The Day of Days

At dawn the panic set in. In an instant, crashing waves of adrenaline began surging through his veins. Pupils fully dilated, he could scarcely comprehend the unbelievable sight before his eyes. But nearly 60 years and over 21,000 sunrises had failed to erase the memory that burned in his mind like the sun itself.

“My God!!” he shrieked.

Actor Pluskat

Actor Pluskat

Pluskat

Pluskat

Pluskat, as portrayed in the classic, The Longest Day

With those words, a concentric shockwave of terror sent a herd of men scattering in all directions. Arms pumping furiously, they raced down gravel roads and across open fields, their boots thundering the ground like galloping thoroughbreds tearing through the morning mist. Sleep would become a distant memory. The time for rest had now passed. What that dreadful morning revealed would never be forgotten. It would be a memory, chiseled into their brain for the rest of their lives. For what happened to them on that particular summer day would transcend every other 24-hour period they would experience hereafter. This day was unlike any other, and should they survive it, their children’s children would undoubtedly hear the story.

There have been moments in humanity’s narrative that changed everything. Days that rise above the ordinary. They are uncommon. Unusual. Rare. They are the days that truly make a difference. They revise reality, marking entire generations. By their very existence, they become chroniclers of mankind’s official memoir. In hindsight, they are red-letter dates. Moments etched in time that forever alter who, and what, we are. These days become hinges upon which history itself swings. And they are often made so by the most trivial contributions.

June 6, 1944 was one such day.

Largely considered to be the pivotal day of the 20th century, that misty morning 70 years ago defined a global struggle for freedom.

Germany’s Aryan Tyrant had conquered virtually all of Europe, subjugating its inhabitants under the cruel, iron fist of the Third Reich. It’s difficult for Americans today to conceive of living in such a time. We’re not accustomed to Rulers and Kings, as our relatively short history has been marked by democracy, not dictators. We struggle, imagining life in a world like this. We consign these eras to grainy black and white photographs, sepia snapshots, old news reels or movies. Somehow this minimizes their reality, as well as their impact on our lives today. However, those who lived through those days did so in vivid color and real time.

Just 3 years earlier, another transformative day had occurred. On December 7, 1941, some 181 Japanese planes armed with torpedoes decimated US warships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing over 1,100 servicemen. That horrific event officially became a “date that will live in infamy”.[1] Now, three years into WWII, America and her Allies stood at the threshold of the invasion of France, the necessary next step to engaging Hitler’s menacing War Machine. Code named “Operation Overlord”, at stake was much more than a simple battle campaign or skirmish to retake a plot of land.

The liberation of all Europe hung precariously in the balance. If the German despot could accomplish his goal of hurling the invaders back into the sea, the war effort would have likely lingered on for years. England would probably have been lost altogether, reduced to rubble from Third Reich rockets. And the morale and fighting spirit of more than 160,000 Allied and American soldiers would have sunk to an all-time low. In such a scenario, historians can only speculate what would have happened if Nazi Germany had continued its conquest of the world, its development of missile systems and research into nuclear warheads. Therefore, there could be no more delays. It was an hour of urgency. The time was now.

On the night of June 5, the Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight Eisenhower, sat alone in his London headquarters, drafting a short speech in the event of disaster or defeat in Normandy. In it, he concedes failure, assuming full responsibility for the decision that surely would have sent tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen to their deaths.[2]

Then, in the predawn hours of June 6, 5,000 warships and landing crafts carrying 50,000 vehicles
and some 160,000 Allied troops disembarked from England. Accompanying them were over 11,000 planes, every one of them bound for France’s Normandy coast.

Early that morning, German Major Werner Pluskat arrived at his bunker, located some 100ft above the coastline overlooking what would later be known as Omaha Beach. Having been awakened by the sounds of planes and gunfire, the Major scrambled to his post in hopes of discerning the source of the battle sounds.

There had been scattered reports of an Allied bombing raid, but it had yet to be officially confirmed. Besides, a number of previous false alarms had made Germany’s commanders reluctant to generate fresh rumors about the coming invasion. In light of these earlier, bogus alerts, Pluskat and his men had actually been ordered to stand down that morning. But just to be on the safe side, Werner and his German Shepherd, Harras, climbed into a Volkswagen along with a few other soldiers and drove the four miles to his Normandy lookout post, arriving around 2am.

Once inside, Pluskat began peering through his high-powered artillery glasses (binoculars), carefully scanning the Cherbourg peninsula to his left, then slowly panning the horizon. He saw nothing. It was the same sight he had encountered day after day, night after night. Just the bright moonlight, occasional foggy mist, vast ocean and the whitecapped waves making their way to the shore. Then, just after 5am, as the sun began to rise, Major Pluskat decided to take one final look. Again, beginning with the peninsula to his left, he carefully scanned across the open sea.

Suddenly, emerging out of the distant morning mist appeared a sight so terrifying it seized Major Pluskat with fear. It was the largest armada of ships ever assembled in human history. The shock from seeing this caused Pluskat to exclaim,

“My God!! It’s the Invasion!”

Frantically telephoning his intelligence officer, Pluskat announced, “Block”, there must be 10,000 ships here!”

“Now look, Pluskat,” Major Block casually responded. “The Americans and British combined don’t have that many ships.”

“Come look for yourself!” Pluskat pleaded.

“My dear Pluskat, just where are these ships headed?” he inquired, snickering.

The stunned officer shouted into the receiver, “Right for ME!!”[3]

review3

It was the moment for which the Germans had fearfully anticipated. Though it was believed to be inevitable, the Allied Armada’s arrival came unexpected as Germany’s High Command was convinced the Invasion would take place at another time and location.           Because of this, they had stationed the majority of their troops and mighty Panzer tanks some 200 miles east. Further, Germany’s senior commanders were unavailable and far away at a military conference. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, commander of Normandy coastal defenses, was in southern Germany attending his wife’s birthday. It would take him hours to reach his men. The Allies had achieved complete surprise.

There was however, one man who, upon receiving news of the Invasion, possessed the authority to order the immediate relocation of tanks, reinforcements and soldiers to the Normandy coast. With one simple command, Germany would have an excellent chance of holding the line, preventing the Allies from gaining ground upon their beach landing. They might even do what they had done before and hurl the invaders back into the sea. But unfortunately, that man – The Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler – was fast asleep some 800 miles away in his mountain retreat, having taken a sleeping pill the night before.[4]

And nobody…nobody dared wake him up.

“D-Day” would become the day and the decisive moment of the entire World War. History records June 6, 1944 as the “Day of Days”. And largely because of it, Germany would eventually be defeated and lose the War.

Distracted.

Deceived.

Complacent.

Unprepared.

Asleep.

You see, one day really can make a difference.

Days change things. Some days even change the whole world.

October 31, 1517 – Martin Luther nails his “95 Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and Protestantism is born.

December 17, 1903 – The Wright Brothers successfully fly their biplane for 12 seconds and 120 feet. Travel would forever be revolutionized.

June 8, 1914 – Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated when one man, a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, lunges at his carriage and shoots him. WWI is set in motion.

October 29, 1929 – The US Stock market crashes. “Black Tuesday” officially births the Great Depression.

August 6, 1945 – The U.S. drops an Atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The nuclear age begins.

May 14, 1948 – Israel becomes a recognized State for the first time in 20 centuries.

November 22, 1963 – President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. America loses her innocence.

July 20, 1969 – The United States puts a man on the moon. “One small step for (a) man. One giant leap for mankind.”

September 11, 2001 – Terrorists attack the World Trade Centers in New York City, sending rippling effects throughout the globe.

 

One day.

And the world is never the same.

 

[1] Quote from the speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt on December 8, 1941 when he stood before Congress asking for a declaration of war. http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/day-of-infamy/

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/d-day-in-case-of-failure-letter-by-general-eisenhower-2012-6

[3] The Devil’s Garden – Rommel’s Desperate Defense of Omaha Beach on D-Day, Stackpole Books, 2013, p. 186

[4] http://www.historynet.com/d-day-the-beginning-of-the-end-for-nazi-germany.htm

I’ve been there . . . . but I haven’t done that.

I went to the beach for my vacation. But it’s not what you think.

Rather than lay out and soak in the sun, my wife and I just returned from 2 weeks in Normandy, France. We stayed at a little 18th century cottage in the country, spending our time touring battlefields, historical sites and museums, visiting villages, stopping to snack at bake shops, drinking coffee, sightseeing, riding horses and taking in the beauty of Normandy.

IMG_9479

It was our 32nd wedding anniversary trip, and the first time we had been away as a couple in ___ years (insert “you’re a bad husband” vibes here). But it was also a “Bucket List” item for me, as since childhood I’ve been fascinated with the story of D-Day. Let’s just say, it was an epic moment for me.

IMG_8883

I walked on Omaha Beach.

I followed the steps of the Band of Brothers.

IMG_9113

I bought a 70-year-old Army helmet, buried in Normandy ground for over 65 years.

photo

I walked for hours in and among German gun batteries.

IMG_8753

I strolled with reverence among the over 9,000 white marble crosses at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Over 1,500 are known only to God.

IMG_8806

To say I was overwhelmed and overcome would be an understatement.

381d402fb171b4a1e9e74b7bfac4cf5b

What those men did on that day (the pivotal moment of the 20th century) goes far beyond what a book or a movie can portray. The beach sand at Omaha, now frequented by fishermen, families and tourist, was once soaked in crimson. The average age of a soldier coming off those landing crafts was 22 years old. Some were still in the teens. Many never made it off their boats. Some exited their landing crafts only to be drowned, while others were cut down by an MG-42 machine gun firing down on them from the cliffs above. Men were slaughtered, cut in half, blown apart. But those fortunate enough to dodge the bullets that morning kept moving forward – some in fear, some for survival, but most because it was what they had been trained and ordered to do.

Later that morning, they breached Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, pushing back the Third Reich War Machine, gaining ground, and ultimately establishing a beachhead. And that’s what turned the tide of World War II. That’s why we’re free.

IMG_9207

Today, all these men are dead or dying. One of the Band of Brothers, “Wild Bill” Guarnere, passed away while we were visiting the very battlefields where he fought. Those who remain hobble with canes and roll in wheelchairs. And before long, they will all be gone. They are now feeble, frail and sometimes forgotten. But when they were young, they saved the world.

We owe a profound debt of gratitude to theirs, and any generation that fights for freedom.

IMG_8840

Yes, I’ve been there now.

But I still haven’t done that.

Never will.