D-Day+ 65 years: Obama set to make Normandy landing

Veterans still make their way back - and the locals still thank them for their role in a decisive battle for the Continent.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
President Barak Obama was welcomed by French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner (2nd R) as he arrived at Orly airport near Paris on the eve of a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Anticipating the US president on the 65th anniversary of D-Day, Normandy locals are calling Omaha Beach, where US troops landed, "Obama Beach."

Yet even without the high-profile meeting between President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the American cemetery overlooking Omaha, D-Day interest is surging past what planners imagined – partly due to dwindling numbers of veterans, but also due to the day's sheer historical significance.

Veterans who remember the so-called "longest day" – the gray and rainy June 6, 1944, when allied forces stormed ashore to take a foothold in France and ultimately overthrow Hitler's Europe – are now in their late 80s and 90s.

When they hit the beach, they were in their late teens or early 20s. Most of the officers, who are typically a bit older, have passed. In Paris Friday, 50 D-Day vets received the Legion of Honor, France's highest award.

Although Operation Overlord, the most complex assault ever attempted, has been memorialized in books and movies, including accounts of the "greatest generation" in popular films, like "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan," as well as in blowout 50th and 60th anniversary celebrations, local officials have feared that the exploits of the men might fade.

"Every five years – since the 50th anniversary – is called the last big D-Day event," says Ray Pfeiffer, a former US naval officer, who assisted with the production of "Saving Private Ryan."

"But unlike World War I, it won't sink into oblivion," Mr. Pfeiffer says. "The stakes were more universal: If the allies failed on this beach, all history, not just European, would be different."

In this sense, D-Day remains popular as a handle on history, experts say. The Normandy memorial in Caen gets 400,000 visitors a year.

This week, up and down the verdant coast, subcultures of D-Day reenactors and history buffs ply the winding roads in authentic jeeps and troop carriers. Dozens of towns are conducting wreath-laying ceremonies at hundreds of monuments.

Formerly taboo historical debates on the Normandy campaign continue to surface – Allied executions of German prisoners, or British historian Antony Beevor's assertion last week that Allied bombing of Caen in Normandy was "close to a war crime."

WWII showed 'the need to confront evil'

Obama's presidency has sparked new interest in Europe in the role of black soldiers in the invasion. This September at Utah Beach, where many US forces landed, the first memorial honoring fallen US Navy engineers and special shore brigades was inaugurated. These soldiers, forerunner of the SEALs, actually led the invasion with the job of clearing obstacles in the ocean that would impede the landing craft. Among the services, they suffered the highest proportional losses on D-Day, according to Mr. Pfeiffer.

"World War II was cataclysmic, showing the need to confront evil," says John Huston, of San Diego, who was here with his father of the same name, an officer in the 135th battalion. "It was a time in which everything people could do to and for each other, happened. My father is 91. He'll be 96 in five years, and I'm not sure we will come back."

The saving graces of propaganda?

Bill Coleman, a staff sergeant from the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne – the so-called "Band of Brothers" – received the Legion of Honor in Paris on Friday. He first visited Paris under very different circumstances, as a guest of the German Army.

Staff Sgt. Coleman parachuted into Normandy just after midnight on June 6, but only found out after the war that he landed 17 miles north of the right landing point.

"We were spread all over," he says. "We were mad as hell when we found out all the pilots were 18 and 19 years old. We came in with planes hitting each other, no navigation lights, chaos, everyone was shouting."

Coleman's unit squabbled and split into smaller groups. He fought for a week, ran out of ammunition, then got ambushed with five others soldiers, two of whom died.

"The Germans lined us up on a wall, but then they didn't shoot us. The order was cancelled. They wanted us for propaganda," Coleman recalls. "We were taken to Paris and marched down the Champs Elysees with our hands up. Ironically, our butts were saved because of German propaganda! I was moved to four different prison camps and ended up pulling bodies out of the rubble in Dresden."

Passing time offers new perspectives

Historians say some of the most common public misconceptions about the battle for Normandy are that it was over shortly after D-Day, that the German troops were sub-par, or that once the Allies got a foothold in Normandy, the Germans fought poorly because they thought that with a second front opening to match the fight with Russia in the East, the war was lost.

Emmanuel Thiebot, historian at Memorial Center for History museum near Caen, says Allies did not expect the kind of resistance offered by the Germans.

In his plans, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery expected to take Caen by the evening of June 6. Yet it was not until July 9 that allies took half of Caen. Only on July 20 did they take the other half.

"The Allies weren't expecting such resistance. There was a large difference between the Allied plans and what happened," Mr. Thiebot says.

To take Caen, the Allies bombed the city with terrific force, killing several thousand French residents.

But most historians, including Thiebot, disagree with Mr. Beevor's charge that the bombing was tantamount to a war crime.

Allied planes were trying to bomb bridges, but instead of flying in along the path of the river, which would have gotten them shot down, the pilots came in over the city, but with little accuracy.

"War crimes would mean a targeting of the city or civilians," says Thiebot. "The bombing was a side-effect of the war strategy, not a targeting."

Nonetheless, he adds, "Asking new questions is always a good thing in history … for many years these were taboo subjects."

History still raw for some

Other taboos being broken include the bad behavior of Allied soldiers toward local Normans, and the killing of POWs.

"Germans did kill war prisoners, but for years, no one ever talked about the German POWs killed by Allies," Thiebot says. "Just as, for many years, no one talked about the rapes by Allied soldiers and their coarse behavior toward townspeople, a contrast with German troops, who were under orders to be correct."

Veteran Coleman, of the 506th, affirms that Allies did kill German prisoners.

"We didn't have anywhere to put them, and we couldn't keep them," he says. "It was probably right not to talk about this at the time."

Pvt. Louis Venditti of the 101st Airborne, from South Chicago Heights, is back in Europe for his first time in 65 years. He fought the Normandy campaign, then was wounded in the Netherlands. Does he still think about the war?

"It's my history," he says, sporting a jacket that gives the names of the Normandy towns he helped liberate. "I think about it every day. I jumped six hours ahead of the landing, and I spent six terrifying hours not knowing what was happening. No matter where you turned, there was a German. I never came back. Sometimes I talk about it. There's not many of us left now, though."

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