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As 60th Anniversary Dawns, D-Day Vets Remember

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2004
 
On June 6, 1944, around dawn, Allied forces pulled off the largest land
invasion by sea in the history of warfare.

Landing on the shores of Normandy, France, 156,000 American, British, and Canadian troops stormed five code-named beaches between the Orne estuary and the Cotentin Peninsula: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah.

The U.S. section of the force, numbering 73,000, attacked at Omaha and Utah beaches. By day's end, Allied troops had made sizable inroads on all five beaches, and the Allied plan to invade Germany via France had achieved its first step toward success.



Prism of the Present

Author and war historian Tom Allen will be leading his fourth group to the D-Day landing sites for National Geographic Expeditions, this time to mark the invasion's 60th anniversary. National Geographic Expeditions is a travel program organized by National Geographic to allow the public to experience for themselves the places and cultures National Geographic covers in its media.

"When you go to the beach, it's a little bit like going to the Vietnam memorial … you're in an aura of memory that is palpable," Allen said. "You just look down at the sand and you say, There were guys who died on that sand."

It may be hard, though, for some people today to understand the full import of D-Day, Allen observed.

"There's a prism between us and D-Day. And when you look through that prism, you see the atomic bomb, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Iraqi war. You see many other military images that are so different from the image of D-Day."

D-Day stands apart, however, because of the sheer magnitude of effort and loss that occurred from sunrise to sunset. "A lot of battles last for weeks or … a campaign might go on for months," noted Allen. "But there are relatively few days in World War II where a [single] day is [when] everything happens."

The Call to Serve

For retired Lt. Col. Don Van Roosen, who left Harvard in 1943 at 18 to join the U.S. Army, enlisting "was a no-brainer for us at that time. The country was going through a great many setbacks all over the world … and I couldn't possibly sit back and not help out."

Retired Lt. Col. Al Alvarez felt similarly. Anxious to join the effort, he and his friends tried to enlist underage.

"You need[ed] your mother's signature to enlist less than 18," Alvarez remembered. "We all tried that, too." Alvarez had to wait until he was 18—"I couldn't understand why my mother wouldn't sign"—but enlisted promptly in 1942.

Both men will join Allen in leading National Geographic Expedition's trips to Normandy this June. Each will bring his own vivid memories and reasons for returning.

Alvarez, a member of the 7th Field Artillery Battalion of the 16th Regimental Combat Troop, landed with the first invasion wave on Omaha Beach. His task: to carry cumbersome radio equipment to the top of the hill, "which I did, thank goodness—otherwise the sergeant would have killed me right there," Alvarez said.

Van Roosen had a similar task at Omaha with the 2nd Battalion of the 115th Infantry Regiment, part of the invasion's third wave. "My function was to carry everything they could possibly give me," he recalled, which included equipment totaling over 100 pounds (45 kilograms). "I was glad I landed in chest-deep water, because I think I would have been a long time coming up if I had landed in deeper water."

Easy Red

Omaha, the beach at which Alvarez and Van Roosen landed, had what became an ominous Allied code name: Easy Red.

The designation originally had a more mundane derivation, Alvarez said. Each beach was assigned a letter and a color. In the military's phonetic alphabet, the letter e was given the word designation "easy." Omaha Beach thus became E-Red, or Easy Red.

The battle at Omaha was anything but easy, and the beaches quickly ran red with the blood of the fallen. Because of its tough terrain and 150-foot (46-meter) bluffs, explained Van Roosen, the Germans had an excellent vantage point from which to attack Allied landing forces.

Combined with 20-foot (6-meter) tides and numerous submerged mines and other devices designed to rip open boat hulls, the landing sites were deadly. Thousands of Allied troops were killed, wounded or went missing on that single day.

Remembrance

Alvarez and Van Roosen have each been back separately to visit the battle sites along Normandy's coast.

Alvarez gave one of his three sons the challenge of bringing him back a small bag of sand from Normandy. "I guess what I was trying to do was to instill in them some sort of feeling about that beach."

Sometimes the contrast between the events on the beaches of 1944 and the activities of 2004 can be startling, Alvarez said. The beaches of Normandy today are filled with swimmers, sunbathers, and soda stands converted from old German artillery posts, known as pillboxes.

For Van Roosen, who first went back 40 years after D-Day, curiosity drove him to go, especially after reading historical accounts of the day. "The more I could see of it, the more meaningful it would be for me," he said.

Yet his experiences on D-Day were not ones he shared, even with his family, until interest peaked around the time of D-Day's 50th anniversary in 1994. With numerous interview requests, Van Roosen went through the painful process of dredging up old memories.

Both Alvarez and Van Roosen think the tours they will be leading are an important way to keep the history of the day alive. "Every generation has a hard time understanding that previous generation," Alvarez observed.

Other ways to keep the history alive are memorials like the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy and the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, as well as the newly completed National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.—which will be inaugurated officially this coming Memorial Day.

Keeping the memory of D-Day's sacrifices and the day's contribution to the ultimate victory of the Allies is imperative, Van Roosen said. "If we don't respect our heritage, we lose it."

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