70th Anniversary of D-Day by Paul Roberts
SEVENTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF D-DAY by Paul Roberts
It’s hard to believe, but 70 years ago, on a dreary June morning I watched a glider troop regiment slowly file out of their barracks onto the airstrip at Ramsbury, England, one of several forward bases prior to the invasion and liberation of Normandy, loaded with the paraphernalia of war, and enter their assigned gliders for a final trip into the hell that was to become their home for the next month, fighting in the bocage fields of Normandy. It was only a short time before that I was temporarily relieved of my duties as a cryptographer, making up the secret verification codes for the radio operators in the C-47 transport planes, for the IFF (Information Friend or Foe) challenges, with a case of atypical pneumonia , and wound up in the same ward at the Ramsbury base hospital with a dozen glider troopers. What I had witnessed for the next week was a comic, but unheard of act in the military, a miniature “strike.” About a dozen of them went on sick call after discovering that their counterparts, the paratroopers, were receiving 50% more pay than they. So when the nurse went down the line in the ward, inserting thermometers in each mouth, Zippo cigarette lighters would magically appear, instantly upping their temperatures to critical mass. This of course was short-lived, because the following month they were on their way to the committed battle in Normandy, the money issue being the least of their concerns.
And I had returned to duty, composing these vital codes, daily. The codes consisted of 5 digits, changing hourly. If an anti-aircraft battery on the ground challenged an aircraft overhead, and the response was wrong with only one digit, there were no questions asked. They opened fire. This unfortunately happened earlier in the war when a squadron of our C-47s were shot down by the British over the Mediterraean Sea.
Along with them went Cpl Eugene Levine, a weather observer, assigned to two gliders, one for his jeep, the other for a high frequency transmitter, both to be towed by one C-47, (known as a double tow), to be released independently over their intended target, called the DZ (Drop Zone). He was supposed to provide an air to ground link in Normandy, and send weather reports back. He chose to fly with the transmitter, and fortunately for him, the glider carrying the jeep was shot down! Also, the main signal unit of the 82nd being transported in a Horsa glider (a much larger British craft) with 32 men were wiped out, leaving his transmitter the only communication with SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) in London. The altered frequency provided the only communication link for the 82nd Airborne operations for the first 2 days of combat.
Now, as we wing our way on an Air France 777, courtesy the French Government, across the big pond, to a memorable reunion, the memory of that day becomes a reality. I am with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA) contingent, one of whom, Dan Pinck, an unsung hero, spent one year behind the Japanese lines in China, spying and supplying vital intelligence. The day after landing at Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris we chosen few, which included survivors of the air war, as well as Navy assault craft crewmen and infantry, were corralled by our omnipresent Congressional Affairs Liaison Officer for the Embassy of France in Washington, D C, Cameron Griffith, into taxis and deposited at the “office” (Hotel de Lassay) of Claude Bartolone, President of the National Assembly (equivalent to the Speaker of our House of Representatives), and escorted up a dozen red carpeted stairs. While posing for press photographers, a group of young French students suddenly appeared, and we urged them to pose with us, making for a fine, symbolic portrait of the old and new generation.
To call this an office is the understatement of the year. It is more like a miniature Versailles, tear-drop crystals dripping from enormous chandeliers with delicate lights, sculptured walls, neo-classic murals depicting a bygone era, and an ambience that lends itself to state functions. After a lengthy speech (with English translation) by M. le President, we were surprised by the presentation for each veteran of an Assembly silver medallion to commemorate the occasion, and I presume, a way of saying “thank you” for our services. Then an informal reception, meeting parliamentarians of the French government and several of our own Congressional people, including Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House; Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Service Committee; Jeff Fortenberry from Nebraska, etc.
On June 6th Dan sat up front in the Colleville-sur-Mer Cemetery stands, and traded remarks with President Obama. I, on the other hand, sitting in the rear, met up with one of my former buddies, glider pilot Tom Kilker, Jr., of the 437th Troop Carrier Group, who safely landed his glider on D-Day in an open field near St. Mere Eglise, delivering the jeep of the commanding general of the 82nd, Matthew Ridgeway with its driver, who suffered a dislocated jaw; then dodging enemy mortar fire, taking some shrapnel in the leg (for which he received a Purple Heart); linked up with paratroopers who presented him with 210 captured Germans, and he and his co-pilot escorted them down to the beach, got them on an LST going back to England for incarceration.
President Obama made a dramatic entrance in a French helicopter in a field just inside the grave site. He spoke for 15 minutes, lauding the efforts that we had made. “You men,” he said “waged war so that we might know peace. You sacrificed so that we might be free.” French President Hollande countered with “N’oublions jamais (let us never forget). When France was occupied America was there to liberate it.” To re-enforce this, a spectacular flyby of French Mirages passed over the site, emitting trails of red, white and blue smoke. But the real celebration later in the afternoon occurred at the other end of the Beach, at Ouistreham, which had been designated “Sword.”
The importance of this beach during the invasion must be put in perspective, historically. A coup de main ( surprise attack) was initiated on D minus One, with elements of the Second Oxfordshire Light Infantry, commanded by the irrepressible Major John Howard, who had trained in England with these men for one full year on the technique of riding in British Horsa gliders, landing in pitch dark, overpowering the Germans guarding the Orne (later re-named Pegasus in honor of the liberating soldiers) and Caen Canal Bridges, and holding off elements of a Nazi panzer division, driving down from Caen. They held them off until reinforced by British paratroopers, who were able to repel several counter attacks decisively. The action was consummated when infantry units from Sword Beach came up to re-enforce them. In the scheme of things, if the Germans had broken through and gotten to the beach, they could have rolled up the entire British and Canadian beachhead, and possibly gone on to throw the Americans back into the sea. Thus, the emphasis on this ceremony was so important. Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, along with the 2 presidents quietly watched the somber pageantry, and the re-creation, sometimes in pantomime, of an interpretive dance performance of young people, alive, and then dying, simulating the victims of the conflict, with the sound effects of cannon, flashes of fire and finally a fly over. It was a spectacular display that was seen on a giant screen.
Today, one cannot escape the sadness that prevails in the smallest hamlets of Normandy and Brittainy with the ever-present reminders of commemorative metal plaques that adorn the walls of buildings, simply stating the demise of a local freedom fighter, such as “Ici Est Mort” or “Martyr de la Liberation” or “A la Memoire du Gardien de la Paix.” A grim reminder to future generations, that somehow will never be erased.
And finally, a wonderful tribute to these ‘soldats anciennes,’ old soldiers, for their resiliency, who after 70 years, now in their 90s, were able to sustain the rigors of these events without any collapses, or complaints. That might account for their survivability. Vive les Veterans! Long life to them.