Friday June 8, 2012

PITTSFIELD

It was the anniversary of D-Day a few days ago. Sixty-eight years ago on June 6, the greatest military armada in the history of the world crossed the English Channel and invaded Nazi-held France.

There are fewer and fewer guys around who were involved in that operation these days, and the number gets smaller every year. It gets easier and easier to forget, perhaps.

I won't forget it because several years ago, I conducted interviews for this newspaper on the 60th anniversary of the invasion. Sometimes, as a reporter, you think you have a handle on events. In this case, as someone who has read many books about World War II, I thought myself exceptionally well-prepared.

I wasn't, not really. For all of those men with whom I spoke, that day has stayed with them all their lives. Some of these guys disembarked from their landing craft into a deadly buzz of bullets. It wasn't a movie or a television show. I remember watching "The Longest Day" several years ago, a movie about D-Day. At the time, I thought it was a reasonable representation. Now, I'm not so sure. In the movie, you knew Robert Mitchum was going to get the troops off the beach. In real life? There was some question.

One thing I didn't take into consideration when I spoke to these veterans was the aura surrounding the Wehrmacht in 1944. Up until that point, the German army was pretty much undefeated in World War II. Admittedly, things were not exactly going swimmingly for them on the Russian front at the time, but the thought was that it was only a matter of time before Moscow would fall.

Meanwhile, the Nazi perception was that Americans were soft and would be unprepared for the rigors of war. Prior to the invasion, Joseph Goebbels, the minister of information for the Nazi party, said confidently, "Let them come," when appraised of the impending military operation.

And come, they did. I do recall reading that one former German officer, seeing the massive infusion of planes overhead, ships in the water and landing craft coming ashore in Normandy, thought to himself, "How can we stop the Americans?"

As it turned out, they didn't. The invasion force was slowed down, a little, on some of the beaches, but the Germans didn't have the firepower to stop the Allies.

(One great story I found in the course of my research was that on Juno Beach, Allied troops came upon a group of Koreans in German uniforms. They were taken captive. Eventually, their story came out: They had been conscripted by the Japanese during one of the many conflicts between those two countries in the 1930s; then conscripted by Russian army during the undeclared war with Japan in the late 1930s and shipped to the Western front. They were then conscripted by the German army during that conflict and shipped to France. After the Allies took them captive, they ended up in England. That's one way, I guess, to see the continent.)

It is beyond my capacity, admittedly, to understand the craziness of that day. One minute, you're talking to your buddy; the next minute, he's dead. One minute, you're crawling over the beach; the next minute, a piece of shrapnel is lodged in your shoulder or leg or head. Every vet I spoke with about that day had no real answer about dealing with it. You tried to survive from minute to minute was the essential answer. You couldn't look much past that very brief horizon. A heck of way to win a battle. And it indeed made for the longest day.

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile