|Joyce and Jess
67 years ago, one of my closest friends and one of the bravest men I’ve ever met in my life, Jess Weiss, hit the beaches at Normandy along with 10,000 of his brothers. Many of those men never made it off the beach. During the invasion, Jess lost many dear friends and in 1961, his friend, Private J. Mello, body was finally retrieved and sent to Boston. Memorial Day may have just come and gone, but we should never ever forget the sacrifice that these men made for their country. Their sacrifice allows me and you to live in the greatest country in the world. Free. To do what we want to do and when we want to do it. For the record, Jess won 7 or 8 medals, purple hearts, and the silver star. Thank you, Jess.
Posted on Fri, Jun. 03, 2011 02:13 PM
A new World War II documentary honors a long day’s dying at Omaha Beach
By GLENN GARVIN
They remember because the young medic was just a kid, a 15-year-old who used his brother’s driver’s license to fake his way into the Army. And they remember because how could you ever forget seeing a human being instantly reduced to a cloud of red mist when a Nazi shell explodes and releases a 7,000-mile-an-hour tornado of red-hot shrapnel?
Sixty-seven years later, the memory of the boy’s death on a Normandy beach – he was crouched over a wounded man when the shell hit, administering bandages and sulfa drugs, just as he’d been taught – still reduces the old soldiers to tears.
“That’s a rough thing to talk about,” apologizes one.
There are so many deaths to talk about in “Surviving D-Day,” the Discovery Channel’s captivating, infuriating, terrifying and heartbreaking documentary on the 1944 Allied invasion of France that opened the final chapter of World War II. Men were ripped in half by German machine guns that fired 25 bullets a second, and they were blown to bits by 17,000 German landmines buried on the beach.
They drowned when they parachuted into open fields that American intelligence didn’t know were flooded, and they were shot point-blank in the face in a suicide attack up a sheer cliff to destroy artillery that American intelligence didn’t know had moved.
They died in little pieces, like the boy on the beach, and they died without a mark on their bodies, their internal organs mangled by concussion waves of super-compressed air pushed outward at thousands of feet a second by the explosion of artillery rounds. They died in such incomprehensible numbers that survival was even more incomprehensible.
“I had severe guilt for surviving,” recalls one Normandy vet who recounts crawling through stacks of corpses and mounds of severed limbs. “I kept saying, ‘Why me?'”
The answer, as “Surviving D-Day” shows over and over again, is almost certainly mere chance.
Airing two days before the invasion’s anniversary, the documentary does not purport to be a comprehensive account of the Normandy operation. It concentrates almost exclusively on the bloodiest and most snafu-ridden of the invasion’s five beachheads, the one code named Omaha. And it dwells on the quirky, random nature of mortality in war.
A horrifying number of men died because of what they ate for breakfast that morning on the ships carrying them to France. Navy cooks, hoping to build morale, laid out a sumptuous spread of steak, eggs and ice cream, which morphed into crippling seasickness on the landing craft lurching toward the beach through rough seas at H-Hour.
Crouched on their knees, puking their guts out, the soldiers were easy prey for German machine guns when the landing ramps dropped. Others tried to escape the lethal hail of lead by jumping over the sides of the landing craft, only to drown when their 100-pound loads of equipment dragged them to the bottom in 10 feet of water.
(The men who somehow managed to shed their packs and flak jackets in the water stood a much better chance of making it to the beach. In one of several fascinating forensic tests staged for “Surviving D-Day,” even bullets traveling several thousand feet a second slow to a halt after traveling through less than a yard of water.)
The heavy shipboard meal, a well-intentioned gesture that turned into a murderous screw-up, was the rule rather than the exception at D-Day. The orderly way in which battles unfold in war movies has so warped our perception that when we’re confronted with the chaos of real-life combat – the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, for example – we suspect conspiracy. “Surviving D-Day” demonstrates that the expression “fog of war” is not merely some butt-covering euphemism but a palpable reality.
The mortar-fired grappling hooks that Army Rangers tried to use to storm a Normandy cliff mostly didn’t work because they’d only been tested with dry ropes, not heavy ones soaked in seawater that slopped over the sides of the landing craft. Parachutes turned into burial shrouds for soldiers unexpectedly dropped into water because their buckles were not designed for quick release. The 29 amphibious tanks that were to lead the Army’s charge up the beach against heavily fortified German pillboxes never arrived; 27 sank in the unexpectedly choppy sea.
What ultimately worked on Omaha Beach were the men. Their courage in the face of indescribable horror is practically beyond human conception, perhaps even their own. But when Norman Cota, a tubby, cigar-chewing general who at 51 could have been the grandfather of some of his men, shouted to them, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches! Let us go inland and be killed!” they followed him up the beach into the withering German fire.
Almost seven decades later, most of those who lived through the attack are no longer with us. And “Surviving D-Day” is part of a goodbye that hasn’t been near long enough.
9-11 p.m. EDT Saturday