His line of sight fixed firmly ahead, Arthur Gill walked slowly across the deserted Northern French beach. His children, John and Norma, walk alongside him, each gently holding an arm so Arthur can keep his balance on the soft, golden sand.
As they edge closer toward the calm waters of the English Channel, they look just like any other tourists taking a family vacation, but Arthur is not just any tourist.
In a nearby parking lot, Gloria, his wheelchair-bound wife, is dabbing her eyes repeatedly with a small white handkerchief as she looks on. She wishes that just for one more day her legs were strong enough to allow her to share this moment with her beloved husband of 68 years.
Pausing at the water’s edge, proud and upright despite his advancing years, Arthur reflects on the idyllic, picturesque scene before him. The vista looks like it belongs on a postcard for sale in one of the many nearby gift shops – beautiful blue waters, inviting sand and a warm sun high in the sky. The sun’s rays pick out the highlights on the row of medals pinned proudly to his chest, making reflections dance around his feet like a cluster of shining diamonds.
Arthur bows his head in silent prayer and tears roll uncontrollably down his cheeks as he remembers the last time he was on this particular stretch of the Normandy coastline known as Omaha Beach. As he continues his prayer he’s instantly transported back to the harrowing events of June 6, 1944 – D Day.
“We’re here if you need us, Dad,” John whispers to his father.
“Thank you. You’re good children. So many men who were here that day never got the chance to have children as wonderful as you. I love you both so much.”
John and Norma put their arms around Arthur’s shoulders and Norma kisses him on the cheek.
“We love you, Dad. If you want to tell us about that day, please do. We’d love to know. You’ve never spoken about what it was like. Now is the perfect time,” Norma sobbed.
“I was a teenage private in the Infantry Division and some of my memories have dulled over the years,” Arthur began. “But the tortured screams of my comrades and the smell of exploding gunpowder and burning flesh as we hit the beach will never leave me.”
He looked out to sea, took a deep breath and continued. “I can see the landing craft fleet out there as if it was yesterday. We were being tossed around like corks as we battled through the pitching waves approaching the shore.
“We were all given big breakfasts before we embarked on the landing craft and now most of the men were seasick. I’d eaten some chocolate, Hershey’s I think, I didn’t want greasy food so I was lucky the endless movement of the boat didn’t affect me. The floor of the landing craft was covered in puke.
“I was near the middle of the landing craft. It was packed tight with men all loaded up with gear. When we were around 1,000 yards out, I could hear machine-gun bullets pummeling the front ramp of the boat.
“Our commanding officer stood at the bow shouting instructions, but no-one heard him. The words were drowned out by the noise coming from our engines and exploding mortar shells. The noise was deafening. I’ll never forget the smell. It was a mix of vomit, sulfur and fear invading my nostrils.”
Arthur stopped talking as more tears flowed down his face.
“It’s okay Dad. No need to say any more if you don’t want to,” John offered.
“No son. You need to know what it was like. I owe it to you and I owe it to my comrades who never made it off this bloody beach to tell you. I need to tell while I’m still here and able to do so. I want you to tell my grandkids what their granddad did in the war.
“The CO blew his whistle as the engines quietened and the boat touched the sand. The ramp dropped down into the water and it was as if the gates to hell were opening. Once that ramp went down, the Germans on top of the cliffs swept the beach with machine gun fire. We had to get to safety somehow and take them out.
“The sea was red with the blood of the men who had tried to get on the beach before me. I was so scared. This beautiful golden sand was carpeted with the dead and injured bodies of my brothers in arms. The injured soldiers screaming for help as German marksmen picked them off one-by-one.
“It was mayhem – dead bodies floated in the water next to busted equipment,” Arthur continued. “We lost a lot of good men.
“When I got the beach, I saw one of my squad, Billy Meyers. He shouted to me, “If there’s a hell, this has got to be it.” A minute later Billy was floating face down in the water after taking a bullet to the head.
“Years later I was told by a historian that I was just one of three survivors out of 30 men that boarded the landing craft.
“Help me, John,” Arthur asked. “I want to scoop some sand and bring it home. A lot of valiant men died on this beach. They should never be forgotten and neither should the ones who survived.
“When we’ve finished here I need to go the cemetery to look up some old friends and visit the graves so I can put my mind at rest.”
While Arthur Gill and his family are fictitious characters used to illustrate the story, the events of June 6, 1944 were very real. The Normandy landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history, with nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers participating. Nearly 160,000 allied troops from Great Britain, America and Canada crossed the English Channel on D-Day. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead.
Today the quiet peacefulness of Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches belie the harrowing chaos and brutality of those deaths. For the survivors, it became the pivotal experience of their lives, the day that all others would be measured against. What they lived through would stay with them for the rest of their days.
While it may not be considered politically correct to do this nowadays, please raise a glass in tribute to the heroism of the young men and women who fought to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation. Without their service and sacrifice, our world would be a much darker place.
My grateful thanks to the brave troops who fought for the freedom so many take for granted today.