Jim Cahillane: D-Day, June 6, 1944 — 75 years ago

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WILLIAMSBURG — By June 1954, I'd served one and a half years at my U.S. Air Force English base, RAF Fairford. I was young, green and unaware that Fairford launched hundreds of troop-carrying gliders on June 6, 1944.

It was a short 10 years since American, British and Canadian forces crossed the British Channel in history's biggest invasion by sea. "Operation Overlord" is likened to the 1066 Norman conquest of England.

Over time I would learn a lot more about the day that changed history. On a vacation trip to Portsmouth, England, we saw the Overlord Embroidery, which is even longer than its 900-year-old inspiration, The Bayeux Tapestry. Today's hand sewn version portrays each step of the allies' victorious march to liberate Europe from its Nazi conquerors.

I was11-years-old on D-Day, 1944. Like Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, D-Day came to peacetime America through the medium of radio and newsreels. Excellent movies like "The Longest Day," "Band of Brothers" and "Finding Private Ryan" promise to be around as long as film matters. For me, D-Day's impact lasted another 40 years until I landed on the coast of Normandy in 1994. Its 50th anniversary was in the news when I went to a travel-writing workshop. There, I got a crazy idea, to "Drive a Jeep back to D-Day." My concept was to appeal to Chrysler's Jeep Division and borrow a new Jeep in England to retrace the route to France that General Ike Eisenhower's invasion army had taken fifty years before.

My pitch paid off and Chrysler loaned me a Jeep for three weeks. We booked a cabin for four on a P&O ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. Chrysler delivered a new RHD Jeep Cherokee to Swindon and we were on our way. Our first stop was Ike's Overlord HQ, Southwick House. Bespoke large landing-beach maps still cover its walls — no longer top-secret.

I'm thinking of our days in Normandy honoring the heroes of 50 years before. It's said that one never steps into the same stream twice, but here goes. This trip is memorable because things came together to make it successful. My English brother-in-law, Paul Stone, had old friends with a B&B in the Normandy village of St. Patrice-de-Claids.

Their fortified Manoir de la Guerrie has thick walls and sits right on the American 8th Army's invasion route. Landing on Utah Beach July 4, the 8th quickly went into action July 6, fighting for a long and costly 21 days before reaching St. Patrice-de-claids July 27.

PRICE OF WAR, THEN AND NOW

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It's worth remembering: In 266 days of combat, this one division of 10,000 to 15,000 men suffered 2,319 killed in action, 10,730 wounded, 514 missing and 335 captured. They lost 149 percent of their original unit in all — 21, 056 casualties. This was and is the price of war and not to be forgotten after 75 years, or ever.

I'm but one of millions of Americans whose birth date became their ticket to land in a major war, or the Cold War. A partial list: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror. During peace, old battlefields become tourist meccas, which, I admit, partially justified this trip to where men died in the cause of freedom. I did not fully understand the price of the land on which we stood. There was no internet to spout statistics about losses.

Time, sand and earth can soak up gallons of blood.

Omaha Beach: We had a light lunch below Rommel's "Atlantic Wall" guns. Afterward, I read aloud A.J. Liebling's eyewitness account of D-Day.

Above the beach, we prayed and lay flowers at the graves of men who once lived here in the Valley. Nine thousand of us rest on that captured cliff. A few mourners pressed damp sand into names on gravestones, which shone in the afternoon sun, including that of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He was a 56-year-old D-Day Beach Master, only to die of a heart attack days later.

V.I.P. tents were set up for visiting dignitaries. President Bill Clinton was due shortly. A desk in The Media Center offered Blackhawk helicopter rides. I signed my life away to fly with a CNN camera crew over D-Day invasion beaches and the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise with its 82nd and 101st Airborne Museum.

Looking back 25 years to our trip, and 75 years to the horrors of war and its price: millions of us live in reflected glory — which is not glory! We give thanks to the fading-away heroes of June 6, 1944 — knowing, they truly believed in the rightness of their cause.

"I hate war as only a soldier can." — Dwight D. Eisenhower

Writer and poet Jim Cahillane is a longtime columnist at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He lives in "The foothills of the Berkshires," Williamsburg.


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