In some circumstances, merely knowing and reciting the facts does not adequately record the story…does not convey to the reader what actually happened during a historic event. The horror of war is just such an event. It is hard to comprehend for those of us that have never seen it first hand.
There have been a number of literary and theatrical works that have helped convey to me what those men that have fought and died for this country over the last 230 years must have felt. Some of these that I can recommend to those with an interest in WWII include:
– D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen E. Ambrose
– The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice by Alex Kershaw
– Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose
– Band of Brothers series originally aired on HBO (based on the book by Ambrose).
– Saving Private Ryan (1998) Directed by Steven Spielberg
Back during the height of the Great Depression, many young men joined their local National Guard unit as a way to earn money for their families. When America entered the war, these National Guard units were activated and the units from Central and Southwest Virginia were attached to the 116th Infantry, 29th Division. This division was eventually assigned to the first wave at Omaha Beach as part of the D-Day offensive.
Here is their story as told by Colonel S.L.A. Marshall (US Army Historian) in November 1960 for The Atlantic Monthly:
UNLIKE what happens to other great battles, the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Dayâ€¦
In everything that has been written about Omaha until now, there is less blood and iron than in the original field notes covering any battalion landing in the first wave. Doubt it? Then let’s follow along with Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Their story is lifted from my fading Normandy notebook, which covers the landing of every Omaha companyâ€¦
Able Company has planned to wade ashore in three files from each boat, center file going first, then flank files peeling off to right and left. The first men out try to do it but are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the water logging of their overloaded packs. From Boat No. 1, all hands jump off in water over their heads. Most of them are carried down. Ten or so survivors get around the boat and clutch at its sides in an attempt to stay afloat. The same thing happens to the section in Boat No. 4. Half of its people are lost to the fire or tide before anyone gets ashore. All order has vanished from Able Company before it has fired a shot.
Already the sea runs red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fireâ€¦
By the end of fifteen minutes, Able Company has still not fired a weapon. No orders are being given by anyone. No words are spoken. The few able-bodied survivors move or not as they see fit. Merely to stay alive is a full-time job…
By the end of one half hour, approximately two thirds of the company is forever gone. There is no precise casualty figure for that moment. There is for the Normandy landing as a whole no accurate figure for the first hour or first day. The circumstances precluded it. Whether more Able Company riflemen died from water than from fire is known only to heaven. All earthly evidence so indicates, but cannot prove itâ€¦
By the end of one hour, the survivors from the main body have crawled across the sand to the foot of the bluff, where there is a narrow sanctuary of defiladed space. There they lie all day, clean spent, unarmed, too shocked to feel hunger, incapable even of talking to one another. No one happens by to succor them, ask what has happened, provide water, or offer unwanted pity. D Day at Omaha afforded no time or space for such missionsâ€¦
The National Guard unit from Bedford Virginia was rolled into Able Company. In the space of less than one hour on June 6, 1944, a town of 3,200 people lost 19 young menâ€¦.the highest per capita loss of any town in the United States. I live fairly close to Bedford or I may have never learned of their sacrifice. In fact, I was only marginally aware of this story until the National D-Day Memorial was being built (by privately raised funds) in Bedford.
Here a few shots that I took at the D-Day Memorial exactly one year ago:
I hope that everyone enjoys time with family and friends todayâ€¦I certainly intend to. But I also hope that you remember the sacrifice that stands behind Memorial Day.
I am not exactly a Billy Ray Cyrus fan, but itâ€™s hard to imagine a better way to end this piece than with the chorus of this song:
All gave some and some gave all
And some stood through for the red, white and blue
And some had to fall
And if you ever think of me
Think of all your liberties and recall
Some gave all