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In This Issue

June 2024
6min read

It’s been thirty-five years since the appearance of Cornelius Ryan’s classic account of the D-day invasion, The Longest Day (Touchstone, 338 pages, $11.00 soft cover, CODE: SAS-7 ), which is still among the best. This year’s fiftieth anniversary of the battle for Normandy has produced a clutch of commemorative books, starting with Stephen Ambrose’s comprehensive and readable D-day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 704 pages, $30.00, CODE: SAS-8 ). “The destruction of the enemy’s landing attempt,” Adolf Hitler warned in March of 1944, “is the sole decisive factor in the whole conduct of the war and hence in its final result.” Ambrose, whose Eisenhower Center in New Orleans has been collecting D-day recollections since 1983, shows how right the F’fchrer was; he draws on hundreds of fresh interviews to document the events of those crucial hours.

Although the ranks of Operation Overlord’s survivors have thinned, there are still enough veterans left for this season’s several oral histories. “It would have killed us not to go,” a former machine-gun sergeant from the 29th Infantry recalls in Gerald Astor’s big, exciting roundup, June 6, 1944: The Voices of D-day (St. Martin’s, 456 pages, $25.95, CODE: STM-1 ). “Raymond Hoback suffered from bad nosebleeds but he would not accept a discharge. … Jack Simms ate bananas to gain enough weight so he wouldn’t be left behind.” Ronald J. Drez, the assistant director of the Eisenhower Center, has selected 150 of its 1,400 interviews for Voices of D-day (Louisiana State University Press, 312 pages, $24.95, CODE: LSU-1 ). One seventeen-year-old paratrooper, Ken Russell, made the jump over Ste.-Mère-Eglise on the night of his high school graduation in Tennessee. Three of his comrades didn’t reach the ground; “they landed on telephone poles down the street and it was like they were crucified there.” Russell Miller’s Nothing Less than Victory: The Oral History of D-day (William Morrow, 512 pages, $25.00, CODE: MRW-1 ) stands apart by including a few German remembrances: one ex-soldier tells of listening to Louis Armstrong records and reading Heinrich Heine poems, both of which were banned by the Nazis, while he waited for the Allied attack. Another, Hubert Mayer, likens the wait to “expecting a huge hurricane” and being forced to stay on the beach rather than hide.

Louisiana has published a terrific, novelistic memoir, David Kenyon Webster’s Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-day and the Fall of the Third Reich (Louisiana State University Press, 270 pages, $29.95, CODE: LSU-2 ). On that moonlit June night, Webster, then a recent Harvard English graduate, crumpled up his copy of General Elsenhower’s rallying message to his troops, muttering, “We’re [not] a bunch of knights on a goddamn crusade.” Private Webster decided to keep the mimeograph anyway as a souvenir and only hours later parachuted behind German lines with the 101st Airborne, coming to rest in a shallow French swamp. He had volunteered so he would have something incredible to write about, and from that night of his first combat experience, his personal gamble paid off well; the book Webster brought back was worthy of the literary heroes who had inspired him to go.

For a sampling of the brave and moving letters Chaplain Kidder’s and other men’s wives sent overseas, try the recent Since You Went Away: World War II Letters from American Women on the Home Front by Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith (Oxford University Press, 293 pages, $24.95, CODE: OUP-5 ), in which Isabel Kidder writes her husband, on June 6, 1944: “So it has come. … If you are not in this initial invasion you will be in one by the time you receive this, I know. … This, whatever its terrors and hideousness, is your mountain top. Nothing can pull you down.”

Charles Cawthon, who makes so magisterial an assessment of D-day in this issue, first became acquainted with the subject through the most grueling worm’s-eye view, landing in the second wave on Omaha Beach with the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. The 116th was the Stonewall Brigade, and Cawthon, raised on Civil War lore, was very proud of the connection, although as a young recruit he had some trouble “relating my fumbling efforts and those of the largely bored soldiers around me to the legendary fierce gray ghosts of the Army of Northern Virginia.”

But in the end they turned out to be made of the same stuff, and Cawthon has chronicled the transition from boys to soldiers to veterans in Other Clay: A Remembrance of the World War II Infantry (University Press of Colorado, 180 pages, $19.95, CODE: UCO-1 ), a calm, wise, beautifully written memoir that some think is the finest account we have of World War II combat on the company level. The author looks back on the fighting that led him up from the beach and into the terrible hedgerows partly through the eyes of the boy who survived it and partly through the lens of fifty years of living that followed. He is unerring in selecting details that give conviction and texture to events long past and particularly effective in expressing battle not just as a ghastly anomaly but as a place where the soldier must spend part of his working life.

At the book’s end Cawthon thinks of his old comrades: “These may be generally classified as ordinary men; if so, they make of ordinary an ornament, and humankind more acceptable.”

No bands sent Captain Cawthon off to his war; no girls waved handkerchiefs at him from the pier while aerial armadas thundered overhead. All he got by way of a sendoff as he boarded the ship for the short ride across the Channel was a tough old dock worker who looked up and grunted, “Have a good go at it, mates.” In fact, very little happens on a heroic scale in Cawthon’s memoir, yet one emerges from it with the strong sense of havine soent time with heroes.

In 1947, while much of Europe remained economically devastated, if not still mere cinders, the French Michelin company published a new series of maps to the sites so recently made historic. The splendid “Bataille de Normandie” map, with quick French and British accounts of the fighting and purple tanks, bunkers, parachutes, and liberation flags marking the Allies’ inland progress (“Trévières, 10 Jun”) was first reprinted for the invasion’s fortieth anniversary in 1984. Now Michelin has also brought back out its original maps charting the course of the later battles at Provence (August 1944) and Alsace (November 1944–March 1945) as well as its “Road to Liberty” map, which shows the hardfought path in a jagged purple line from the French coast to Bastogne. In the 1947 universe, châteaux and cathedrals are properly secondary to the more recent landmarks of the Allies’ advance against Hitler’s forces. Whether you’re planning to visit France or not, you’ll find these maps colorfully evocative (set of four Michelin maps , $37.00, CODE: MCT-1 ).

If you are going to Normandy, take along the extremely good new audiocassette tour of the battle sites by the English writer Brian Morton ( D-day —On the Normandy Beaches , Olivia and Hill Press/Ride With Me [two cassettes], $19.95, CODE: RWM-1 ). It is a basic, graceful account of the invasion, read in a gently knowledgeable voice that wears well over its three hours. Morton, an Englishman who lives much of the time in France, starts his tour in Paris, where he assumes most tourists will begin, and follows Autoroute Al 3 to Caen, building the scene for the invasion. He departs from the French tourist itinerary here and there to recommend a fine eighteenth-century inn or to point out a grown-over German installation that now makes a nice picnic spot. His history of the fight is as nuanced and literate as almost anything currently available on paper and displays an English Francophile’s unusual perspective on the jealousies and strengths of the Allied leaders. Terrifying as the landings were, Morton explains, “Anything was better than staying on the landing craft”; fear of machine-gun fire was tempered by the need to leave behind twelve to fourteen hours of group vomiting on rough seas. Morton quotes from soldiers’ diaries as well as from conversations with old Resistance veterans as we travel along the coast from Caen to Carentan.

V for Victory: D-day (Atlas Video, 45 minutes, $14.95, CODE: ATV-2 ), hosted by Edwin Newman and Eric Sevareid, shows the planning, training, and landing as they were screened at home through original newsreels, plus the building of the crucial P-47 Thunderbolt (“Like flying bullets they streak across the sky”). We see the Germans digging in and aiming big camouflaged guns seaward and storehouses of Allied supplies and much of the flotilla at anchor. The Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France is one of the few events big enough to withstand the bombast of Movietone-style narration.

“Combat was a relief” from camp life on the moors says Bob Slaughter of the 116th in War Stories: D-day, Omaha Beach (Atlas Video, 50 mins., $19.95, CODE: ATV-3 ), an anthology of D-day recollections. “All I wanted to see was dry land. I didn’t care what the Germans had to offer.” Another man describes refusing to shake his brother’s hand on the boat that day, insisting they’d meet and shake victoriously atop the hill at Vierville-sur-Mer. They never did. He and his fellow survivors recall it all vividly; Edwin Newman provides incidental narration.

To make sense of all the disparate first-person accounts of the fighting, you may want to pore over The D-day Encyclopedia , edited by David G. Chandler of the Royal Military Academy and Brig. Gen. James Lawton Collins, Jr., a veteran of Utah Beach (Simon & Schuster Academic Reference, 665 pages, $85.00, CODE: SRF-1 ). This very impressive one-volume reference covers the battle for France from the gliders at Pegasus Bridge to profiles of each fighting division, drop patterns for the 82d Airborne, the number of chaplains who went ashore in that first week (375), even the Queen’s diary entry for June 6, 1944. One hundred and forty-one writers contributed.

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