June 6, D-Day, is not a national holiday. Perhaps it should be. On that day in 1944 Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, risking their lives to bring an end to a world war that killed more than 60 million people. In the campaign of Operation Overlord beginning on a stormy Tuesday morning, over 50,000 Allied troops were lost — including many from Iowa.
One of those killed was the father of Joanne, a second grade classmate in Guthrie Center. I recall khaki-colored buses stopping at the Cottage Hotel on Third Street and picking up men headed for military service. In the beginning of the war, those with dependents were exempted from service. But as the need for troops increased, fathers were also called.
Many years later Joanne told me how she stood with her father and mother waiting for the khaki bus on a January day of 1944. They hugged; they kissed; they cried. And then her father boarded the bus and went to war. She never saw him again. He died on Omaha Beach.
Among other Iowans who died in the Battle of Normandy were William Carew of Dubuque, Clair Edel of Mason City, and LeRoy Maas from Denison.
Carew was reported missing in action on Christmas Day of 1944. His remains have never been recovered. Edel, a fighter pilot, went down with his bullet-riddled P-51 on August 26, 1944. And Maas, a private in the 90th Infantry Division was killed, ironically, on Independence Day, July 4, 1944
On a bluff above Omaha Beach an American military cemetery near the town of Colleville-sur-Mer memorializes 9,387 American troops, including LeRoy Mass and Clair Edel in gravesites and William Carew whose name is inscribed on the Wall of the Missing.
I have visited the Colleville cemetery on three occasions, each one being as moving as the preceding. From the height where the cemetery is located one can look down on what was Omaha Beach and see nothing but sand and a rolling surf. It is hard to imagine that on June 6, 1944, someone standing in the same location would observe barbed wire and other fortifications, waves turned red with human blood, and bodies floating in the water and strewn about the beach.
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I made my last trip to the Colleville cemetery while serving as director of the California State University program in France. On a long weekend I arranged to take a busload of students to see the many historic sites of Normandy.
Aboard the bus I described the sites we would visit, along with some background information.
“Our first stop will be in Caen at the Battle of Normandy Museum. This city was heavily bombarded by the Allies because of its essential location as a transportation hub for the Germans. The bombing raids destroyed seventy-percent of the city and killed 2,000 of its citizens.
“Our next stop will be in Bayeu where we will visit a museum containing the famous Mathilde tapestry. This work of art depicting the Norman conquest of England, is 900 years old, and 230 feet long.”
“From there we will go to Arromanches to the Musée du Débarquement with its detailed information on the D-Day landings.
“Our last stop will be at the American military cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer.
“Are there any questions?”
“Yeah,” a student responded. “Why are we stopping at some cemetery?”
Several others joined in. “What’s so special about a cemetery?” they asked.
“Trust me,” I responded. “When you see it, I think you will understand.”
The weekend went smoothly, albeit with several students still questioning the visit to the cemetery. “What’s to see there,” they asked.
What they saw was a beautifully maintained green lawn, several monuments, and thousands of white crosses. Each stone marker includes the name of a deceased serviceman, his rank, his unit, and his home state.
The setting was serene. The beach where thousands of soldiers perished solemnly quiet.
The students walked about, read names on grave markers, took photos, but engaged in little conversation.
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An hour later we returned to Paris. The bus was eerily quiet for the three-hour trip. I was proud of my students. They understood.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org