Today is June 6, a date whose significance in history should need no explanation to anyone who's moderately informed about World War II. For a number of years now, as the date approaches, I take the time to re-read Cornelius Ryan's superbly crafted The Longest Day. Now that I've got it on my Kindle, I can read it anytime.
This year, I added another volume: D-Day With the Screaming Eagles by George Koskimaki, a member of the 101st Airborne who jumped into Normandy, serving as the radio man for the division's commander, Gen. Maxwell Taylor. Koskimaki assembled the letters, diaries and remembrances of 518 101st paratroopers and glidermen. Where Ryan's Longest Day excels at illuminating the big picture of the Normandy landings—both airborne and amphibious—Koskimaki's story is more granular, filling in the human texture of the personal experiences of hundreds of men.
Yet what I found most engaging—and what I'd never read much about before—were the experiences of the French residents of Normandy when, of a soft summer night in June 68 years ago, more than 13,000 American paratroopers and glider-borne infantry arrived, almost as if by magic, in force. Several thousand British and Canadians landed in dropzones to the southeast. Koskimaki devotes a chapter to the Normandy perspective.
That the airborne landings weren't an unmitigated disaster is one of the small miracles of Operation Neptune/Overlord and testament to the training and resourcefulness of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions. The operation involved nearly 1000 C-47s and, for the 101st, about 6600 men. But from the moment of step-off, the operation was chaotic. Pathfinders were dropped in the wrong areas, the C-47s were too low and too fast, causing many paratroopers to lose most of their equipment due to opening shock and very few were dropped in the correct drop zones. By the time the beach landings were to occur that day, only a sixth of the 101st was assembled into organized fighting units. By day's end, barely a quarter had been.
For many of the French, for whom the invasion was a profound surprise, the gray dawn of June 6th must have been a staggering sight. The scale of it, seven decades removed, is difficult to grasp. Parachutes in the thousands draped the landscape as did corpses from both sides. Lost equipment and bundles of medical supplies, radios, weapons and ammunition, food, explosives, radios, helmets, knives, grenades and personal gear littered the landscape. The story of St. Mere-Eglise is well told in Ryan's The Longest Day and in the film of the same name, but in other villages—St. Come-du-Mont, St.-Marie-du-Mont, Hiesville, St. Martin-de-Varreville—the scene was similar, if less celebrated. It must have appeared as though the entire arsenal of democracy had disgorged its largesse in a single night. In a way, it had.
Koskimaki tells the story of St. Mere-Eglise mayor Alexandre Renaud who described what the dawn of June 6th revealed. "We were dumbfounded to see the square occupied not by Germans or Tommies, but by Americans! We recognized their big rounded helmets…some were sleeping, some were smoking…their fierce and untended look reminded us of movie gangsters…Their get-up to us, who were used to the German discipline and correctness, seemed absolutely careless…their figures were entirely without line…all folds and a vague color between gray, green and khaki." Most of the paratroopers had soot-blackened faces and many sported Mohawk hair trims. They must have looked fierce indeed to a French citizen who had never seen an American.
But their effect was electrifying and for some, for a lifetime. Mayor Renaud's wife, Simone Renaud, was so affected by the invasion that she spent the rest of her life tending the graves of men who died during the Normandy landings. She became known as the Mother of Normandy.
I am reproducing here in its entirety a poem she wrote for the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and with which Koskimaki closes his book. It is a fitting remembrance for this day, the longest day.
To The 82nd And 101st Airborne Divisions of America
by Simone Renaud
You have jumped down in a summer night on the soil of France, Airborne!
You, first have set up the flowers of hope to bloom again
In shackled Normandy where the black-crossed planes watched the sky
And the first one, you have written at a stroke this page of history which future men will read unbelieving! Such a grand page that it will be told to the little ones after the old way of the legends
Once upon a time, winged angels came diving down from the moon-lighted sky
To drive away the devil enslaving our poor country
By night, from the black marsh, the flames of fires and tracer bullets sprang to them
Who soared above, full of scorn, with wide-spread parachutes 'til dawn peeped
Then, all of a sudden, they glided down
On our roofs, our towers, laying their blue, white, green, gold, speckled silk veils just like large wings! And when cool and laughing, they would say, "Everything is OK"
A wave of hope surged again in our anxious hearts during the fierce fight
Oh friends, one day, later on, laden with memories, proud of your victory
To this Norman countryside you will wish to return where your glory was born
And Sainte-Mere-Eglise, chosen among all other places for the first fight to start
Like a tender mother to her children, will stretch her arms to you and say:
Be praised, honored you, Airborne, who have been so grand in the epic days with your sooty faces and white silk parachutes. You have swept the clouds
And with your gleaming wings, you have driven away in a mighty swoop, O sky sweepers, the barbarian foe!