publicdomainpictures.net / Liv G
The eyes of the world are upon you: on a bluff that overlooks Omaha Beach, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, lie the remains of 9,387 American military men and women, most of whom died in the D-Day invasions and the military operations that followed it.
Summer, Keuka Lake. I’m sitting in the afternoon sun, reading. I left the dock and the dunking of worms at the call, “Lunch....” I had assaulted panfish from the dock last evening and again this morning. I don’t usually keep count but, for some reason, during those last two angling sessions, I did. At the expense of a couple of dozen worms, I had tallied five perch, four smallmouth bass, three rock bass, five bluegills, and eleven pumpkin seed sunfish. All the fish were released back to the water. The pleasure was in the lake, the casting, the hooking, and the landing.
My hosts are napping, and my bride is curled up in a chair, glued to her Kindle. But I want to savor the sun and solitude of the deck. It’s a weekday. The churning speedboats and water skis of the lake weekends are docked. The lake is calm, the water smooth and sleek as polished marble. The serenity is broken by a lone boat etching the glossy glass surface. The vessel vanishes and silence settles back over the lake. Traces of the boat’s presence linger long after it fades from sight and sound. Its wake has dwindled to small, gentle waves brushing the shore with a steady, soothing lap...lap...lap against the gravel beach.
Alone on the deck while others nap, I prop up my feet, relax in the warm rays, and read. I love military histories and I’m reading Balkoski’s chronicle, Omaha Beach, his highly acclaimed 410-page tome about just one troop landing area on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Just one. USA Today has touted Balkoski as the top living D-Day historian. The reading is riveting, and events of that momentous, massive World War II invasion of Nazi-occupied France are detailed almost to the minute. D-Day, code named Operation Overlord, included the largest naval armada, the largest beach invasion force, the largest airborne combat drop in human history. And in his history, Balkoski follows each unit assigned duty on that one bloody beach in chilling detail. Omaha Beach.
The hairs on my legs and arms glisten in the sun. I bask in the beauty of the day and of the tranquil, relaxing waters. It seems strange, almost out of place, to be reading of clouds obstructing aerial bombardment, negating any advantage the bombs might have given beach assault teams. A lone fisherman in a small boat trolls down the glass- smooth lake, noting landmarks along the way. On D-Day, high surf swamped struggling tanks and landing craft aimed far off mark at a treacherous shore obscured by fog. The silence, save for the soft lap...lap...lap of the water at shore’s edge is sharp contrast to the din of artillery, grenade, mine, and machine gun mixed with the screams and groans of dying young men. Here, the young swim waters for the joy of it. On Omaha, young men swam into devastating enemy fire. I counted my fish just for fun but, seventy years ago, on just this one beachhead, there were nearly 8,000 casualties and almost 1,000 dead boys who would never again tan in the sun or catch a fish or swim in a quiet lake.
The men attacking Omaha landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles and barbed wire, making the work of the beach-clearing teams difficult and dangerous. Casualties were heaviest at Omaha, with its high cliffs.
That day hits close to home. My host’s father hit Bloody Omaha among the first troops, assigned to blow up German tetrahedrons erected by “The Desert Fox,” Irwin Rommel, to puncture, impede, and swamp Allied landing craft. He was wounded but returned to combat until the Germans surrendered. My Uncle Rims tried to land his Sherman tank on Omaha only to have it swamp, forcing the crew to swim ashore amid murderous machine gun and artillery fire. While the largest armada ever assembled disgorged the thousands of troops who forged the greatest amphibious landing on the beaches of Normandy, more than 15,000 other troops were already aground, having jumped behind German lines. My Uncle Tim was with the 82nd Airborne, six miles from his drop zone and holed up in a canal surrounded by Germans. Later my father would cross France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany to link with Russian troops on the Elbe River.
I note the irony of my reading choice. I hadn’t really thought about it, but today is June 6, the anniversary of that day, that magnificent yet awful day when tens of thousands of boys faced death and destruction. The sea had been rough in the morning, but the waters calmed late in the day. The waves of Omaha at dusk brushing the shore with a steady, soothing lap...lap...lap pushing bodies slowly toward the gravel beach.
It is good, I think, that we remember...at least some of us...the bravery of scared soldiers sacrificing themselves and their friends on a beach in Normandy so that now, seventy years later, I can relax on a tranquil lake, soak up the sun, and sip fine wine. At dusk, after dinner, I will again hit the dock with rod and reel. But it won’t be important to count anymore.