September 21, 2015

1947. Omaha Beach, Three Years Later

Returning to Omaha Beach
German prisoners tending to an American cemetery in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer near Omaha Beach in 1945 (source)

From the "Special Issue: A Report to America Two Years After V-Day," This Week magazine, August 10, 1947, pp. 20-21:

OMAHA BEACH

by Bill Downs

The scene of the Normandy landings is lonely and eerie—three years later

What does a soldier feel when he walks back through the battlefield and finds grass growing in the foxholes and butterflies flitting over the pillboxes? Correspondent Bill Downs, who landed on the Normandy beachhead with the British on D-Day, 1944, went back to find out. He took along a portable recorder.

The result is something new in reporting. For this is no straight account of events and people. Bill Downs looked inwardly and reported the thoughts that marched through his mind—as he walked alone through Omaha Beach. This is how he put them down on the recording tape:

I'm on Omaha Beach, where, not very many months ago, I saw bodies stacked like cordwood—American bodies. Behind me lie the remains of the Mulberry Docks, the improvised harbor that meant so much on D-Day plus. The sea is very quiet today. Battered ghost ships ride low in the surf. This morning—when the sun was just coming out—the moisture on the beach came up in small clouds of steam.

I'm standing at the entrance of an American assault boat. There are about 50 here—some holed by shells, some by collisions. They're old and rusted, down at the stern, half-buried in sand.

Directly in front of me, over the open landing ramp, I can see the rise of treacherous ground the Germans held for so many hours while American troops fought their way up inch by inch. But now this rise is green and has a sort of military smallpox where naval bombardment drove the Germans back and enabled our troops to land.

It gives you an eerie, unreal feeling to be here, to see these sunken ships of the Mulberry harbor; and you wonder if perhaps sailors don't come back sometimes, and maybe soldiers, too, to man these assault boats of that exciting hour.

I walked practically the entire distance of Omaha Beach this morning, starting with the south end, where there are a half-dozen German pillboxes. In one there's a destroyed 88-millimeter gun which, even in destruction, still looks plenty tough.

All along, the hillside by the beach is marked by shellholes. Grass is beginning to grow back into them. Walking alone—there's no one around—you can find old "C" and "K" ration cans rusting in piles, shell casings, an occasional canteen or canteen cup—usually with a bullet hole through it.

Every day except Sunday, German prisoners come down and dig up the mines. Most of them have been dug up successfully, and there have been few casualties—postwar casualties—on the beach itself. Occasionally, from over the horizon, you can hear the far rumble of an explosion—fortifications or recovered mines being blown up inland by German prisoners. Over the high hill that faces the beach you can see smashed pillboxes with the steel rods that reinforced the concrete forming a pattern of deadly lace against the sky.

Two Frenchmen are riding along the beach now. It's Sunday, and the French tourists come up here quite often. The beach used to be a vacation place, and you can still see the wreckage of some summer homes. They are now roofless, shattered and windowless. They give you a sort of blank, stark stare, as if they have not yet recovered from what they saw on that fateful June 6, 1944.

After three years, you find yourself forgetting entire towns which lie inland, back on the beach. Trips that in your memory took about 10 minutes really take a half-hour or longer. Airfields that used to be there are now only wheat fields, and cattle graze on the site of your Command Post.

Almost every farmer has taken advantage of the material left behind by the armies to patch up his place. It seems to be a kind of poetic justice, remembering how our tanks knocked down fences and the corners of houses trying to get through the narrow lanes.

Incidentally, the Normandy cattle are back on their four feet. There are as many cattle now, the farmers tell us, as there were before the war, and there is no sign of those bloated things with legs in the air that populated the fields when we were there.

On the beach, the only things you hear are the singing of the birds—and you probably didn't have time to hear them when you landed, even during lulls when the artillery was quiet. And there are butterflies hovering over the pillboxes and the good, clean smell of plowed earth in the air. But you want to talk about the smell of the swollen cattle, the grim song of the flying shells, and the noise and confusion that goes with an amphibious operation.

But there's no one to talk to because you're here alone.

Maybe you plan to bring the wife and kids and try to show them the exact place where you landed. And the rim of the white, sea-washed stones that saved your life—you show them that. And maybe you try to point out the "88" position that was giving you most of the trouble.

But the explaining and the pointing out has no real meaning for anyone but yourself—and the memory is so deep inside that it needs blasting to bring it out.

I was sent by This Week and CBS to go back over this ground. There was nothing I wanted more—all those exciting, glorious days when you lived by the hour, when every story was worth doing because men were writing that story in their blood for an honest cause.

If you were in on the D-Day landings, I don't think you'd like coming back to beaches like Omaha. There's something grim and ghoulish about it. You stand and you look at the foxholes where men hid desperately. Then you go to the graveyard and read all those names—the Smiths and the Joneses and the McCloskys and the Weinsteins—and it just makes you plain mad. You think how quickly people forget, how you forgot—until you came back.

You look at these shells and this beach, this silence, and you wonder what it was all about. You wonder if you and the rest of the world will remember the terrible sights and sounds of that day three years ago—and try to make its sacrifices worthwhile.