In My Grandfather's Boots: From Utah Beach to Epinal

In August 2009, I had the rare opportunity to walk where my Grandfather, and countless others walked. From the landing beaches of D-day, following the path of the 79th Infantry and 314th Infantry Regiment across France, I caught a glimpse, perhaps, of how his 5 months on the front lines made him undergo a transformation from an apprehensive novice into a battle-tested veteran. Visiting the dark forests where empty foxholes tell haunting stories. Walking where the daily life of soldiers led, where they were locked in gruesome events far beyond their experience. Walking where they fought side-by-side under fire, suffered wounds, agonized over the deaths of friends, enduring true suffering and sacrifice. From Utah Beach to his final resting place in the American Cemetary at Epinal, France, this was my journey.

Day 1: Caen and Landing Beaches

First stop was Caen and then out to Gold Beach. The beach was assaulted by the 50th (Northumbrian) Division (which included the Devonshire, Hampshire, Dorsetshire and East Yorkshire regiments) between Le Hamel and Ver sur Mer. Attached to them would be elements of 79th (Armoured) Division. The 231st Infantry Brigade would come ashore on Jig Sector at Le Hamel/Asnelles and the 69th Brigade at King Sector in front of Ver sur Mer. Number 47 (Royal Marine) Commando, attached to the 50th Division for the landing, was assigned to Item sector. By the evening of June 6, the 50th Division had landed 25,000 men with only 400 casualties. They had penetrated six miles inland and met up with the Canadians at Juno Beach, but were unable to take Bayeux. But, overall, the landings at Gold could be considered a great success. A few Mulberry Harbors remain as a reminder to the bravery and valor that were present here so many years ago.

The Landing Beaches
The Landing Beaches

At Omaha Beach, the US 1st and 29th Divisions faced the German 76th and 352nd Divisions in 18 hours of intense fighting. The assault started badly for the American troops, when the air bombardment missed their target and the German fortified bunkers were left unscathed. The engineer corps struggled under heavy fire to neutralize many of the obstacles to allow the infantry to eventually overcome the German defenses as they ran out of ammunition. What I found amazing at Omaha Beach is the extent of this piece of sand. At high tide, the water is right up to the cement steps and Anilore Banon's Omaha Beach monument "Les Braves". At low tide, one can walk out almost 500 yards and I remember the photos I've seen showing the number of men and hardware that came ashore here.

While the US troops were battling to take Omaha Beach, the Second Rangers Batallion undertook a daring mission to take the Pointe du Hoc. The headland, so picturesque in peaceful times, was topped by a German shore battery that constituted a serious threat to the Allied invasion of both Omaha and Utah beaches. The Allied bombardment of Pointe-du-Hoc had begun weeks before D-Day. Heavy bombers from the U.S. Eighth Air Force and British Bomber Command had repeatedly plastered the area, with a climax coming before dawn on June 6. Then the battleship Texas took up the action, sending dozens of 14-inch shells into the position. Altogether, Pointe-du-Hoc got hit by more than ten kilotons of high explosives, the equivalent of the explosive power of the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima. The Rangers approached the almost inpregnable position with fire brigade ladders installed on rafts. They shot grappling irons and ropes into the cliff face under close naval artillery cover. The Rangers managed to scale the summit, capture the bunker and resist German counter attacks for two days while the Allies on the five beaches joined forces making a bridgehead for the Battle of Normandy to begin.

Today, it is hard to imagine that the tranquil beaches of Colleville sur Mer and Saint Laurent sur Mer were the scene of such a bloodbath (so graphically portrayed in the opening of the film "Saving Private Ryan"). The American cemetery with its 9,387 perfectly aligned headstones, the fascinating museum recording the battle and the overgrown bomb craters around the Pointe du Hoc are a lasting testimony to the epic struggle.