In a sense, D-Day — the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe by America and its allies 70 years ago this week — began with a few lines of poetry from 19th century French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Verlaine, born in 1844, exactly 100 years previously, had written a poem “Chanson d’automme” (“Song of Autumn”) when he was 22 that became the coded radio message over the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.), alerting the French underground to commence sabotage operations against the occupying forces of Nazi Germany.
And so at 2315 hours (11:15 p.m.), June 5, 1944, the reading in French of Verlaine’s set of lines, “wound my heart with a monotonous languor,” advised the Maquis that the invasion of Europe — code-named D-Day — would commence within 48 hours. Five days earlier, June 1 — 70 years ago today — the first words of Verlaine’s poem (“ Long sobs of autumn violins”) informed the guerrillas that Operation Overlord was scheduled to begin within two weeks and they should finalize preparations to blow up French railroad lines, disrupting shipments of Nazi supplies and reinforcements and commencing other acts of behind-the-lines sabotage.
Thus began what historians have termed “The Longest Day,” the title of Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 historical best-seller, made into a 1962 film with more American, British, Canadian, French, and German male film stars than we’ve ever seen before or since in one epic. For example, Henry Fonda portrayed Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the 56-year-old assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division and first-born son of our nation’s 26th president, who fell dead of a heart attack a month after D-Day after rallying his pinned-down battalions and earning the Medal of Honor for his heroism. John Wayne played a lieutenant colonel in the film, commanding a parachute infantry battalion while Sal Mineo — stabbed to death in a West Hollywood robbery by a pizza deliveryman when Mineo was 37 — played a humble soldier known only as Pvt. Martini. One of the film’s many memorable scenes showed comedian Red Buttons, as paratrooper Pvt. John Steele, dangling for two hours from a church spire in the key crossroads village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, helplessly observing the fighting below him. A stained-glass window in the chapel of the village’s church depicts the Virgin Mary flanked by two paratroopers — one of them Steele — who liberated the town from Nazi oppression on “the longest day.”
Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan, along with other world leaders, paid homage to the heroes of D-Day. At Pointe du Hoc on the Normandy coast, on the 40th anniversary of the greatest amphibious landing in history, Reagan made perhaps the finest speech of his presidency, citing the American Rangers who surmounted the cliffs overlooking the landing beaches in the face of withering enemy fire. Reagan said, “At dawn on the morning of the sixth of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns.”
With tears in his eyes, Reagan recounted how, after two days of fighting, only 90 of the 225 Rangers were able to continue the fight. He looked around at the surviving Rangers who had gathered for the ceremony and spoke lovingly and memorably of “the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” now middle-aged men mostly 60 years old.
“Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here,” Reagan continued. “You were young the day you took these cliffs, some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.”
Reagan, who passed away 10 years ago this week at age 93, was limited in his World War II service because of severe nearsightedness. He spent much of the war as a captain in the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit, making training films for the Army Air Force and appearing across the nation in war bond promotions.
Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley, author of more than two dozen works of history with major emphasis on the events of World War II, wrote this about the D-Day landing: “Of all the days in the 20th century (36,525 of them, Brinkley counted), none were more consequential than June 6, 1944. Some might argue that certain inventions and discoveries during that great century of innovation should be deemed the most important — like Watson and Crick’s reveal of the double-helix structure of DNA or all of Einstein’s contributions — but other nominees flatten when one asks, “What if D-Day had failed?”
The man responsible for D-Day’s success or failure — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, born in Denison, Texas in 1890 — had planned Operation Overlord for June 5. But over dinner at Southwick House outside Portsmouth, England on June 3, Ike’s chief weatherman, Group Capt. J. M Stagg of the Royal Air Force, had a dour weather forecast for June 5th: overcast and stormy, severely limiting allied air support and threatening to swamp the landing craft carrying Gen. Omar Bradley’s combat troops. Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to a 24-hour postponement.
There was no fallback position; if Overlord failed in June 1944, a second attempt at liberating occupied Europe wouldn’t be possible until 1945 — another year of Nazi tyranny. One day later at Southwick House, Stagg came in with an updated weather report. At 9:30 that evening, Ike and his key staffers were having coffee and cake as Stagg reported a break in the weather, forecasting 36 hours of clear weather and moderate winds beginning June 6. At this news, one U.S. general recollected, a collective shout went up. “You never heard middle-aged men cheer like that!” he wrote.
With thousands of Allied lives on the line — mostly 18-20-year-old boys — the fate of the Free World rested on Eisenhower’s shoulders. Go or no-go? “It’s a helluva gamble,” he told the staff, “but it’s the best possible gamble.” And so at 9:45 that evening, June 4, Ike gazed out at the wind-driven rain pelting Southwick House and gave the order for D-Day, June 6, 1944. And among other urgent actions of the coming 24 hours, Verlaine’s poetry was aired over the BBC, “wound my heart with a monotonous languor.”
Prepared for failure and ignominious defeat if he had made the wrong decision, Ike carried in his hip pocket a terse message acknowledging the failure of Operation Overlord: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
A few days later, with success achieved but at a high cost in Allied casualties, Eisenhower handed the unused message to his aide-de-camp, telling him to dispose of it. The continent of Europe was about to be liberated, commencing with “the longest day,” June 6, 1944.
Bob Orkand, an Elkins Lake resident, served in Korea with the 17th Infantry Regiment, in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 7th Cavalry, a lead unit of the 1st Cavalry Division, and in Berlin with the Berlin Brigade.