Christophe—our private guide for the day and local Bayeux native—put a bow on his Omaha talk and slid the photo of a combat medic back into his notebook, closing it as a burst of wind swept over the beach.
The human stories Casey and I had just heard moved me to the core. So many emotions. I could’ve sat there all evening.
I knew, of course, that we couldn’t. We still had more Normandy sites to rapidly squeeze in before our one-day tour ended.
As we headed back to the car, suddenly it hit me.
Casey and Christophe continued ahead while I rolled to a stop and looked back at the water.
Omaha Beach was still at high tide. And the only accessible beach access had been cut off by the rising English Channel.
There was no way for me to ceremoniously touch the Normandy sand like I’d long imagined… Like I’d planned since booking this vacation.
But now, after it hit me, I knew there was another way. High tide or not, I was determined to connect with Omaha and the “Great Crusade”.
The symbolic act of physically touching a piece or place of history—of connecting, literally, with that past—is an important idiosyncrasy of mine. I do not take it lightly. Ever.
“Hold up,” I called out, fighting to be heard over the afternoon’s barrage of wind. “I gotta… The water.”
Another gust came whipping off the Channel, stronger, louder this time. I was practically shouting now.
“The water! I have to at least touch the water!”
I swung my chair around and pushed back to the top of the boat launch, where Christophe had told his stories.
The slipway had been built into the surrounding wall of boulders lining Omaha, its ramp plunging into the sand.
The gradient was steep with a cemented surface with cut grooves for traction.
I descended carefully, wary of getting my small front wheels caught in any one single rumble strip.
Even if my chair suddenly stopped…didn’t necessarily mean my body would. It happens.
Remembering to take in this heavy moment, I paused halfway to look up and down the beach.
The sun was out. A harmless bank of clouds had settled over the bluffs, and only a modest strip of sand remained above the wind-churned tide. It was a beautiful, crisp autumn day in Normandy, France.
I loosened my grip and kept rolling to where the ramp disappeared below the surf.
I turned and locked my chair perpendicular to the ramp a foot or so into the water.
Alone, I looked around. Silently.
I said a prayer and thanked the men who bravely boarded those landing crafts, sacrificing life and limb for the preservation of good and the perpetuation of freedom.
I thought about the individual soldiers, their lives and what they did…their families back home.
A sense of patriotic pride washed over me.
And for the first time all day, I felt a familiar lump rising in my throat. I was surprised it hadn’t arrived earlier.
At that, I bent forward, reached out beside me, and touched the water.
* * *
Ever since Casey and I were so fortunate to visit Normandy last fall, the lead up to this year’s anniversary of Operations Overlord and Neptune has been at the forefront of my mind. Constantly.
I rolled through the fields. I saw the bunkers and battlements. I experienced the beaches and I touched the water. It’s different for me now.
Because I was there. Because I made that connection…
For some reason, however, I hadn’t been able to verbalize the complex, bitter-sweet feelings of gratitude, reverence, and pure historical awe that I have towards the staggering undertaking of D-Day and the people who made it happen.
I simply couldn’t express what this day and this anniversary means in my heart of hearts as an American. As a student of history.
As someone who wanted to serve my country but can’t.
Every time I tried to create a worthy Instagram caption or blog post for this occasion, I fumbled for direction. Unable to generate a meaningful, lucid explanation conveying the right message and magnitude to pay proper homage.
I just couldn’t find the right words that I feel so obligated to find.
Then I realized something…
Maybe I’m not meant to.
I’m a wanna-be-veteran who studied history just a liiiiitle bit longer than most. I have a weird fascination for soldiers and war. I’ve read a pile of books most will never come across.
And for years and years I wrote and researched and wrote some more on nothing but military history. On my own accord. Because I wanted to.
A big university even gave me an extra degree for it. Real diploma and everything!
But I am no authority. I won’t try to be.
I didn’t serve. I’ve never seen combat. I don’t have personal ties to D-Day veterans.
I’m just your typical 33-year-old male history buff whose crazy patriotic with deep respect and appreciation for our military past.
My opinion—the words I couldn’t find—is irrelevant. My soap-box take on 6 June 1944 and the 75th anniversary is meaningful to, I dunno, like 5 people.
And that’s fine. Not being able to capture the right words is fine.
Because I’m not supposed to. Not today.
The men who were there, who witnessed Hell with their very eyes, own that right. Their visceral recollections should say everything.
* * *
"Our landing craft hit a mine on its way to Omaha beach. The explosion rocked the craft, killing the men in the front and tossing me and others into the freezing water.
I quickly inflated my lifebelt before the 60lbs of gear sunk me to the bottom. I was in shock and scared to death.
I could not tell which of the other men bobbing in the water was alive or dead.
Luckily, another craft saw me and it slowed long enough for me to grab a rope drooping from the side.
I clung to the side of the craft with one hand heading once again towards the beach...little I knew that I was hitching a ride into hell.
I let go of the rope about 40 yards from the beach in shallow water. Once there I found a nightmare.
Sherman tanks burned on the water line and half-sunk landing crafts bobbed in the water, red with blood.
The dead and body parts littered the beach. It was horrible!
Everyone’s screaming for help, everyone’s wounded.
I crawled on my hands and knees up the beach under heavy artillery, mortar, machine gun and sniper fire until I met an Army captain who ordered me to the firing line.
I pointed at my helmet letting him now that I was a Navy beachmaster. The captain was unimpressed. He simply replied 'Get your ass up there or I’ll blow your head off!'...and so I did.
By the end of the day, only 36 men out of my entire company were still alive."
-Seaman First Class Robert L. Watson (18 years old), B. Company, 6th Naval Beach BN, Normandy, France, June 6th, 1944.
(@ZuluFucxs IG post 6/6/19)
"As we approached the beach, the Germans continued spraying our boat with machinegun fire. We went as close as we dared, the ramp went down, and I was the third one out.
I was numb with fear of what I was about to encounter as I often tripped over several dead bodies.
The beach was covered with smoke, flashes of light, rumbling explosions.
Artillery, mortars bursting all around us, bullets whizzing by.
Sand and smoke sprayed upward as the explosions hit the beach. Bodies everywhere! The invasion continued.
The indiscriminate slaughter continued.
I ran as fast as my legs could carry me through the gauntlet of enemy fire. I went through a small opening that had been made in the wire; the path was marked by men who stepped on land mines.
I managed to reach a bluff with a slight overhang where others were hurdled. We were wet, scared, trapped, all in a state of shock. Nothing was said.
We made room for each other, mirroring our fear, unable to encourage each other.
A Lieutenant made his way towards our little sanctuary of protection.
Gasping for air he said:
'Men, this is Omaha Beach. You are the second wave. For what you've just been through…you men deserve a Purple Heart!'
Pausing for a moment to contemplate, I realized the improbability of my ever going home again."
- Pvt. Benjamin Alvarado, G. Co, 16th Inf, 1st ID, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.
(@ZuluFucxs IG post 4/29/19)
“The entire beach and hillside was covered with obstacles, a unit of Sappers had gone ahead to find where the mines were.
Those guys were smack in the middle of it, German bullets coming down from up top, and our bullets going back the other way, with mortars landing everywhere.
They moved in pairs, if one went down his partner picked up his kit and kept moving.
They didn’t call for a single medic, they just kept crawling up the beach as far as they could until they couldn’t no more.
You could see them pulling themselves up the hillside even after their legs got shattered from the explosions, I remember all their bodies had marker flags sticking out of them.
The dirt was too loose to hold the flags up and the blasts would’ve knocked them over, so the guys had shot themselves up with morphine and stuck the flags into their legs.
When you got to one that was still breathing, he would tell you where it was safe to step.
They were about 25 yards apart. When I got to the base of the hill I took a quick look back and that’s when I saw it.
Those Sappers had made a trail with their own bodies.
Now how do you not keep going after something like that…."
-Sgt. Gino J. Merli (MOH Recipient) H. Co, 2nd BN, 18th Infantry, 1st ID, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.
(@ZuluFucxs IG post 10/17/18)
* * *
Soon voices like these will be gone. It’s our duty to therefore hear what they say now so we can remember what they said later.
In a recent NBC interview with Tom Brokaw to mark this milestone anniversary, Tom Hanks hit the nail on the head, speaking about the legacy of that day and our collective on-going responsibility as a people.
Noting the sad reality that this may be the final major gathering of WWII veterans, Tom Brokaw asked:
“Is there a danger we’ll lose sight of the real meaning?”
Tom Hanks answered, poignantly as ever…as only Capt. John H. Miller can.
“I think the danger is that if it enters into some sort of mythological place where it just becomes a time of gods and heroes…
…If we ever forget that it was a bunch of individuals that went over…and they all had names like Ernie and Buck and Robert…That’s when we’ve done a bad job of being citizens of the world.”
Our responsibility now is to not just remember the big battles and tide-turning events, but to remember the individuals and their stories.
The blurry pictures and grainy footage and names on crosses are sons and brothers and fathers and husbands.
They were young men, people with names like Robert, Benjamin, and Gino.
Our connection to them is key. We have precious little time left with them.
So if you know a veteran of this war whose story has remained silent, reach out. Talk to them. Get to know them.
Learn their name. Ask questions. And write it down.
Roughly 500,000 WWII veterans are still with us. Their stories, as individuals, must be known.
It’s our responsibility to remember these singular stories about men and women whose lives were as vivid and complex as ours during a time when tyranny, hate, and oppression threatened our world.
So please. If you can…actively strive to make that connection with our sacred past in whatever way you can.
Whether it’s a family member, that neighbor down the street, or a friend of a friend of a friend, be a good citizen of this world and link yourself—tangibly and emotionally—to the past that matters.
Do as I did alone on hallowed ground at the edge of that ramp:
Connect, and remember.
Reach out and touch the water.
All first person accounts sourced from and credited to the Zero Foxtrot Instagram account @ZuluFucxs
Zero Foxtrot is a U.S. Marine owned and operated business. “We provide unique products that reflect the old school vintage military lifestyle. We strive to honor and highlight the past generation’s warrior culture and all those whose sacrifices and actions tend to be forgotten.” — www.ZeroFoxtrot.com
If you’re like me, their Instagram page is a must-follow.