STORMING THE BEACHES

1. It’s Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

2. It’s the 73rd anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy, a day to think with reverence of the young men who hit those beaches and saved the world.

I first became aware of D-Day when my father took me to see the movie “The Longest Day” in 1963. I was nine and loved history, so I bugged my parents to take me to see this movie.

“The Longest Day” is probably now best remembered for its theme music. But in its day it was a big deal. The ads bragged about the large international all-star cast and the fact that it was filmed where the battle happened.

The film was released the year before. But back in those days, movies had much longer runs – this was obviously well before any of us thought we could watch a full-length film on a whim at home. That’s how the now-quaint concept of first-run movie houses came into being – most of them being in midtown Manhattan, around Times Square.

Most everything in Queens where we lived was a second or even a third run. In fact, what I seem to remember is that the theater where we saw “The Longest Day” was that it was a discount theater – I’m sure he paid less than $1 for both of us to see it.

It probably bothered him that “The Longest Day” was a one-film showing. My father was determined to only go to theaters that showed double features – another quaint concept. Most people today can’t sit through two movies in a theater – although they can watch four or five hours at a time of a TV show they’re binging at home.

3. Anyway, there’s no question that “The Longest Day” is the sanitized version of what happened 73 years ago. The more realistic version, the one with soldiers getting their heads blown off and bodies torn by bullets and shrapnel, is Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

“The Longest Day” was more – and this seems like a pejorative when you think about the actual horror of the invasion – fun. There was a whole shtick with Robert Mitchum as a general who keeps the same cigar in his mouth throughout the entire invasion. There was some other thing with John Wayne getting carried off by his troops in heroic fashion. Guys in British accents said funny things.

I haven’t seen this movie since I don’t remember when. I think I found it on TV one night while dialing around and saw the conclusion, when Mitchum finally throws his cigar butt into the sand at the end of the day. I’d bet I wouldn’t find it nearly as entertaining or mesmerizing as I did watching it with my father more than a half-century ago in a Queens movie house.

“The Longest Day” probably didn’t intend to minimize or sanitize D-Day. Perhaps the wound was too raw in the early 1960s to explore what really happened – that seems to be the way with a lot of World War II. It’s the same with the Holocaust. It seems as those the first years after the war were spent minimizing the atrocity, with only the subsequent years revealing the true horror – Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” providing quite a reminder.

No, “The Longest Day” is just a big old-fashioned war movie. It might stir some to patriotism, but it doesn’t make much of a statement about it outside of cheering for the good guys.

And that’s the thing about the real D-Day. It seems we understand better – in 2017 – the courage it took for those soldiers to brave everything they faced than we did in 1963. A sea-sickening ride across the English Channel, the concentrated force of German armaments, a shooting gallery of a beach and scaling the Normandy embankments.

All to rid the world of the evil of Nazism.

4. Keep in mind one other thing.

There was no diversity in “The Longest Day.” You might think, for example – as I did – that African-Americans took no part in the invasion.

It’s not a racist thought, per se. Most Americans know that the military was segregated, so it seems logical that might not be any people of color there.

But it’s far from accurate.

The 320th Very Low Altitude barrage balloon battalion – an all-black unit – provided important protection for invading soldiers on Omaha Beach. 

The battalion – about 700 men strong, according to the Army’s own history – set up these balloons that were designed to force German warplanes to fly higher in the sky. The balloons were rigged so that if the Germans tried to fly into them, the planes would be destroyed – the battalion was actually credited with a kill when one plane did just that.

In order to set up the balloons, the men of the battalion had to get on the same beach where other soldiers were getting blown to bits by the Germans. They also had to find a way to get their equipment across the Channel without sinking.

Of course they found a way. They are, after all, Americans.

African-Americans, as a whole, fought with valor and distinction in the Second World War. When it ended, the effort of white supremacists to go back to the prewar Jim Crow society succeeded only briefly.

A lot of the reason for the success of the civil rights movement has to do with the fact that anyone with a fair mind had to recognize the courage of African-Americans in the war, and how hypocritical it was to condemn Nazism while embracing its cousin, segregation.

When older people think of the America that they conceived of as great, the reason we got the stupid election result we got, they see the America of “The Longest Day” – white men fighting for freedom and prevailing.

It’s their ignorance of who else fought for freedom that is at the heart of what ails our nation right now. African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans all contributed to what makes America great – including bleeding and dying on battlefields around the world for the cause of freedom.

Including Normandy. The men of the 320th VLA battalion were among the brave men who saved the world on a bloody beach 73 years ago today.

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