Veterans Relive the Heroism And Horror of the Normandy Invasion
LOS ANGELES — FROM D-DAY TO THE RHINE WITH BILL MOYERS PBS, Sunday, 9-10:30 p.m. (Please check local listings.) Documentary produced by Public Affairs Television. WITH the spirit of the deep gratitude to World War II veterans that he felt as a kid listening to Edward R. Murrow, Bill Moyers has seen to it that soldiers' stories, told in their own words, will live on.
In the program ``From D-Day to the Rhine,'' Moyers and his camera crew chronicle the return of 10 veterans to the battlefields of their youth in 1944 and '45. On a tour conducted by the Division of Continuing Education at the University of Texas, the men go ashore at Omaha Beach, Normandy, move on through the French Ardennes landscape, visit battle sights such as the Battle of the Bulge, and wind up on the banks of the Rhine.
``I used to wonder how [these veteran's of the Normandy Invasion] put the memories of war behind them,'' says Moyers. ``Now I realize they never did and never can.''
Examined beneath these relived tales of heroism and horror are some compelling themes: human fear, cowardice, hatred, reconciliation, obedience. Not to mention an understanding of the combat soldier's need for catharsis and renewal. Viewers might be taken back by the details of history's greatest invasion, which still live fresh in the minds of veterans.
As Moyers makes clear, for some of the men this is the first time they have spoken frankly about their experiences since returning home years ago. Nearly every participant is spontaneously moved to tears on camera.
``[At the battle for Omaha Beach] I was really very, very afraid,'' recalls Jos'e Lopez, a former sergeant now living in San Antonio, Texas. ``I wanted to cry, and we saw other people laying wounded and screaming and everything, and there's nothing you could do. We could see them groaning in the water, and we had to just keep walking.''
There are far more grisly details than this sprinkled throughout. But though Moyers knows the ratings value of a good narrative (``Tell me about your fear ...''), he is usually trying to make a greater point.
One such description is that of a German family asphyxiated and frozen in their own living room by the explosion of a German mortar shell. Dr. Loran Morgan had lived with the image in his mind, not knowing if he had fabricated or dreamed it, until just a month before the filming. When he met another veteran who asked him if he remembered that event, Morgan knew he had not imagined it.
By juxtaposing newsreel footage next to film of veterans standing in the same fields, now quiet, ``From D-Day to the Rhine'' draws poignant contrasts. Images of rolling tanks dissolve into the wheels of the modern-day bus, rolling down the same roads. Charles MacDonald, then a young captain, now an official historian, leads the tour from beginning to end, recounting the exact spots and dates of several encounters. Some recall parachuting in for certain battles. Others recall the ratcheting sound of a German tank turret turning to fire at close range.
Paul Marable Jr. from Waco, Texas, and Al Bussell from Bakersfield, Calif., were both captured. After receiving a second round of fire from a German tank, Mr. Marable scrambled into a nearby foxhole. He soon felt someone poking the backside of his left shoulder. A German soldier said to him, ``For you, the war is over.''
``That's the most humiliating situation you could ever imagine,'' recalls Marable.
Mr. Lopez, now 79 years old, received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Standing with Lopez on the field in Belgium where the action took place, Moyers reads the citation describing how Lopez's machine-gunning allowed his Company K to retreat and allowed other forces enough time to build a line of support that eventually repelled the Germans.
Lopez's strongest memory was that of having ``no more rounds. I carried my gun and I just walked and I could [hear the bullets] whistle away from ... behind my back. Then I cared less. I just wanted to get up there to meet the rest of my unit.''
Robert Bennet from New York remembers the Allied Forces marching into liberated Paris: ``They [Parisians] were excited. They were running up with the champagne, with the flowers. The women, they climbed aboard and tried to kiss you, and we weren't exactly trying to push them away. We were caught up in the excitement of the whole thing.''
Not surprisingly, each of the veterans says living through the invasion altered his life thereafter immeasurably.
``It changed by self-perception,'' says Mr. MacDonald. ``I wasn't so involved with macho posturing like I was as a teen. Having faced bullets and tanks head on, I never again felt I needed to prove myself.''
``You're stripped to the essentials and when you are, that gives you a pretty good sense of balance and living right,'' says Marable.
Overall, ``From D-Day to the Rhine'' is surprisingly engaging and attention-holding, despite the nearly five decades of intervening years. It is a tribute to Moyer's skill at eliciting war's lessons that this so compellingly illuminates the universal from the particular.