'What awe!' One reporter recalls the D-Day invasion
Washington — IN April 1944, The Christian Science Monitor assigned me to cover the coming D-Day landing in France. I bought an Army uniform with ''War Correspondent'' sewn on the shoulder and took passage on a secret air service that ran between Baltimore and Britain.
After a few weeks of make-believe runs around England with a swarm of other waiting correspondents (to throw the enemy off the scent), I found myself assigned to the heavy cruiser USS Quincy, Capt. Elliott M. Senn commanding. On June 4, at 2 p.m., as the Quincy moved stealthily across the English Channel, one in a single line of capital ships flanked by outriders, I was wondering how a sedentary reporter could get himself into such a fix.
The sky is overcast. The sea is lead-colored but quiet. There is hardly any wind. Last night we started out in a gale and then turned back dejectedly because of violent weather. This time meteorologists say there will be maybe 36 hours of passable weather - just enough for an invasion on which the course of history may turn.
Yesterday, Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower issued an exhortation fit for Shakespeare's ''Henry V'': ''Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more, '' aimed at troops and posterity, only to have weather spoil it. Should he again risk the trial with 4,000 craft? No eloquent harangue this time, but words that unleashed the greatest invasion in history: ''OK, let's go.''
It is 5 p.m., June 5. We have overtaken and are passing the landing-craft fleet formerly seen on the horizon, making slow headway, and seemingly pulled along by its barrage balloons. They are chock-full of vehicles and assault troops. I am headed for Easy Green Beach, with majestic Anglo-American vessels with singing names: the Nevada, the Texas, the Tuscaloosa . . . the Arethusa, the Warspite, the Black Prince.
Day and afternoon pass down the channel. Something marvelous is going on. All the world's ships are moving our way. We have hoisted a clean battle flag.
7 p.m.: The loudspeaker has a message from the task force. ''I will read it, '' the voice says. It is terse and without false heroics. ''Let's put the Navy ball over for a touchdown,'' it concludes. The sailors chuckle. We are all scared, I think, but competing not to show it. And now the chaplain offers a final prayer. All over the ship, men pause with bared heads:
Our help is in the Lord.
Ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find.
We are taut and tense; there is nothing lonelier than being among 200,000 men. Some break the suspense with horseplay. England fades behind us.
Close to shore moves another flotilla. Members of the crew, some in their teens, look at my shoulder tabs and ask me how things are going. I hope I exude confidence. ''Does the enemy know?'' we all ask. No sign yet, but there are distant flashes all the time from the land ahead. Around midnight we pass a buoy - a pinprick of light left by a mine sweeper to show the cleared channel: We are being watched over in the gloom. Nothing so far has so moved me.
Zero hour will be 6:30 a.m., June 6. There are last-minute preparations. Some men sit in cramped compartments; others write letters. Voices are cheerful. I come down to my cubicle, give the ''war correspondent'' in my looking glass a glare, and inspect my new gear. One neat gadget is an illuminated floating flashlight for if I fall overboard. There is a metal toy cricket to communicate with friends if I get stranded on shore. There's a whistle, too. If I fall in, I whistle, flash the light, and chirp.
I turn in for a final nap.
10:30 p.m.: The boatswain just piped, ''All hands, man your battle stations.'' The bugle blows, ''General quarters.'' It has begun.
Where is the enemy? We have waited for a response every minute. Is it possible that this is a surprise? Of course, pathfinder planes have been going over with parachutists all this time, but the extent of the operation is masked. Later on, we learn the enemy is confused. They are sure the attack will come elsewhere. The Fuhrer sleeps. The night is overcast. Somewhere up there, the moon is one night from being full.
2 a.m., June 6: For an hour, planes have gone over; I suppose they are carrying more parachutists. Ahead, in Normandy, activity goes on that we can't read. I pause a minute: Back in Washington now it is 7 p.m. (I think). The family is finishing supper; doing homework. . . . We are moving half-speed ahead into history.
3 a.m.: We have arrived (wherever that is). Our big vessels take assigned positions for a bombardment when it comes. Now the sound overhead is like an express train. I dictate my account of the story to Chief Yeoman Charles Kidder. By now, I can see the face on my watch.
Later: We are going in still closer - four miles off shore now, all nine of our big guns are pointed and ready. Last night, this was a lonely beach. Now returning light shows one of the greatest armadas ever collected. Not just warships, but strange, indescribable craft, some invented for the occasion. We have towed a harbor with us (or parts of it) to be bolted together here after we have silenced shore batteries, knocked down a sea wall, and sent soldiers splashing over those half-submerged obstacles. The end of an odd craft folds into the water, and an amphibious vehicle swims or waddles down. Men on the boats drop into icy water.
5:30 a.m.: It's come. We are to give them full bombardment. The ship jolts and jumps. We crouch behind the rail first . . . are bolder now. It goes on.
More light every second. Shore batteries leave us alone so far. They are interested in the landing craft coming at them.
The most scientifically ingenious job of destruction is now going on against shore fortifications, along with the simultaneous constructive fitting together of parts of the portable harbor that we have towed over and that now waits opportunity to assemble. For a journalist, the trouble is that the show goes on and on. It has no respect for deadlines. Don't they know that I have editions to make in Boston?
I take a final look at the quaint little French village nestled there beside the cliffs (one house burning), then go below to my cubicle. I attack the problem of describing an invasion. How do you start it? It must somehow be got up to London and passed through the censor. I have a French-speaking typewriter that jumps around on the chair.
The battle goes on through the day. Elsewhere, brave men are fighting. We are quiet now. We are, I think, winning the battle. A British Broadcasting Corporation voice over the radio sounds cheerful and says the world is watching. But here it is a bore. Just distant guns. I can always go back to my cubicle and read Walter Scott's ''Red Gauntlet.'' The crew gets permission to wage target-practice on a floating buoy. There are cheers when they hit. The battle rages somewhere else.
One more scene in this nostalgic view of D-Day, recollected years later. It is 11 p.m. The early bombers have dropped parachutists into trees and hedgerows. The brave landing parties have waded ashore and begun to group for land attack. The big Anglo-American bombarding fleet has poured in its lethal fire at close range, off Utah and Omaha and other beaches. Now a new sound . . . a dominant roar that approaches.
It is a line of big planes from over in England that never stops coming. See, each plane tows a glider! It is a breathtaking sight. They pass right over us. They come from horizon to horizon in a great crescent. Our emotions choke us. There is a second line now, and now the first is coming back - without the gliders. We can look up and see the tethering cord that holds each glider to its mother ship, taut as a fiddle string. It is a fantasy out of the future, with the dash and elan of a Civil War cavalry charge. What awe. Who can doubt any longer of ultimate victory! It has lasted with me for 40 years.