Utah Beach: The Calm Long After the Storm

A portrait of Utah Beach. The calm after the storm. Photography: John McCutcheon.
A portrait of Utah Beach, once part of the greatest invasion of all.  Photography: John McCutcheon.

Utah Beach Museum is closed December and January every year.   A major disappointment for John and me as we had researched everything we could.  We didn’t research closing dates.

The drive from Bayeux to Utah Beach winds through tiny French hamlets and farm cloisters. This is working France.  At times the road is so close to a farm building, I could have reached out the car window and touched the side of the building.

“Wonder why there’s only one other car in this lot.   But look up at the museum.  Those vans are parked right by the entrance.”

Later we learned every museum in France must install costly security systems by the end of January, 2013.  If only our arrival had been timed a few days later, we’d have found the museum open and a new check point of guards and security.

Walking across the parking lot, the front of the museum, and up a rise, we met the sites of old German bunkers.  Pieces of concrete slabs have erupted from the earth where cows graze oblivious to history.

Memorial of the Battle for Utah Beach. Photography: Jenny McCutcheon
Memorial of the Battle for Utah Beach. Photography: Jenny McCutcheon

A magnificent memorial stands in the center of a plateau.  A commander gives the charge and points the way ahead.  Other life sized soldiers from different arms of the military follow the charge. Encircling this bold memorial are podiums of script that pay homage to each branch of the military that participated in the Utah Beach Landing.

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was the oldest soldier to hit Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944.  Fifty-six years old, he had to petition an order that would allow him to lead his men on Utah Beach.  When he calculated that they had missed the landing site by a mile, he uttered the most famous command of the Normandy invasion.  “We’ll start the war from here.”

He greeted every landing craft of soldiers.  Calm, cool, and collected he inspired his men with his sense of humor, resolve, and confidence.  He received the Medal of Honor for his leadership on Utah Beach.

All but one of the landings at Omaha Beach missed its destination.  “Bloody Omaha,” was initially a disaster of tragic proportions.  In spite of the loss of human life, one of the great ironies of the invasion is that it turned around to be a success.  But the Utah Beach miss landings proved to be an advantage.  Success was due to the following:

Many paratroopers landed 5 hours before the Utah landings and cleared the way.

Missed landings were in an area less fortified by the Germans.

Pre-invasions air strikes and later low-flying air strikes gave support to troops trying to reach the beach.

All types of landing craft with soldiers, tanks, and weaponry were able to come in closer to the beach.  Not one tank was lost in the landings.

Missed landings confused the Germans who couldn’t calculate the scope and strategy of the Allies.

The greatest losses occurred with Exercise Tiger, an airborne rehearsal run for the Utah assault.  The 101st lost 40% of its force, 1000 casualties.

January, 2013, John and I walked Utah Beach and wondered at the planning and scope of the Normandy Invasion, the largest invasion in the history of the world.  Eisenhower initially planned to send 3 Divisions.  Montgomery talked him up to 5.  The final number of Divisions was 45.

Now the quiet fields beyond the ocean, beaches and cliffs lie in desertion.  Marked by a few remaining bunkers, the only measure of those events in that month of June are the memorials man has erected to the destinies of so many men, women, and children.

The Normandy Invasion afforded the Allies a toehold in France.  From this point the Allies relentlessly drove the Germans back to the Rhineland.

Today many of the tiny villages and farms fly the United States flag.  John and I were gratified to see these flags.  Almost 69 years ago a couple of generations of French citizens still remind themselves and visitors of the sacrifices men made for freedom.

Note: Among the first ‘Germans’ captured at Normandy were several Korean nationals.  They were forced to fight for the Japanese army until they were captured by the Russians and forced to fight for the Russian army until they were captured by the Germans and forced to fight for the German army until they were captured by the U.S. army.  From D. G. Swinford, retired USMC Colonel and history buff.

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