Normandy Visit: Saluting The Greatest Generation

The week of May 8 to 15 closed a chapter in my life whose first pages were written in France before I made my 1947 debut, in New York City. My father’s first cousin, William Friedman, authored those pages by deed. Bill enlisted in the Army in 1938 and made the first of his three first-day World War II landings Nov. 8, 1942, in Oran, Algeria, with the First Division, whose storied nickname was the Big Red One. The North African campaign cost Bill the top joint on the middle finger of his right hand. On July 1, 1943 Bill and his comrades landed in Sicily. Bill was transferred to the Tenth Mountain Division for the winter of 1944, and then returned to the Big Red One, to prepare for the invasion of Normandy.

Like most veterans Bill rarely spoke of his war days. He opened up to me a few times, once showing me letters he had written from France in 1944; then 27, he wrote that he did not expect to see 28. Bill first told his D-Day story to me around the time he attended the 40thanniversary commemoration at which President Reagan gave his legendary speech (14:25) about the men of Pointe du Hoc, the 225 Army Rangers who scaled the 300-foot high sheer cliff overlooking Omaha Beach in search of German artillery pieces. Starting with 250 in the boats, the Rangers ended the ferocious battle with 90 able to fight. But they did get the guns — not on the cliff summit, where none but dummy guns stood, but half a mile inland; the Rangers used thermite grenades to melt the barrel interiors and then smashed the gun-sights with the butt of their rifles. Mission accomplished.

But it was ten years later, when Bill co-represented the Big Red One at the 50thanniversary celebration, and greeted President Clinton, that he told more of his story. Bill recalled the interminable voyage across the stormy English Channel; he stood in the third row of his landing craft. As they approached the drop-off point in heavy seas the soldiers could hear the clatter of machine-gun bullets slamming into the prow of the ship. His regiment (the 16th) landed at Easy Red sector, the most heavily defended area, along with the neighboring Dog Green sector, of the beach that was to become known as “Bloody Omaha.” The First was chosen for this location because it was America’s most battle-hardened division.

Bill was interviewed for several TV specials. And then he sat down for interviews with soldier-author Tim Kilvert-Jones, writing the foreword for TK-J’s 1999 book, Omaha Beach: V Corps’ Battle for the Normandy Beachhead.

I am standing on Omaha Beach, May 14, 2018, holding open the Kilvert-Jones book, showing Bill’s Foreword to my fellow tourists. The photo at left is of Captain Friedman, 1943. The photo at right shows Colonel Friedman (USA, ret.) greeting President Clinton at 1994’s 50thanniversary D-Day celebration. Bill is second from right.

Bill described his first 24 hours at Normandy. Nearing the beach, 0810 hours, he saw chaos:

Landing craft on their sides, turned the wrong way.… I had gone off the ramp into deep water. It was up to my chest. As we moved forward I must have been on a ridge of sand because the men around me began to go under and I had to help them stay above the waves. After going about 6 to 8 feet, I felt firm ground beneath me… I then moved quickly to the shingle and just lay down and joined that great big pile of men on the shale. We were totally immobilized. I did not know what to do, or where to go. I remember looking at the sea and the water was red, there were bodies and equipment just rolling in the surf….

Along the line of men on the shingle I saw men jerking as they were hit with the impact of bullets and shrapnel. Somehow it didn’t count. I was reassured because I was shoulder to shoulder with other men. There was something reassuring about having warm, familiar human bodies next to you… even if they were dead…you were not alone… they provided comfort and sometimes even cover from the bullets… At one point I was still lying down and shouting in the ear of the Regimental S4. He was a major. My mouth was next to his ear; it was so noisy that he could not hear me otherwise. While I was trying to make myself heard above the din, a bullet struck him dead. It had hit him in the centre [sic] of his helmet… our faces were inches away when it happened… it could have been me.

Shortly after Bill landed, the commander of his group, Colonel George Taylor landed. Taylor took one look at the carnage and said, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die… now let’s get the Hell out of here!

Taylor’s men had found a hidden defile, somehow not known to the Germans, who poured withering fire down exits E1 and E3, the visible paths up from the beach, on either side of the defile.

Bill picked up his story after his unit reached the top of the bluffs:

Colonel Taylor sent me to find General Huebner.… I found the General and I said “Colonel Taylor sends his respects, and presented my report.” The general [sic] had tears in his eyes and all he could say was “you did it… you did it!” He was deeply moved by the all too-evident sacrifice. Later that night I fell asleep in a farmyard around Colleville. I recall a sense of being purged.

I had been frightened in battle before D-Day and again many times afterwards. But that day I was not frightened. I was simply convinced that we had absolutely no influence or control over our fate. No action we could take would have stopped a bullet. It was surreal.

When I was awakened next morning it was by French women who gave me some Camembert cheese to eat and Calvados to drink. I had survived D-Day.

Bill fought with the Big Red One until the fall of Aachen, inside the Siegfried Line, on October 21. He was recalled because his mother, widowed in 1943, was seriously ill. (Rose Friedman, a concert pianist, recovered and lived another 23 years.) Bill stayed in the Army, and was sent to Korea in the fall of 1950. He was at the Yalu River when the Chinese counterattack was launched. In all, Bill saw four years of combat. In addition to the Purple Heart, Bill was awarded two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, the Combat Infantryman’s Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the highest decorations given by the governments of France and the Republic of Korea. A captain on D-Day, he left the Army in 1961 a full colonel. Bill passed away in 2002, age 85; on his last trip he took me and his wife to what then was the D-Day Museum in New Orleans; it later became the National World War II Museum. Bill was laid to rest at Arlington, with full military honors.

Our group visits all five of the D-Day beach landings, which line up, west to east, on the Normandy peninsula: Utah and Omaha (Americans), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Sword (British). Pointe du Hoc, offering a panoramic view of the peninsula, sits between Utah and Omaha beaches.

My Normandy visit, needless to say, was considerably less suspenseful. I wanted to make the trip so that I could stand at the waterline of Easy Red sector and see the landscape (minus the hell of war) my cousin saw. At low tide it is several hundred yards to the bluffs; at high tide, perhaps one hundred. Looking down from the top, where the Normandy American Cemetery (2:54) holds the graves of 9,387 Americans, one can see how high up the German defenders were. The bluffs at their highest are about 50 meters — 165 feet high; this is more than half the height of the Ponte du Hoccliff, and the slope is steeper than it appears to the naked eye, covered as it is with foliage. We see the American Cemetery Memorial (4:30) with its glorious chapel.

Our ace French guide, Pierre-Samuel Natanson, dispensed fascinating details of the many critical battles during the two-month Normandy campaign. I learned more in five days than I could in five months of reading about the battle. Seeing the battlefields leaves one with visuals that are worth the proverbial one thousand words.

Our visit to Utah Beach includes Saint-Mère-église (2:11), the church immortalized for filmgoers in The Longest Day (1962). The parachute from which an unlucky parachutist famously dangled was actually on the back side of the church; and there were two stranded paratroopers. Alas, Hollywood history favors cool pictures. The Battle of Frière Bridge (2:28) saw airborne troops knock out five enemy tanks, thus taking control of the bridge and providing an exit for troops on Utah Beach. We visit the Airborne Museum (2:04) honoring the 82ndand 101stairborne divisions. Finally we see Chateau Bernaville, where Gen. Erwin Rommel was once hosted. Rommel, in charge of defending Normandy, overseer of the Atlantic Wall fortifications the Germans built that ran from Norway to the France-Spain border, had predicted that the primary landing would be there. He wanted his fabled Panzer armored divisions stationed just behind the shore guns. He said that if the Allies escaped the beaches they would win. Fortunately, Hitler rejected his counsel. For the Big Red One, Normandy was revenge for the defeat Rommel’s Afrika Corps inflicted in Feb. 1943 on the Americans at Kasserine Pass.

We do a driving tour of Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. We begin at Pegasus Bridge (depicted: the modern, restored bridge), site of a spectacular three-glider landing, with pinpoint accuracy by superb pilots, landing without benefit of powered flight. The Battle of Pegasus Bridge seized for the Allies a key crossing point. We visit the Pegasus Bridge Museum, and see a Horsa glider, workhorse for the British during the War. We visit the Grand Bunker Museum (1:08) at Ouisterham. The Cinéma Circulaire at the Normandy World War II Museum shows a film of the battle on nine huge panels at once. The day ends with a stop at Longues-Sur-Merto see a fortified German artillery piece. Our final touring day covers the many sites of the Falaise Pocket (Falaise is French for cliff), where in late August 1944 the Allies ended the Battle of Normandy in a furious multi-day battle, one of the most sanguinary of the two month campaign. Atop Hill 262 (named for its actual height in meters — about 859 feet) we get a panoramic view of the sites involved in the complex serial engagements, virtually impossible to visualize without seeing the big picture. We see the Falaise Castle, located in the town that was birthplace for William The Conqueror, whose triumph at the Battle of Hastings (1066) brought Norman culture to Saxon England.

But for me the highlight of our group’s visit comes at a farm named Brécourt Manor, near the town of Sainte Marie du Mont. It was the setting for a key American battle after breaking out from Utah Beach, the other American landing site on June 6. The battle, depicted in Episode 2 of the popular Band of Brothers TV series, saw Americans destroy four German howitzers.

The rest of the story, told to us by the current owner, who was a boy back then, turned ugly when a soldier made a grievous error upon entering the farmhouse. He accidentally shot and seriously wounded the father. Fortunately, prompt medical attention, and nearly a year’s stay in a London hospital, enabled the man to recover. He returned home, and in 1949 was elected town mayor. In 1962 he presided over a ceremony honoring the liberation of the town. I told the farmer that I had two reasons for visiting Normandy. First was to honor my cousin, whose extraordinary service enabled me to live a freer, better life than would otherwise have been the case. Second, I wanted to thank the locals for the care their ancestors gave my cousin and his comrades.

Next year will mark the 75thanniversary of D-Day. It will be the last major celebration of the largest naval invasion force in history, one that succeeded against overwhelming odds.

Normandy has many charms that complement the war sites and memorials. The lovely countryside has recovered from the ghastly destruction of 1944. The magnificent cathedral of Mont-San-Michel (1:42) towers over the countryside. Blending medieval, Gothic, and Baroque architectures accumulated over a millennium, it towers over its tidal basin — to see the view you must ascend 350 stone steps. At various times a fort and prison as well as a cathedral, it has survived the second highest tides on the planet. Caen’s abbeys were less fortunate; they survive as fragments — the Normandy battle saw 70 percent of the town destroyed. Bayeux Cathedral has its charms, but the highlight of our visit to Bayeux is the famous Bayeux Tapestry (22:40). My favorite panel is 38, depicting what looks to my gimlet eye like four medieval go-go dancers.

Churches, chateaux and country houses glow in the afternoon sun. Perhaps best of all, we lucked out on the weather, mostly sunny, rare for the region in May (or anytime). The people were charming and hospitable to Americans, not the case in myriad places around the planet. And then there is la cuisine Normande.

Bill was quite the gustatory gourmet. I too, enjoyed Camembert — Normandy’s signature cheese — and Calvados. Thanks to Bill.

John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (2d Ed. 2014).

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