The Defining Moment of the 20th Century
By: Zachary C. Miller - ENDEAVOR, July 2010
Beside the often overlooked Annandale cannon, which sits on the corner of Columbia Pike and Backlick Road, stands a small stone tablet that reads, “That which we do for ourselves dies with us; that which we do for others remains.” For a community that lies within minutes of Arlington National Cemetery and the WWII Memorial, this is a most fitting inscription. These sentiments strike deeper at the heart when walking amongst the headstones at Arlington, where soldiers from every American war now lay at honorable rest; or, through the WWII Memorial that commemorates those who fought in the defining moment of the 20th century.
While on spring break during a semester abroad, seems an unlikely time to initiate an understanding of the sacrifice made by those buried within minutes of my hometown, Annandale. In fact, take a poll of likely spring break destinations and Normandy probably ranks right above Bosnia. But like the young soldiers who, around the same age, embarked across the English Channel in June of 1944 towards northern France, I and four fellow students headed to the same destination -- a place I found that I knew little about. Nearly every American history class throughout school started in 1492 with Columbus, but never reached past Pearl Harbor into 1942 or beyond. If mentioned at all, D-Day and the Normandy landings were briefly referenced in the closing remarks of class before final exams. I’ll let the reader determine how much time was left for discussion of the Korean War, Vietnam War, or Desert Storm. If the importance of history lies within our ability to learn from past mistakes, then perhaps this lesson has never been more vital than in the midst of our most current war against terrorism.
When on our tour we reached the city of Bayeux outside of Normandy, we met with an enthusiastic young British man who would serve as our tour guide for the next eight hours, the highlights of which included St. Mere Eglise, Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, and a bluff overlooking the two called Pointe Du Hoc. The celebrated amphibious landing of 11,000 Allied ships on these beaches was preceded by the deployment of paratroopers further inland whose mission it was to disrupt communication, and prevent reinforcement of the coastline. The C-47 pilots carrying these soldiers had little training; were flying at night; and, came under heavy enemy fire, which resulted in severe misplacement of the troops. To further complicate the matter, the Nazis flooded the marshes leaving only a few open causeways connecting inner France with the beaches. On top of this, old Viking farms had created hedgerows covered in thick brush nearly impossible to penetrate. All of this combined to form a nightmarish situation for the troopers. The difficulties encountered inland foreshadowed that of those landing on the Normandy coast a few hours later.
Utah Beach suffered the fewest casualties of any landing, losing only 197 of nearly 23,000 men. Conversely, littered with hidden Nazi bunkers, Omaha Beach was the place you’d least like to land on D-Day. Nearly 2,400 Americans lost their lives there, and by the end of the day the blood stained water was described as having purple waves and pink surf. Still, the highest percentage of casualties occurred at Pointe Du Hoc, a 100 foot high cliff overlooking the sea between Omaha and Utah Beaches.
On this cliff German concrete casemates (pillboxes) had been built to house 155mm artillery guns. Taking these guns was a high priority as they would disrupt the landings on both beaches. Fortunately but inexplicably the guns had been moved inland shortly before the landings. Taking and then defending this strategic high ground from numerous German counterattacks; then finding and destroying the guns, resulted in a significant casualty count. Enormous craters are evident all around these casemates from the naval bombardment and aerial bombings laid down immediately before the invasion. Amazingly, the 7ft thick rebar reinforced concrete was left without a crack but the Allied advance was notably delayed by rifle and machine gun fire from these pillboxes.
An additional testament to the quality of German engineering was a “U” shaped ventilation duct that allowed for the fresh flow of air while preventing grenades from being thrown into the casemate. In fact, Allied forces were never able to successfully enter the casemates even after the beaches were taken until the soldiers unlocked themselves from within.
Looking at the breadth of the beaches from the cliffs, I thought of the average soldier, barely out of high school, and wondered how men so young and innocent to warfare could summon such unimaginable courage. Today, thousands of Americans still remain on this bluff overlooking Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, including three recipients of the Medal of Honor and Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Those who died here; the bravery they displayed here are remembered by every visitor.
Dominating the cemetery’s landscape stands a twenty-two foot bronze statue above an inscription which reads, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves”. Never have I felt such a sense of loss; never have I felt so proud than standing amongst the graves of boys who, if alive today, would be old enough to be my grandfather. Whether in Annandale or thousands of miles away in a foreign country, I will forever honor the sacrifice and struggle of American servicemen.
About the author: Zach Miller was born and raised in Annandale and is a recent graduate of Virginia Tech. He will be graduating from law school in June 2013.
Reproduction of this article or photographs requires the written permission of the author and The ENDEAVOR News Magazine. Photographs are courtesy of the Annandale Chamber of Commerce photographic archive taken by the author on his trip to Normandy. (Copyright © 2012 Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All rights reserved. (Photographs & images, on this page, and on this website, are not available for use by other publications, blogs, individuals, websites, or social media sites.)