On this 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the Normandy coast, it is worth pausing to reflect on the sacrifice of the soldiers who died on Omaha and Utah Beaches along with their allied comrades on Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013 was a bright sunny day as the tour bus turned the corner onto the Avenue de la Liberation that parallels Omaha Beach. The previous evening, I had presented an illustrated talk to various alumni on a cruise along the coasts of western Europe, about three artists who covered the preparations and landings. Their pencil sketches and water-colors were still fresh in my memory as we disembarked the bus near the old war memorial adjacent to the new stainless steel monument known as “Les Braves” dedicated in 2004 on the beach itself, yet the contrasts could not have been greater. As I walked towards the water’s edge across the beach it was impossible to visualize the horror of June 6, 1944. Omaha Beach is a vast strand of firm, level sand, hence its choice as a landing beach. As the tide was out, it took several minutes to reach the water’s edge but as I turned around, the realization came upon me. I had walked several hundred yards and as I looked inland towards the bluffs edging the beach, I imagined what an impossible task it had been for the thousands of soldiers to navigate the dead zone with little protection other than the obstacles that had been erected by the Germans. Many never made it beyond a few yards. Eye-witnesses spoke of the sea flowing red with bodies floating by. Combat engineers who landed later in the day as the darkness set in kept stumbling over objects – the bodies of their fallen countrymen.
One of the artists, the late William Bostick, USN, who donated several water-colors to the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection back in the 1990’s, also sent a copy of a sketch he had made shortly after the initial landings. As he moved inland from the landing craft that had delivered him to the beach, he passed rows of dead soldiers covered with sheets.
Another artist, Manuel Bromberg, USA, who covered the landings in an official capacity, arrived three days later and observed the aftermath. He was met with a scene of utter devastation. Pulling out his pocket notebook, he made quick pencil sketches. One of these showed a dead soldier being pulled away to the makeshift cemetery. He observed German prisoners forced to remove the dead and dying. These sketches are now in the Military Collection. By close of day on June 6, over 2,000 Americans had been killed, wounded or were missing, and many others were to die in the coming days and weeks ahead. Today, the scars of battle have been removed but it is in the nearby American Military Cemetery at St. Laurent that the stark reality of D-Day hits home.