Streetcar: D-Day Through Time

Some kids were playing on Omaha Beach, building sand castles. Nearby an adult couple walked along the sand at shore’s edge, presumably looking for shells, the nautical kind rather than those fired from cannons. The shards of war have long been taken from this historic beach, now it stands as it should—a quiet passive place where castles are built, if only for the moment.

If the day is clear the faint coast line of Britain across the channel can be seen. If the imagination is even clearer, it can envision 2,000 ships as they approached on June 6, 1944, 75 years ago this month. The mind peppers the sky with hundreds of bombers heading over France that day.

Nearby is the town of Arromanches. It was there that one of two artificial piers were built to unload the allied ships as they approached the beach. The town itself now survives on D-Day tourism, including a museum, shops and, at least on the day we were there, a character dressed to imitate Winston Churchill. Two of the best quotes from the war were due to the British Prime Mister. One contained the fiery words of his rallying speech to parliament:

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

And the other great quote is about Churchill rather than by him. It is attributed to American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow who, in speaking of the impact of Churchill’s speeches, said,

“He mobilized the English language and sent it to battle.”

In Churchill’s day, fighting on the beaches was made more successful by a New Orleans made vessel: Andrew Higgins’ landing boats were constructed in the city. They are what brought the troops from the transport ships to near the beaches where they could indeed fight on the landing grounds. Hitler knew about New Orleanian Higgins and referred to him as “the New Noah.” Years later, historian Steven Ambrose would claim that Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower once referred to Higgins as the man who won the war. Higgins wasn’t alone in deserving that praise, but it is true that the landing crafts that were key to the greatest invasion in history were first tested on Lake Pontchatrain.

As fortune would have it, Ambrose’s academic trail eventually took him to UNO where he excelled as a leading authority on the war. By 1994, at the time of the invasion’s 50th anniversary, Ambrose was one of the experts seen on just about every war documentary. For the 50th anniversary of D-Day he led a group of tourists to Omaha Beach, where he was so moved by being there that historian Doug Brinkley would recall the professor leading the charge toward the shore. Ambrose was in charge that day, Brinkley would recall; he was Eisenhower.

Ambrose’s book, “Band of Brothers,” is a major contribution to the war’s history, especially after it was made into a TV series by HBO, (I have watched some episode so many times that I can almost recite them, except for those show when I felt too emotionally wrenched I couldn’t watch more.) Ambrose led another charge while in New Orleans and that was to build a museum dedicated to the war. In a city of attractions, the National Word War II Museum, where the site includes a former Higgins plant, is as triumphant as American soldiers marching through the streets of Paris.

General Colin Powell once said of America’s wars “that the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead.” The grandest of such spots is the American national cemetery located on a Normandy bluff overlooking the charging sea. Battalions of wooden crosses and Stars of David are the sentinels along the Atlantic Coast.

Normandy always leaves me wanting to know more. Once I was on a cruise ship moving along the British side of the English Channel. From a map on a TV channel I could tell that on the opposite side was Normandy, but I was not sure of exactly what location. The night was solid black. I was mesmerized by the darkness thinking what the moment must have been like to a 19-year-old soldier sailing through the darkness not knowing what the next day would bring for him, or even if he would live to see the day after. Then I noticed something from the Normandy side, a blinking light, possibly from a light house. In another era it could have been a sign from the European mainland pleading to be liberated.

On a summer night a quarter century ago, a navy of Noahs was heading its way.


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