Will future generations ever really understand the value of freedom? They should know the enormity, horrors and human toll of The Longest Day.
Today is June 6, 2019. Another beautiful, peaceful day on Longboat Key. Seventy-five years ago to this day, five beaches on the coast of Normandy, France, became the world’s Living Hell.
For many of us, those born after 1940, we really have no bearing or reality of the magnitude of that day.
D-Day, Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, World War II.
We have the detailed written accounts, the photographs and videos that are archived in museums and libraries for posterity. But the live, human connection and voices of the men and women who endured and survived that horrific day are fading and disappearing rapidly. Of the 73,000 Americans who participated in D-Day, only a few thousand are still alive. Virtually all of them are in their 90s. The Defense Department says 350 World War II veterans are dying each day.
What happens when they are gone? Will future generations understand, revere and show their respect for the enormity of and meaning of what occurred this day?
Here’s a clue: When two Longboat Key residents — one a Navy veteran of Iwo Jima, the other a Purple Heart Marine in Vietnam — were leaving a restaurant recently on St. Armands Circle, they struck a conversation with a mother and her two 20-something daughters. When the Vietnam veteran noted that his friend was at Iwo Jima, the young ladies’ faces clearly registered blank.
D-Day likely would be no different — not just with these two young women, but across the United States. Two generations already have no concept of what D-Day entailed: 156,000 Allied troops, three times the population of Sarasota, sailing slowly and purposely across the churning English Channel; thousands of vessels that covered the sea like a black swarm, with teenage soldiers, tanks and trucks armed to land in Hell — “Hell’s Beach,” Omaha Beach — to extinguish Hitler’s Holocaust of Europe.
No concept of the human toll it took.
When you hear the refrain that “freedom isn’t free,” perhaps one way to illustrate how the price of freedom goes far beyond the value of money and material is to know the details of D-Day. The monumental scope of that invasion is almost beyond comprehension — what it took to conceive and plan; to marshal and coordinate the resources; to prepare every participant; and then execute it and do it all, especially, amid the devastation and privation that existed in Great Britain before the attack.
Rick Atkinson, author of the magnificent Liberation Trilogy (“An Army at Dawn,” “The Day of Battle” and “The Guns at Last Light”), set the stage for D-Day with “you-are-there” scene-setting in the opening of “The Guns at Last Light.”
First, there was Great Britain. Atkinson: “Nearly five years of war had left British cities as ‘bedraggled, unkempt and neglected as rotten teeth,’ according to an American visitor.” There were so many rats swarming through 3,000 miles of London sewers that “exterminators scattered 60 tons of sausage poisoned with zinc phosphate and stale bread dipped in barium carbonate.
“Few shoppers could find a fountain pen or a wedding ring, or bedsheets, vegetable peelers, shoelaces … The monthly cheese allowance now stood at two ounces per citizen … For those with strong palates, no rations applied to … roast cormorant, a stringy substitute for poultry.”
And by this time, May 1944, “more than 50,000 British civilians had died in German air raids.”
Arriving to this scene, convoy after convoy of American and Canadian troops and ships sailed across the Atlantic, swelling Great Britain with more than 3 million soldiers altogether.
To accommodate this, Atkinson wrote, the British erected nearly 400,000 huts and 279,000 tents and lent the Allies 112,000 buildings and 20 million square feet of storage space.
“The British stocked the American supply depot with 240 million pounds of potatoes, 1,000 cake pans, 2.4 million tent pegs, 15 million condoms, 260,000 grave markers, 80 million packets of cookies and 54 million gallons of beer.
“For Overlord, the U.S. Army had accumulated 301,000 vehicles, 1,800 train locomotives, 20,000 rail cars, 2.6 million small arms, 2,700 artillery pieces, 300,000 telephone poles and 7 million tons of gasoline, oil and lubricants … 60 million K-rations, enough to feed the invaders for a month, were packed in 500-ton bales,” Atkinson wrote.
With casualties expected to be high, Allied forces amassed “8,000 doctors, 600,000 doses of penicillin, 50 tons of sulfa and 800,000 pints of plasma.”
These are stunning amounts of material, all of which had to be manufactured, packaged and shipped; the costs of which you can only imagine.
But all of that was not the highest price. The greatest price was human.
Imagine being 53-year-old Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander in charge of the D-Day invasion. And imagine knowing what he knew before the attack.
Historical accounts tell of Eisenhower leading a three-car convoy on the eve of the invasion, driving 90 minutes on narrow roads jammed with soldiers and military trucks. He dreaded the thoughts, telling his driver: “It’s very hard really to look a soldier in the eye when you fear that you are sending him to his death.”
But he knew, as did the inner circle of the war planners. Atkinson: Prognosticators estimated “American casualties would likely reach 12% of the assault force, higher if gas warfare erupted. The 1st Infantry Division, the point of the spear on Omaha Beach, estimated that in ‘maximum’ conditions, casualties would reach 25%, of whom almost a third would be killed, captured or missing … Projected U.S. combat drownings … had been calculated at a grimly precise 16,726.”
And nearly half of these men were only teenagers.
‘I WANTED TO BURY IT’
Bill Kelley, now 94, was one of them.
For the past 30 years, Kelley and his wife, Ann, have been residents of Longboat Key. Kelley was a 19-year-old Navy corpsman second class on LST 50 in the second wave on Omaha Beach.
“LST — we said it stood for Long, Slow Target,” Kelley said last week in the living room of his Longboat condominium with a view of the bay. The ships traveled a maximum of four knots.
For the past 75 years, Kelley purposely has avoided retelling the details of what he witnessed that day. Weeks after D-Day, back home in Syracuse on leave, he told his parents not to probe him on what he saw or did. “I only wanted to talk about what I did there other than what I did on D-Day,” he said.
“For whatever reason I wanted to bury it, like something that never happened,” he said. In the 75 years since, he has never attended a parade honoring veterans.
A few years ago, the men’s club at St. Mary Star of the Sea asked him to speak about his D-Day experience. He spoke, but not in detail. “It was a horrid experience, something I would never wish on anybody. I think that’s why I wanted to forget about it. To see the destruction, to see the death. It was just an awful experience.”
‘A SCENE OUT OF HELL’
When LST 50 left Southampton for Omaha Beach, there was almost total silence among the 150 troops on and below deck. “We know this is no turning back,” he remembers. Nausea welled up. “I’m not coming home. I’m not going to see my family again. This is the real thing. You’re thinking of people back home, thinking of people you love.
“You’re 19 years old, and you haven’t seen anything in the world, and you’re not sure you’re going to see anything more. I said a lot of prayers, hoping the Good Lord would listen.
“The water was just blackened with ships heading in different directions.”
Once they reached Omaha Beach, Kelley and his fellow corpsmen’s mission was to take the wounded back to their ship. Army medics in the first wave were to tag the wounded according to seriousness — red, “very serious”; blue, “semi-serious”; yellow, “minor.” “If no tag, they assumed the soldier was dead and to ignore them.”
Just before reaching the beach a German shell hit the landing craft next to Kelley’s LST. Soldiers flew overboard. Kelley’s crewmen rescued a few, but left many of them in the water.
“It was hard for me to understand because we’re hospital corpsmen,” he says. “I learned later the captain of our ship had orders ‘full speed ahead. Nothing stops you. You go to the beach, period.’”
By 4 p.m., the LST 50 landed. Kelley was unprepared for the sight. “I just thought these guys would be laying on the beach,” he remembers. “I’m thinking maybe hundreds, but I mean thousands all over the place.”
For the next four hours, Kelley and his fellow corpsman alternated running non-stop back and forth from the beach to the ship, retrieving wounded soldiers. By then, much of the German gunfire had subsided; Allied troops had ascended the 100-foot escarpment.
Long after dark, with the ship filled to capacity — 150 wounded, Kelley and his crew headed back across the channel. Kelley broke down. “It was a scene out of hell,” he said, tears welling up. “To see these wounded in these cots, the moaning and groaning and painful cries. I could only do so much.
“To see these kids. I was just a kid myself.”
TEACH THEM THE STORY
How do you impart to the next generations the price of freedom, the unimaginable price that generations before us have paid — for freedom, to preserve our freedom, to let us live free and not as slaves?
You show them and teach them the story of D-Day. Never forget.