Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Greatest Generation

Before: I'm on the train to Normandy en route to a D-Day tour. My interest in WWII lies in its connection to my grandfather, Lt Col TJ "Curly" Williams. My grandfather (TJ Papa) was a B-25 bomber pilot in the south pacific. Though he didn't fight in Europe this was a war he strongly believed in, for which he willingly risked his life.

In 1943, my TJ Papa was a tank commander preparing to ship out to north Africa. A posting in the officers' club advertised that the army air corp had been formed and was looking for pilots. He and a friend thought the food would be better in an airplane than in a tank, so they joined up. In early 1944, he graduated from training and was sent to the Pacific theater, flying missions against the Japanese. He not only dropped bombs, but also leaflets warning of an impending terrible weapon attack ahead of both Nagasaki and Herishima. The entire tank battalion he was part of before entering the Air Corps was wiped out in northern Africa. Had he not become a pilot, I wouldn't be writing this.

My generation has it so easy. There is no fear of being drafted - the brave men and women in the armed forces today made a choice to join. No digging trenches and living in fox holes through freezing winters across Europe. I'm afraid the appeal of a day trip to learn about the Normandy Invasion will be lost on the next generation who grew up with wars only in the Middle East, with no appreciation of what their great-grandfathers did in the world wars. Most people don't even know the names of all their great-grandparents. I'm guilty, are you?

So, I write this all before walking Omaha beach and standing in the American Cemetery. I'm not sure how the experience today will connect with me, but I hope that it does.

After: Powerful day in Normandy. It was rainy much of the day which made the experience more authentic. We started at Pointe du Hoc which is where the Army Rangers came ashore for a cliff-side assault. From there we moved along Omaha Beach, where on June 6, 1944 approximately 5,500 Allied troops died during the invasion. The American Cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach where the remains of 9,383 servicemen and four women are marked with white gravestones. The D-Day museum is very well done and highlights soldiers' personal lives who died during the war in France.
Omaha Beach

I was affected by one photo that was taken of about 25 American servicemen in a boat prior to departing from England toward Normandy. The men have giant smiles on their faces, many of them holding packs of Lucky Strikes. I wasn't there, so this is all my interpretation and could be totally wrong. But the men looked genuinely happy - excited for the chance to go kick some Nazi butt. Things changed as they waded through the 54 degree water under a heavy barrage inflicted by the Nazis. Little went as planned that day and thousands of young men like the ones in the photo were slaughtered. It was haunting. It really made me appreciate the sacrifices of over 400,000 Americans who died during WWII.

It is with good reason they are called the Greatest Generation. 

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