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D Day 2004
Last uploaded : Tuesday 22nd Jun 2004 at 01:22
Contributed by : The Editor



On Saturday June 5, 2004 despite a prolonged illness I plucked up my courage and travelled on the Brittany Ferry ?Normandie? with a group of British veterans of D Day to the same shores they had conquered sixty years before. Portsmouth City Council had pulled out all the stops to secure me entry to the historic 'Round Tower' along its shores to enable me to see the flotilla of ships about to depart before we actually boarded the ferry.

The ferry was escorted by an honour cordon of battleships from Canada, Great Britain, the United States and France who travelled alongside for the entire six-hour journey from Portsmouth to Ouistreham. The approach to the Normandy coastline was one of the most moving experiences I have had in recent memory; there were several young ?non- D Day? holidaying passengers onboard and even they were deeply affected by the absolute silence on deck as we gathered to see the sands of those beaches drawing nearer. What must have been passing through the minds of those young soldiers of Operation Neptune on the cusp of June 5-6, sixty years before, as they approached their irrevocable fate on The Longest Day?

A military band greeted the hundreds of veterans as they disembarked and a stunning array of currently-serving officers from the Allied nations formed a two-sided receiving line as the men and their families walked ashore. Poppies floated down and crowds of cheering Frenchmen and women of all ages strained to see the vets from adjoining hilltops. Vintage aircraft thundered overhead and a nearby jump by British Paras coincided with the ferry landing.

My pictures and video footage have left something to be desired because I could not stop crying as these now-frail heroes disembarked. My late mother served in the American Women?s Army Corps during World War II and her most enduring memory was that of the endless streams of young GIs who passed through her ?music room? at Camp Pickett, Virginia before being ?shipped out to England,? never to return. She had received a parcel containing an unopened tin of tuna from a GI who had asked her to send it to his impoverished parents, ?who would need it now.? By the time she had unwrapped it, he was long dead. Now I had finally travelled to Normandy on the same journey so many of those teenagers had endured in tortuous seas.

The USO took charge of things for D Day itself, and in Paris I joined up with a large group of American D Day vets, many of whom were returning for the first time since 1944.

We rose at 4AM on June 6th to embark on a special commemorative train that left at 5:30AM in the same mist and fog that had bedevilled both the Nazis and Eisenhower sixty years before. It was cold and ghostly in the train, so quiet despite the large crowd of Americans and their families. One could read the minds of these elderly men as the train click-clacked trough the miles of the Normandy mist. The silence of these now-ancient lions of the longest day continued as we boarded buses in Caen for the final leg of our journey to Omaha Beach. The thick dawn fog was unrelenting and other-worldly as we neared the American cemetery. Presidents Bush and Chirac hovered overhead, unable to land in the appalling visibility.

Suddenly, at the exact time of the commencement of 1944 Operation Overlord, the sun broke through. The long, hot walk past the graveyard of some 9,370 young souls was made all the more poignant by the sight of that beach below the grassy hills where they had fallen in such rapid-fire carnage.

Sitting next to me at the ceremony was an American woman from Seattle who was not a Bush admirer, to put it mildly. She provided a relentless commentary for a group of British visitors seated near us on his ills and crimes, all of which were sobering. He commenced delivery of his D-Day speech. After one of his stories of the GIs who sent letters home that read like poetry but who did not make it, I turned around to find this same woman dissolved in tears. (I too was moved, and was intrigued to see the front-page tribute to Bush by Jonathan Freedland in 'The Guardian,' of all papers, the next day; -- in Freedland's view no-one could take away from the much-loathed US President the effect of his unusually eloquent and well-delivered speech.)

I was seated a few feet away from the grave of an Unknown Soldier, and could not take my eyes off the steady stream of elderly veterans moving with tender care along the endless rows of white crosses and stars, scrutinising the stones for the names of their lost comrades in arms. Amongst the 15,000-strong crowd in the audience were Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, both as moved as I by the unfolding events.

One of the D Day veterans gave the signal for the twenty-one gun salute and the ceremony came to an end. A lone drummer pounded a sombre note as the young flag-bearers retreated (some on their way to Iraq? - one hopes not) and I made my way to the USO for their generous and cheering meal of unlimited hot dogs and ?pop.?

An interesting footnote to this story is that the heat was so intense and the lavatory facilities (let's blame the French!) so inadequate that many people collapsed. I myself, having given way to hundreds of suffering elderly people desperate for shade and the latrine, made my own way to the ?MASH? where I witnessed the extraordinary energy of the American medics. Several veterans had arrived unconscious and were given instant treatment by the team in a makeshift, sweltering tent. One of the young soldiers was also suffering heat exhaustion and was attached to a saline drip.

At first I was taken aback by the almost-manic atmosphere ( stern demands for people's IDs and other things made me wonder if we Euros might end up in the brig rather than the sick bay!), but I understood their vigilance as hundreds of French gendarmes patrolled the area with sniffer dogs and loaded rifles. Any terrorist could wangle his or her way into the MASH and slay a hospital full of Yanks. In the end the American soldiers found my Anglo accent endearing and were chivalrous enough to switch the air conditioning on in the ?TV room,? where I had been afforded extra comfort. In turn I found their extraordinary stamina, verve and dedication equally endearing.

It is a long time since I have been called ?sweetie? and ?hon? by strangers and I am still reeling from the kindness of the much-maligned American military.

I looked at these young men and women of all races, who formed a fierce bond of courage and comradeship, and I thought of those GIs who had said goodbye to my mother at Camp Pickett sixty years before. Every day the troops based at Omaha Beach pass by those 9,370 graves. The men and women buried there will never age or lose their innocence. The troops I met will, one hopes, live out their lives to the fullest extent of their hopes and dreams.

In ?The TIMES? newspaper last week the British actress Juliet Stevenson says, ?America is one big, fat spoilt child.?

Tell that, Miss Stevenson, to the men and women of Omaha Beach.


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