Cold water sluiced between my toes.
I stood at the edge of the beach, the English Channel behind me. I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the breaking waves.
Men had died on this spot.
Their blood stained this sand.
On that July afternoon in 2005, I tried to picture what my fellow Americans saw when the landing craft ramps lowered onto Omaha Beach 70 years ago.
It was hard at first. French families frolicked on vacations. People walked their dogs, just another summer day at the Coleville-sur-Mer shore in Normandy.
Everything seemed so tranquil, so innocent, as though the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, never had marred this postcard coastline.
I’m not sure how long I gazed at the hazy bluffs, my feet planted in the Easy Red sector of the landing where 1st Division companies were mauled. Or maybe it was Fox Green. There weren’t any lines.
The distance did it, snapped me back to the past with a jolt that brought tears to my eyes.
Those guys, those unbelievably brave guys, the ones who didn’t drown when they were pitched overboard from stricken boats or disgorged too early into slate-gray water over their heads, had to cross 300 yards to reach the bluffs.
With nowhere to hide.
Their ordeal became clearer from another perspective.
Crumbling German pillboxes, their gaping gun slits like zombie mouths, still cling to the hillsides. I peered from one dank bunker, at a sweeping view of a waterline that suddenly seemed close enough to touch.
It must have been a shooting gallery.
After all the books I had read since childhood, after the films, after the honor of interviewing D-Day veterans, only then did I truly understand.
Nobody should have gotten off that beach alive.
But enough did, somehow, to join the rest of the Allied forces landing at Gold, Juno, Sword and Utah beaches and begin Western Europe’s liberation.
Enough survived to turn history, the start of Nazi Germany’s fall. Without the invasion, Hitler could have pressed more divisions to the Eastern Front and possibly held off the Russians.
I wasn’t thinking about that on a sun-kissed day, a salty breeze ruffling my hair.
I just thought of men thrust into a nightmare of someone else’s making.
On the beach, I imagined the rounds streaming down, a merciless hail pinging off metal and tearing flesh. In the pillbox, I imagined wide-eyed gunners, clenching their weapons as they fought for their lives.
At Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers famously scaled a 100-foot cliff on D-Day to destroy a coastal battery that could have shelled the invasion beaches and the armada at sea, I pictured Steve Liscinsky.
Liscinsky, a retired wildlife research biologist in State College when I met him, was there, a radioman in the Ranger 2nd Battalion.
I marveled at the sheer height he climbed under fire, at the narrow lip of the cliff where he and other Rangers hunkered down before two days of fighting in a pockmarked moonscape left by naval bombardments.
He’s gone now, but I remembered him Friday.
I remembered another friend, Russell Stover, still with us at 94.
He’s a former Millheim resident now living in Belleville. With the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division, he bounced toward the smoke and carnage on Omaha Beach in a pitching landing craft full of stony-faced soldiers.
Spray drenched the huddled men. Some vomited their breakfast from seasickness.
It was the third wave, just 30 minutes after the first.
Stover waded in from shoulder-high water, ran, fell in exhaustion, ran some more and managed to cross the beach.
Few today can speak firsthand of Omaha’s terror, where blind luck dictated survival.
Soon, nobody will, and the only physical reminders will be rusted landing craft spars entombed in dunes, moldering bunkers, somber beachside memorials and — stabbing the hearts of generations to come — rows upon rows of white crosses and Stars of David in emerald fields.
But the stories, the legacies of a day that changed the world, will remain forever, as eternal as the waves that lapped at my ankles and numbed me.