extraordinary sacrifice paid by the United States to set Europe free. This place is quintessentially American: grand scale, clean, a technical achievement — beautiful and projecting national pride, the pride of the victors. But the message is repeated in the long rows, and still more long rows of silent slabs.

Though I'm a seasoned cemetery tramp, I must steel my emotions when I come here and face the reality of these deaths. I try not to think about it — but I can think of nothing else.

During my most recent visits to the cemetery, the closing words of Captain Miller to Private Ryan in Steven Spielberg's great movie, "Saving Private Ryan," have come to me. The dying captain calls Ryan to him and whispers in his ear, "Deserve this!" And that is the challenge to all who cherish freedom as we enter the new century — to be worthy of the sacrifices made in our name for that great cause.

Four honor students, boys and girls, standing with Thomas Hatfield

Thomas Hatfield with a group of UT honor students overlooking Omaha Beach.

About the author

Thomas M. Hatfield teaches World War II history at the University of Texas, where he is dean of continuing education. In 1983, he organized his first on-site battlefield study. In 1989, Bill Moyers accompanied him across France and Belgium to produce "From D-Day to the Rhine with Bill Moyers" on PBS. For information about on-site studies of World War II battlefields lead by Hatfield, call 471-4652 or (800) 882-8784.

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