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Style & Culture | AL MARTINEZ

A return of the D-day warriors to Normandy and their memories

June 18, 2004|AL MARTINEZ

Normandy, France — Here on the shores of a tranquil sea, under a burning Normandy sun, old warriors of another season returned by the thousands to relive in memory a nightmare and a triumph they had once shared.

Some came in wheelchairs, a few used walkers and others hobbled with difficulty up the flag-draped pathways over ground they had liberated for the cause of freedom in a war long past.

It was D-day plus 60 years.

They returned to the shores of Omaha Beach, perhaps for the last time, to hear their praises sung as almost mythical knights of the world's last war of moral clarity, when the cause was righteous, and young men were willing to assume its burden.

Heads of state and royalty came to ceremonies along the 60-mile sweep of a shoreline where 156,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers charged across the blood-drenched beaches in the greatest military endeavor in human history.

They paid a terrible price along the entire stretch of the heavily fortified crescent shore, which was marked off and code-named for each army to conquer: Omaha and Utah for the Americans, Gold and Sword for the British and Juno for the Canadians. But it was at Omaha where the highest price was paid.

By D-day's end, an estimated 1,000 men had been killed and 3,000 wounded here as artillery tore up the beach and German bullets flew like the devil's own missiles from cliffs 100 feet high. Thousands more bore wounds to the soul that will never heal.

For many, the observance was more a celebration than a remembrance, and both were fitting. To the victors, wars take on a kind of glory when the fighting ends and it comes time to march through the confetti and the cheers of the crowd. At Normandy, the applause was thunderous, and the ancient warriors bore it with grace and a few beers.

Some brought their children and their grandchildren to better understand the history that was made here. Local traffic and tour buses turned the narrow streets of the French countryside into gridlock before and after the ceremonies, as the curious sought out the small towns and villages that marked the march to Paris and then to Berlin. Places like Caen, St. Lo, Point-du-Hoc, St. Mere Eglise and Pegasus Bridge.

I was with the Stephen Ambrose D-day Tour, named after the author and historian who spent his adult life chronicling World War II. Wandering the battle sites near a cemetery that bore the remains of 10,000 men, I heard stories of courage that even six decades later glow with a grandness that time hasn't dimmed. Selflessness conquered fear that violent day, even as the allied armies conquered the enemy.

For the first time, German flags flew along the paths where the veterans walked, in recognition that humans died here, and that in death there are no political separations. I spoke with a woman from Hamburg, 30-year-old Sandra Petermann, who came to Omaha Beach because her grandfather had fought here for the German army, and she wanted to pay homage not only to him but also to the Americans. When I asked why, she said simply, "Because you freed us too."

I was there not as a war lover but as a student of history in awe of that stormy day when an armada of 6,500 naval vessels carried the armies of Operation Overlord to fortress Europe. I walked in the dimming shadows of those who paraded up the pathways in an almost ghostly replication of the warriors they once were.

Make no mistake, they were heroes then, and they are heroes now. And one of them was a man they called Spoony.

It was the ninth trip back to Normandy for Albert Spoonheimer, an Army medic who is still trying to come to grips with the screams of the dying that sometimes pierce his sleep. But even nine trips haven't done it. A thin, edgy man, he came ashore in the first wave and was almost instantly amid carnage that turned the surf blood-red.

"When you're a medic, death is up close and personal," he said as we stood overlooking the English Channel, not far from the graves that hold many of the soldiers he couldn't save. "You don't forget them when they die in your arms."

Cries of "Medic!" rang like death knells through the dark day as Spoonheimer rushed from one wounded soldier to another, "moving like a robot," treating those ashore and then wading into the water to help the men with life-threatening wounds who were still struggling in the crimson surf.

Incredibly untouched by the massive mortar and machine-gun fire, unwilling to dig in to save himself, Spoonheimer was awarded the Silver Star for risking his life to save others that day and throughout the night, treating those who needed treatment and silently saying goodbye to the men who were beyond it.

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