Dad's D-Day: From Run Like Blazes
Seventy years ago, in June 1944, Dad was a Sergeant in the Signal Corps of the National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division, which—and I knew this from The Longest Day—was the first unit to hit Omaha Beach on June 6th (and they were commanded by Robert Mitchum in the film). According to the alternative histories which Dad later offered me, on the morning of June 6th, 1944, he was a) dining at Simpson’s on the Strand with his British intelligence counterparts; b) recuperating from double pneumonia in an American Army hospital somewhere in that same ancestral Northern Ireland I was fated to live in and leave, thirty years later; or c) already back in the U.S. and paying for his booze, his wide ‘40s ties, his cocked fedora, and the two-pack-a-day cigarette habit that was later not to kill him, by buying and selling radio stations with other people’s money. That he was, in fact, on Omaha Beach on the morning of the 6th, and was wounded and later invalided out, is borne out by the decorations still adorning his faded uniform, which hangs in a closet in the home of my friends the Intrators, in France.
Such decorations were not handed out to shirkers or absentees.
Furthermore, according to him, he hardly needed to re-hit old Normandy beach on 6/6/44. Sure, hadn’t he already dropped by, or as near as made no difference, while on a recon mission with Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery on a moonless night a month or so before D-Day? He always insisted he was most proud of this.
Seems that Ike wanted to show Monty the probable invasion point. Dad, being a dab hand with maps and radio communications, was ordered to go along; so the three amigos, plus crew, checked out Hermann the German’s defenses together, Dad taking notes and fiddling with radio knobs and keeping the other two lads civil with anecdotes and jokes, told of course sotto voce given the circumstances. This memorable vignette was one of his favorite recollections, salvaged from the bottom of many a can of Olde English malt liquor over his many declining years; and I will say that in all the times I heard him tell the tale in varying states of sobriety, I never heard him alter the slightest detail.
The dramatis personae never varied: Dad, unnamed harbor pilots and/or steersmen, Ike, and Monty. Monty was always a “Limey prick” (in actuality, an Ulster Protestant prick), and Ike “very polite, very refined, a real gentleman.” He never felt the need to throw in Churchill or Mountbatten for variety’s sake; it was always a moonless night, “right off Omaha”; and he never mentioned inky darkness, Morse signals, flares, or muffled oars. Strongly in his favor is the fact that he never read enough bad fiction (or history, so often indistinguishable), or indeed fiction of any kind, to become acquainted with those clichés; truth to tell, Dad didn’t read much of anything, bar radio trade journals and car magazines and the occasional Newsweek. It was a good story, anyway, as if D-Day itself wasn't quite up to his standards.