For my father
... a daughter shares the experience of D-day
by Karen Smolens
In July 1985, I visited Normandy with a D-day Veteran - my father. We walked the beaches, went to the bombed out bunkers of Pont du Hoc and saw the cliffs of Sword Beach. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day. My father purchased a video camera for the trip and my mother filmed my dad walking up from the shore on Utah Beach. In 1985 he was in a polo shirt and chinos. A baseball cap replaced the helmet he wore on June 6, 1944 when at the age of 19 he landed on Utah Beach. As we stood on the beach he told us how the landing craft had dropped him off in water over his head and how he had almost drowned. He described sidestepping mines and ducking mortar fire as he made his way to shore. The only obstacles he faced walking the beach in 1985 were a few sunbathers and children building sandcastles.
I had always known that my father fought in the Second World War. I also knew that he had been in the artillery and this was the reason for his hearing impairment. Since that time, he had gone to college, gotten married, raised a family and lived his life. On our visit to Normandy, I began to learn much more. We visited Ste. Mare Eglise and other villages and towns. Places that had once been vague images in Hollywood war movies were suddenly real life. We drove up the peninsula to Cherbourg, a town I had always associated with the musical film, but a place that took on new meaning as my father described how his infantry division had fought a bloody battle and liberated the town.
Irving is pictured with General Raymond Odierno, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, and a soldier dressed in the field uniform that was worn in WW II. The picture was taken at Fort Hood on June 6, 2002, the 58th Anniversary of D-day, when 11 D-day veterans of the division were honored by the current members of the division.
We visited the American Cemetery.This is one of the most beautiful and one of the saddest spots on earth. We walked along the tree-lined cliffs overlooking the English Channel. I was overwhelmed by the perfect rows of white crosses and the Stars of David for as far as the eye could see. My father looked for the graves of lost friends. He walked alone, he walked with us, said few words, bowed his head in silence. On the Wall of the Missing, in the rotunda at the front of the cemetery he read the names etched in the stone walls.
Until that day, I had not known that my father had been reassigned hours before the invasion was launched. This was when I learned that the gun battery that he had trained with, slept with, eaten with, played with for the months leading up to D-day had hit a mine on their way to shore. Every one of those men, his friends, had been killed. Blown up before they ever reached land. Their names were on the wall. After we left the cemetery we drove slowly down the narrow roads, past the hedgerows, those famous mounds of earth and brush that have become a part of the historical narrative of the war.
At some point, there was confusion, I really don't recall how it happened but my father became convinced that the men on the Wall of the Missing also had graves in the cemetery. He was adamant that we return the next day. We drove miles out of our way to return and speak to the people who work in the visitors' center and to locate names and graves for the thousands of visitors who visit the cemetery every year.
At this point I must make a confession. Our itinerary had called for a stop in Bayeux to visit the cathedral and this detour was going to cost me my visit. We cut our time in Bayeux short in order to return to the cemetery before the visitors' center closed. At 31 years old I didn't get it. I became a petulant child who had not gotten her own way. I was clueless. Caught up in my own wants and desires, I was oblivious to what my father was feeling.
When we reached the visitors' center, a worker explained that there were no graves for my father's buddies. This was because their bodies had never been recovered or identified; the reason their names were listed on the stone walls. A few years ago, Private Ryan, a World War II film by Steven Spielberg, was released to great fanfare. I read about the realistic depiction of the battle scenes. I could not imagine that this film was going to show me anything I hadn't seen many times before in movies or heard about from my father. What no one ever mentioned when discussing the film was the prologue. Finally, one Saturday afternoon I decided on the spur-of-the-moment to go alone and see it. Settling into my seat; I got my mind ready to face the onslaught of the battlefield.
Instead of a field of battle, I watched an older man walking through a cemetery with his family on a sunny summer day, looking for a grave. As I was confronted with the opening scene of the film, I began to cry and I could not stop. The face on the screen was no longer an actor but the face of my father in 1985. All those years later, I began to understand.
December 6, 2002