Running Out Of Time To Thank “The Greatest Generation”

When I was trying to come up with an appropriate tribute to our Vets for Memorial Day, I recalled reading a wonderful piece by a good friend of mine, publisher Curt Scott on the west coast.  I contacted Curt (who is, himself, a Vietnam Vet) and asked if he would allow Grand Rants to publish his tribute as a guest writer and he graciously agreed to let us do so.  It is with considerable gratitude to Curt that I offer his Memorial Day tribute to the rapidly dwindling number of Vets referred to as “The Greatest Generation” – those brave men and women who brought this country through World War II and defined American Greatness.

Gerry Ashley

Photo by Mike Fuller

Colleville Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, looking north towards the English Channel and the southern coast of England. 9,387 American fighting men—representing only about 1/3 of all Americans killed fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944—are interred here at Colleville. Among them is Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., who was the only General officer to land on any of the Normandy beaches on D-Day (Utah Beach), and whose weak heart finally quit on July 12, five weeks after D-Day. His brother, Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, a pilot who was killed in France in WW1 in July, 1918, was reinterred to Colleville and rests beside him.

Incidentally, each of those 9,387 Americans is resting in American soil. You see, France ceded the cemetery’s elegantly manicured 172 acres (69 hectares) to the United States after the war.

The opening and closing scenes of Steven Spielberg’s epic “Saving Private Ryan” were filmed right here at Colleville Cemetery.

In the spring of 1944 millions of allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen… British, American, Canadian and expatriate Europeans [Free French, Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, Belgians and others] gathered, bivouaced, trained and trained and waited and trained in Britain for the inevitable invasion of France to free Europe and the world of the tyranny and the threat of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi war machine.

Perhaps the worst-kept secret in the world was that the allied invasion was coming; on the other hand, the best-kept secret in the world was precisely where and when the allied forces would storm ashore.

The secret began to leak out early on the morning of Tuesday, June 6, 1944, a day code-named [and forever after known to the entire world as] “D-Day.” Just after midnight over 24,000 American and British paratroopers [and glider-borne forces transported in flimsy American “Waco” (pronounced “wokko”) and the larger British “Horsa” gliders] began jumping out of transport aircraft—mostly Douglas C-47 “Skytrains”… renamed “Dakota” by the British—commenced landing on Normandy soil. Those thousands of British and American paratroopers and glider troops and thousands of French Maquis (guerrilla resistance fighters… the word means “bush” in French) were vital to the success of the D-Day landings: their task was to sabotage, disrupt and destroy enemy communications lines (including bridges, rolling stock, railroad tracks, and telecommunications/ radio-communications centers) and to thus obstruct the reaction time of Wehrmacht reinforcements to the Allied beacheads. Their contribution to the success of the D-Day landings cannot be overstated.

And just after dawn the first seaborne landing craft began arriving along a 40-mile [65-kilometer] stretch of beaches on the north coast of Normandy’s Cotentin [aka Cherbourg] Peninsula that were code-named [in east-to-west order] Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. 54,000 British landed on Sword and Gold, over 14,000 Canadians on Juno, 58,000 Americans on Omaha and Utah.

Over 2,400 Allied fighting men—almost precisely the same number killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—had perished by the end of that bloody Tuesday, the lion’s share of them on Omaha Beach; Wehrmacht weaponry, combat strength and combat-readiness was present on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach in much greater strength than allied military intelligence had expected, and the German soldiers fought determinedly, using every weapon in their arsenal to unleash a rain of hot steel and explosives onto the beach. Omaha Beach sand and surf quite literally ran red with the blood of American soldiers. The beach-assault footage of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” pretty effectively depicts the mind-numbing bedlam and the extreme violence those soldiers faced as the front gate of their ‘Higgins Boats‘ [of the U.S. 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division] dropped down into the surf of Omaha Beach. On some of the initial landing craft, all 30 GI’s were killed (mostly by the Germans’ “buzz-saw” MG-42 machine guns) before they could exit the boat. And because it was low-tide, those soldiers who managed to survive exiting their landing craft (each of whom was heavily-laden with equipment and ammunition) were then obliged to sprint across hundreds of yards of open surf and open beach under extremely heavy Wehrmacht rifle, machine-gun, mortar and field artillery fire to finally reach any cover at all.

Monday, June 6, 2011 marks the 67th anniversary of D-Day, and of the beginning of the pivotal Battle of Normandy [D-Day was merely the first day of a very costly 2-1/2-month campaign that ended with the liberation of Paris on August 25th]. It was arguably the most important single military campaign in the history of the world. The world you and I live in is a far better place today because of the sacrifices of those thousands of American and other allied fighting men and women of WWII. They represent perhaps the only generation in history of which it can be fairly stated “they saved the world.” American news anchor Tom Brokaw aptly titled his book about them “The Greatest Generation.”

The very youngest of them are now in their late-80s, a dwindling few are in their 90s; a 20-year–old soldier on those Normandy beaches would be 87 today. So when you encounter a WWII veteran of any allied fighting force, thank him [or her], shake his hand, buy him a drink, tell him you appreciate his personal sacrifice, his (or her) small part in saving the world.

You see, in only a few short years he [or she] won’t be around any more for you to express your gratitude.

Curt Scott

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About Curt Scott:
I’ve been proud to call Curt Scott my “Friend” in every sense of the word for nearly 20 years. He is the owner of Crown Publishing, a family-run publishing company with a focus on performance automotive enthusiasts and related businesses. But of more importance to me, one would be hard put to find  a man of higher character, decency and honesty than Curt.  But don’t take my word for it… read what retired automotive publishing legend and former Indianapolis 500 driver Patrick Bedard wrote about Scott back in 1995. Scott’s original tribute can also be seen here.

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