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Once More Onto the Beach : Joy and Pain Mingle in Santa Monica Re-Enactment of Normandy Invasion

June 02, 1994|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This time around, there was a single landing craft instead of thousands, and it landed near sunset instead of at dawn's light. The weather was balmy, not clammy, and some of the soldiers who waded ashore wore dress shoes and business suits.

It took some imagination, but Wednesday's re-enactment at Santa Monica Beach of the D-day landing at Normandy 50 years ago was close enough to the original to stir memories of that deadly day when the Allies began liberating France.

Wednesday's faux landing before about 1,000 onlookers was part of a thank-you celebration sponsored by the French Consulate in Los Angeles. It was supported by a few ships, including a restored World War II Liberty Ship, and seven vintage Hellcat fighter aircraft that flew over in formation.

Twenty veterans of the real thing, some of whom stumbled and needed a helping hand from active-duty soldiers as they waded ashore, were greeted by dozens of French children wearing "Merci L'Amerique" T-shirts and carrying white carnations.

First off the landing craft was 73-year-old Stanley Kaufman of Long Beach, who sprinted through the surf with his knees churning high, as if the passage of five decades had not slowed him a bit and he was dodging enemy gunfire. Fifty years ago, he was among the advance force of paratroopers who dropped into the French town of Ste.-Mer-Eglise behind the beach, with the job of opening up routes for the Allies to advance.

Asked why he was in Santa Monica, redubbed San Monique for the day, Kaufman said only, "Well, it was D-day, you know."

Just as unforeseen obstacles, bad weather and enemy fire disrupted well-laid plans at Normandy, there were some glitches Wednesday. The veterans had been promised, for example, that they would be able to walk onto the sand just north of the Santa Monica pier. Instead, they waded.

"I got a wet butt," complained retired chief warrant officer Bob Dorsk of North Hollywood. Dorsk missed D-day but landed later on France's south coast as part of a force that would push north toward Germany.

He was one of 15 World War II veterans who received medals from the governments of France and Normandy during a ceremony after the landing.

At the real D-day invasion, about 160,000 Allied soldiers landed along a 50-mile stretch of rugged Normandy coastline at dawn on June 6, 1944. American forces were concentrated at Utah Beach, where some of the heaviest fighting and casualties occurred.

Carrying the American flag for Wednesday's ceremony was Bill Slaughter of Santa Maria, who described the D-day landing as "hell on earth." He was one of only six members of his company of 250 who survived that furious battle.

Sam Frackman of Laguna Hills was among the second wave of soldiers to hit Utah Beach. "I've already seen this, I saw the original," he said of the re-enactment. "It's more of a memorial than a celebration."

Tom Martin of Bakersfield was there with his father, a former Navy petty officer who had the grisly job in the war of collecting the bodies of the dead and shipping them, stacked three high on ship bunks, back to England. Martin said his father is fond of recalling his duty days and telling his war stories.

"It was the only significant part he played in the world," Martin said of his father. "It was (his) glory days."

Good feelings between the French and the Americans were mutual and flowed as freely Wednesday as the wine had as each town was liberated.

Chuck Goode of Los Angeles remembers wondering before D-day what he was doing in that part of the world, about to invade a country he had never seen on behalf of people he did not know. "I discovered the answer when I met the French," he said. "A country is its people and the people of France are why we fought. They were our kind of people."

As they will next week in France for the actual anniversary, French and American dignitaries marked the day with speeches. French Consul General Jean-Maurice Ripert, who came up with the idea for the ceremony of gratitude, said it was important to remember the exploits of the brave. "Our children must know and never forget," he said.

Phillipe de Bourgoing, mayor of the Normandy town of Tracy-sur-Mer, said he will never forget the sight that he saw the morning that the Americans and the Allies finally set foot on French soil.

"It's the souvenir of my life," he said of the scene in Normandy that seared its way into his memory. "About 7 in the morning after a hard night of bombing . . . I was able to reach the cliff and have a view of the sea. It was an amazing sight. Ships of all kinds. . . . I remember the thought: 'They have brought everything they have.' "

After the speeches and the ceremonies, the sound of a solitary trumpeter playing "Sonnerie aux Morts," the French equivalent of taps, brought the event to a solemn close.

Times staff writer Richard Lee Colvin contributed to this story.

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