By Karen Zautyk
What you’re looking at above is Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy, France. ‘Now,’ it is a peaceful strand, a place of contemplation. ‘Then,’ it was a place of unimaginable horror. And valor.
This week, we decided to use The Observer’s popular photo feature to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which will be observed Friday.
It has been seven long decades since June 6, 1944, and the world has changed in ways those living then could never have foreseen. What must never change is our country’s acknowledgement of the debt of honor we owe the men who endured that lethal storm of combat.
There are some still among us, but too few and fewer every day, who were there. As D-Day must never be forgotten, neither must they, alive or dead.
“Forget?” you might say. “Impossible.” Try an experiment. Try asking some of today’s history-deprived young people where Omaha Beach is. I’d bet more than one would answer, “Nebraska.”
You can tell them that, on the morning of June 6, 1944, there took place along a 50- mile stretch of Normandy the largest amphibious landing in the history of the world: more than 5,000 ships, supported by 15,000 aircraft.
Storming the beaches and parachuting into the fields beyond were more than 150,000 Allied troops.
Operation Overlord marked the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe.
D-Day marked the end of the lives of more than 4,000 of those troops.
In our changed world, we now have access to websites that can enlighten us about history. One of them, www.dday.org, describes the landings at Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword Beaches:
“After years of meticulous planning and seemingly endless training . . . it all came down to this: The boat ramp goes down, then jump, swim, run, and crawl to the cliffs. They faced over 200 yards of beach before reaching the first natural feature offering any protection. Blanketed by small-arms fire and bracketed by artillery, they found themselves in hell.”
The site notes that many of the troops were “not yet 20 years old.”
We were able to find a copy of The Observer dated Thursday, June 8, 1944, and the lead story was about D-Day, which had occurred just two days before.
“West Hudson Men and Materials Aid Allies In Europe’s Invasion,” the headline read.
Providing a local connection, and adding local pride, to the news that had shaken the world, the story noted, “Hundreds of Kearny, Harrison, East Newark and North Arlington [the only towns the paper covered back then] men, thousands of tons of war material produced in West Hudson industries, and a fleet of ships built at the Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., Kearny yard, played a vital part Tuesday in launching the long-expected invasion of Hitler’s European fortress.”
Cited were the contributions of Harrison’s Crucible Steel Co., which produced “shells for the naval barrage laid down to protect the invasion forces”; Pollak Manufacturing Co., Kearny and East Newark (bomb racks for the planes); Hyatt Roller Bearings (for tanks, ships, trucks and planes); Western Electric (electronics to guide ships and planes), along with Driver-Harris and McKiernan- Terry Corp. of Harrison and DuPont’s in Arlington.
On June 8, the casualty figures were likely not yet known to the general public. But those on the homefront were prepared, as they had been during all the years of war. The Observer wrote:
“Though they had knowledge for months that loved ones were poised in England for the invasion, parents, wives, relatives and friends of the approximately 2,000 local men [who] are already or will become part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, were immediately conscious of the danger to their loved ones when newspapers and radio heralded the arrival of D-Day . . . . “
All West Hudson and North Arlington churches and synagogues opened early in the morning, some long before the average resident was awake.
“Hundreds of women and children visited places of worship throughout the day and evening, in many instances pastors joining with the churchgoers in offering up prayers for the safety of servicemen parishioners.” In the weeks and months to come — until V-E Day, May 8, 1945 — the casualty lists of local servicemen would be published in The Observer, as they had been since the start of the war. As they would be through the end of the war in the Pacific.
This Friday, you might take a moment to remember all of them. And offer up a prayer.