Today, 71 years ago, General Dwight Douglas Eisenhower was beginning the countdown for the Allied invasion of Normandy. He was spending long hours with his staff as they made plans to leave the shores of England for the coast of France on June 5, 1944.
Heavy rains would force a one-day postponement, the actual departure coming on the 6th. Even then, weather forecasts were not favorable, but Eisenhower’s instincts brought about a bold decision. Early on D-Day morning, he gave the order, “Let’s go!” History reminds us that the Western World should honor the Supreme Allied Commander with the most generous of toasts. D-Day was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
Eisenhower organized two statements, one for the success of the landings and one for failure to get ashore at Normandy. Fortunately, the courage of the Allied soldiers, particularly the Americans at Omaha Beach, enabled the future President of the United States to announce to the world that the Allied invasion of Normandy was successful.
It has been my good fortune to meet and interview several dozens of the heroes of the invasion along with many who were directly linked to the Battle of Normandy, including Georgette Verhaeghe and her sister Arletta who, along with their parents, the Gondrees, were liberated by the British at the Orne River Canal — which famously became known as Pegasus Bridge. The Gondrees were the first French family liberated during the war.
One summer while at Pegasus Bridge, an English soldier by the name of Knobby Clarke joined us for lunch and shared his story. His hand was shot off in the Battle of Normandy. The nurse who was his attendant during recuperation became his wife.
Then there was Col. Hans Von Luck, a German Panzer commander who, after the war, became close friends with many of his former adversaries. He made a memorable comment: “To forget is great. To forgive is better. Best of all is reconciliation. As a professional solder, I have to take responsibility for what happened, but as a human being, I have no hate.”
We became friends with Maureen and Jasper Knight, an English couple whom we still visit in the summer. Jasper was too young for enlistment, but Mo will forever be linked to the dastardly war.
Her father was a courier in London. A bomb landed directly in his path one day while he was riding his bike to make a delivery, snuffing out his life in an instant. The Knights are well traveled and have enjoyed many trips to Germany, but Mo says, “It took me a long time to get over my hate for the Germans. Anybody who was in London in World War II when the senseless bombing was so severe had a hard time with reconciliation.”
Over the years, I have found my way to Normandy at least a half dozen times. There have been visits to battlefields and cemeteries throughout Europe along with a tour of Portsmouth, England, where Eisenhower and his staff planned the invasion. There have been countless books, newspaper and magazine articles about the war, to find their way to my library. The war fascinates our society today as much as it ever has. The books and movies we never tire of, although it would be difficult for Hollywood to come up with a new story that would grip our emotions as did classics like, “A Bridge Too Far.”
One of the most interesting veterans I have known (and I have recorded conversations with him for the UGA library) was Howard Manoian. Howard, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, landed at the corner of the cemetery at Sainte-Mére-église. After the war and eventual retirement, he bought a home at Sainte-Mére-église and always spent his summers there, becoming something of a celebrity. Many networks and writers sought him out to hear his story. The city fathers appreciated his loyalty to the town.
For years, many tourists paid little attention to the expansive German cemetery at La Cambe, which is near Bayeux. Interestingly, there are many poignant messages about war at the museum there.
One has to do with a German girl whose father was killed at Normandy. Her mother became pregnant while her father was on leave before coming to Normandy. He never returned. His daughter left this message at his grave: “On my third trip here, I still cannot meet you. How many more daughters will never know their fathers because of war?”
Ruthless murderers were not stamped out when Hitler ended his life in the bunker in Berlin. There are many ruthless despots out there today. We must find a way to keep them from gaining traction. Perhaps we can help achieve that goal by remembering history and the retelling of World War II stories.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]