Sabbatical 2017

Sabbatical 2017
Mallards on a pond in the village of Raspordin

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Omaha Beach, D-Day and My Father

The view from the water's edge toward the Atlantic Wall
The beach was nearly empty, at least it felt that way to me. On a hot summer day, a beach can be tremendously relaxing. On a cooler, more breezy day, it can be introspective, maybe a bit forlorn, undoubtedly melancholy. This was not one of the hot summer days. I walked out to the water’s edge, turned around and look at the shore. All I could think was, “It was impossible for anyone to survive.”

I was standing on Omaha Beach in Normandy in September. Kelly and I had been looking forward to our visit here. We wanted to see the beach and visit the American cemetery. There was a slight chill and a faint breeze moved through the air. The tide was low, and the sun was ducking in and out of the clouds sending shadows dancing across the water and sand.

I had been thinking about my father and how he landed here on D-Day. He was part of the largest air/sea offensive the world had ever seen, boasting the greatest armada in history. 

France, along with most of Europe, was occupied by the Third Reich. England was being threatened by constant bombings and knew they were in the crosshairs of the Nazis. In the days immediately before June 6, 1944, things looked grim.

The Germans had heavily fortified the entire coast of France.
One of the numerous bunkers overlooking Omaha Beach
It was an unbroken line of massive concrete bunkers and gun fortifications backed up by a series of trenches, barbed wire, machine gun nests, cannon, mobile artillery, innumerable iron tank traps on the beaches and nearly five million carefully placed land mines. They said this line of defenses was impregnable. They called it the “Atlantic Wall.” All these entrenchments were backed up by the legendary German Panzers, the expert pilots of the Luftwaffe and the promise of even further advanced and more deadly weaponry on the near horizon.

However, cracks in the Nazi juggernaut had begun to appear. There was a campaign mounted by the Germans to push into Russia, the Germans dividing their forces onto two major fronts. This had become a logistical nightmare for the Nazis. Supply lines and resources were taxed to the point of disabling much of the war machinery, particularly the prized Luftwaffe. Furthermore, when Japan surprise-attacked Pearl Harbor, Hitler took the opportunity to declare unprovoked war on the USA, claiming they were supporting the British in their attempt to unseat the Third Reich from their dominance of Western Europe.

With the ongoing refinement of the German’s rocket program, their cutting-edge work on a jet engine beginning to show promise and a rumored “ultimate bomb” project, the time to retaliate was now. The Allied Forces, led by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (Ike), decided to invade France to get a foothold in mainland Europe and begin pushing the Germans back.

The only questions were, “When and where?” The “when” was a no-brainer. ASAP was the only viable choice. Where was another matter. The most reasonable, rational point was at Calais, the narrowest portion of the English Channel. The Germans believed it to be so and concentrated much of their energy and armament in that area. Most of the Allied commanders saw the reasoning in this strategy. Ike only saw the danger in making the most obvious move and attacking where they were most expected. 

In a bold and daring move to surprise the Nazis, Gen. Eisenhower decided to hit the beaches of Normandy, further south—in bad weather. They would start by dropping paratroopers over the enemy lines to exert pressure from behind. Then, bombers would pound the Atlantic wall weakening its defenses. Finally, they would land infantry and special forces along the waterline of five strategic beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. 

The Americans would land at Utah and Omaha, taking the near-impossible-to-capture cliff fortifications of Pointe Du Hoc in the process. The British would be responsible for Gold and Sword beaches, the Canadians, Juno. “Operation Overlord” would launch on June 6.


Onto this vast and horrific stage stepped my dad. He was nineteen years old. He tried to enlist the year before but was turned down for being underweight. Eight months later, he was drafted. He went through basic training where they handed him a gun and taught him how to shoot. After basic, he was immediately shipped over to England where the Allied army would muster and await the go-ahead for the invasion from Ike who had been appointed the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. 

Dad, being an infantryman, would land on Omaha Beach in an LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) commonly known as a Higgins Boat. Higgins Boats were not much more than a reinforced floating box, steerable from the rear, in the front of which was a ramp that would fall and provide an exit from the boat onto the beach. Once the ramp was lowered, the soldiers would run down it, cross the shallow water and storm the beach. It was cheap to make and highly efficient for its purpose.

Entrance to a massive underground
bunker named WN 62
The problem was the Atlantic Wall. The Germans knew there was going to be an attack, they just didn’t know when and where. So, although they were convinced the attempted invasion would come at Calais, they worked to be prepared all along the Atlantic Wall. That meant that, despite the paratroopers, bombers and the damage they would inflict, every remaining gun, cannon and bunker would be focused on those Higgins Boats as they brought the infantry to the beaches. Once the army landed on the beaches, they had to negotiate the tank traps and mines! The infantry was going to be the key to the success or failure of the invasion.

My dad took me to see “The Longest Day” when it came out in 1962. He never liked to talk much about the war. I would get snippets of insight here and there. Dad would only get so far before he would just stop talking about it. After we experienced the intensity of the movie, he wanted to talk.

Though it was a dramatization, Dad thought the movie accurately captured the feel, sights and sounds of the landing. He talked about the agonizing wait near the shores of the English Channel in England for three days before receiving the orders to move. He spoke about the ride on the ship over the channel, graphically describing how intense and focused everyone was—and how afraid—but how determined they were at the same time.

His memories of being loaded into the Higgins Boats were incredibly emotional. They all were ready to die, knew many of them would. He was placed about mid-way through the boat. His Sergeant whispered in his ear, “When that ramp falls, you go over the side. Those guys in the front are going to take the fire and give you the chance to get in the water. Once you’re out of the boat, if you want to live, keep moving. Don’t stop for anything. Just keep moving. The men who stop are going to die. Hold on to your rifle and keep moving.”

The fifteen-minute ride in the Higgins boat from their ship to the shore was a fearsome, paralyzing wait for the ramp to fall. When it finally lowered, the battle became all too real for the men inside. The way Dad described it was, “I know what hell is like. I’ve seen it. I ran through it.”

Here’s the thing about my father. He wasn’t a violent man. He came from a family that was tough and hardened. While Dad could hold his own in a street fight and even do better than most, he was a gentle man who abhorred violence. He was a man of integrity and honor, but not really a warrior.

Until that day.

Dad got the Silver Star for what he did that day. He would never tell me what he did to earn it. He was wounded taking a bunker three days later. They patched him up and sent him back out with a broken eardrum and a bullet wound to the shoulder. He was wounded again in the battle of the Bulge where he received a Bronze Star. Again, they patched him up and returned him to the front line, this time with a piece of shrapnel in his other shoulder, near his lung.

He came home after the war, got a job rolling steel in the mills of his hometown, married my mom and settled into a quiet life in Youngstown, Ohio. They adopted me two years later in 1952.

I was ten years old when we saw The Longest Day together. I was at that age where your dad is a hero in all he does. I was fascinated by and proud of the fact that he was so much like those guys in the movie, fearless but afraid, tentative but determined, larger than life but authentic. My opinion of him hasn't changed much.

It was a memorable experience for me to sit in the theater with my dad, but the full impact of what he had been through didn’t hit me until I stood on that beach in France. It was so wide, so incredibly wide. I tried to imagine how dad felt, a young, tender-hearted boy, with a gun in his hand, people dying all around him, afraid to cross this beach, maybe even more afraid of what he had to do if he made it.
Looking toward the heavily fortified cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc
I remember asking Dad why he did it, why he fought so fiercely. He told me, “Because I love this country. I did it for your mom, and I did it for you, for the son or daughter I wanted to have.” He said, “My father came from a different country. One of the things he taught us was how great the USA was. It looked to me like someone was trying to take that away. So, I fought. I did what I had to do.”

Dad carried the burden of that day, that war, for the rest of his life. Although he didn’t know the Lord, he was one of the godliest men I’ve ever met, a hard worker, wholly committed to his wife, devoted to his country and a role model for his son.

My father came down with pancreatic cancer in November of 1989. It was advanced enough that the diagnosis was terminal. The prognosis was to keep him as comfortable and pain-free as possible until the end. He was gone by February 7, 1990. I sat on his hospital bed the night before he died, sharing the gospel with him one more time. We both knew the end was near and we talked about it. He said, “I just can’t ask forgiveness, John. I’ve killed people.” I told him that God knew he would do that and still sent His only Son, two thousand years ago to redeem him. Dad smiled when I said, “You have to take care of this, Dad. I want to see you again.” I thought he was going answer. Instead, he fell asleep. He couldn’t help it. He was under massive doses of medication for the pain. I prayed for his soul and went home with a heavy heart.

I got a call the next morning shortly after six. It was dad’s doctor calling to say dad had passed away a few minutes before. I went into the hospital to collect his things and begin making funeral arrangements. The doctor was waiting for me. “I was with your father just before he died.” He said, “He told me to tell you something. Your dad said, ‘Tell my boy I took care of that business we were talking about.’”

I believe with all my heart that God's grace got my dad across that impossibly wide beach. It was His grace that preserved him, then poured out of him and into those around him, into people like me. I don't think I ever felt closer to him than when standing on that beach and seeing what, with God's help, my dad was capable of doing. I'm proud of him and humbled by the legacy he left. 

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this. Very touching. As always, I learn so much from you.

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  2. My dad (and three of his brothers) were also WW II veterans. Each time I read a story, hear of bravery under fire or recount talking to my dad and uncles, I am in awe of the Greatest Generation. Thanks for sharing the story - especially the happy ending!

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  3. Pastor, Words will never be enough to tell you how touched I am by your real-life story. I will never know your dad, but I will forever be grateful that he gave so freely and selflessly for those whom he loved and those he never knew, to include me and my family. Thank you for giving of yourself in the same way. As a soldier in God's Army, you recognize the battles are fierce, the beach is wide, and still you pour yourself out to those whom you love and those whom God has put in your path. God's Word is alive and you dear Pastor, were chosen to share it with others. Thank you to you and your family!

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  4. Right in the feels, John

    Center mass.

    I've had the honor and privelege of talking and partaking in fellowship with some of the men who scaled the cliffs at Pointe-Du-Hoc. As a former Ranger, it makes my heart swell with pride to be associated with the brotherhood of these men. As a man, I am humbled by their humility and bravery.

    I am heartened by your father's response. It is so typical of the men of his generation. Not wanting to "make a fuss" of a deeply personal decision, but fighting through the process of physically dying and the heavy medication to ensure you knew.

    I am sorry I never got to meet him.

    Steve Croushore

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