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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Belated D-Day

Hubby observed D-Day by watching – again – The Longest Day, as well as other World War II stuff on the History Channel. I remember my excitement when the History Channel began, naively thinking this would be an opportunity to acquaint Americans with some of the many outstanding women who are neglected by historians, but no such luck. The channel is pretty much a subsidiary of the Pentagon, just replaying old war clips. And there are a lot of those, as the Defense Department always has been willing to throw a disproportionate amount of money at photography. This began with the Civil War and has continued. During World War II alone, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were assigned to the MOS (military occupational specialty) of photography.

Anyway, Hubby mentioned that other than on the History Channel, there wasn’t much attention to D-Day in other forms of media. I think that is because producers – to the extent that we can credit them with thinking ahead – are waiting to pull out all the stops two years from now, when 2019 will mark the 75th anniversary of the great invasion that saved the world from fascism. It was June 7, 1944, and I was less than a year old. And of course, my family and others closely watching the war didn’t know then that this would be the turning point. That’s the thing about history: it’s what happens while you are doing something else.

Tampans are more likely to have a D-Day picture in their minds than most people because of the role played by our longtime Democratic congressman, Sam Gibbons. Sam was one of the paratroopers who dangerously dropped into Nazi-occupied France in the dark of night before the invasion. It is especially memorable to older Tampans because he carried two cans of beer inside his flight jacket -- and they were Schlitz, which still has a brewery near USF. Busch Gardens, you know, had its origins in our Busch brewery, and there was a time when beer was an important factor in our economy. Who would use Tampa’s current water to brew beer now?

Historical Anniversaries

One of my historian friends in Iowa, who used my first book on World War II to write her book on that topic, is planning a tour of the D-Day beaches in northern France for 2019. This year, she’s leading a group of Lutheran women to Germany and the Czech Republic for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolt against Catholicism. It’s been half-a-millennium since he nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October, 31, 1517. That was hundreds of years before there was a nation called Germany, and the Czech Republic only has existed as that for a couple of decades. It was the kingdom of Bohemia back then -- and yes, there is a direct connection between “bohemian” and that area’s willingness to welcome the unconventional and revolt against authority.

My German ancestors came from more rigid cultures in the wide umbrella of “Germanic,” and I memorized the date of what Lutherans call “Reformation Day” mostly because it interfered with Halloween. I hated going to church on the night of October 31, and I was sure (still am) that the pastor did this to inculcate values in children that he viewed as more important than free candy. I don’t think Lutheran churches still try to compete with Halloween on the basis of the date, even though there are sound theological reasons for opposing it generally. Things have changed in the last 500 years.

The point from which I have wandered was going to be that I’m very pleased to see historians use these anniversaries to educate adults who didn’t value history classes when they were young. Going to the source of a historical event is an excellent way to make it come alive – and going there also is important because it forces one to see the contrast between then and now. Modern Germany, for example, is nothing like the place of Luther’s time, and active Lutheran churches are much more common in America than in Europe.

Less has changed in Normandy, where the French have done an excellent job of preserving the sites of the D-Day invasion. Rows upon rows of American soldiers are buried there, and when we visited, we did not hear any language spoken other than French. They have preserved the battlefields, built a number of excellent museums, and generations later, remain grateful for the Allied invasion of their land that liberated them from dictatorship. So to fill you in on this, I’m going to quote portions of the essay that I wrote for my second WWII book, American Women During World War II (2013).

The Longest Day

Perhaps no event in the history of mankind was better planned than the Allied invasion of France, which began on the night of June 6, 1944. The Allies (Americans, Britons, Canadians, Australians, and exiles from occupied countries such as Poland) prepared for years: indeed, by the time it began, people joked that southern England would sink under the weight of materiel and men amassing there. Hitler was convinced that the Allies would attack at Calais, and Eisenhower did an excellent job of encouraging that error by planting “dummy armies” that appeared to be aimed at this best and closest harbor between England and France.

Instead, the Allies surprised the Nazis by attacking on five Normandy beaches near Caen. The highly secret date was chosen for tides that would enable ships to disembark soldiers as quickly as possible, while parachuting troops were aided by moonlight. June also provided the longest possible daylight, which ultimately enabled some 150,000 men to cross the English Channel and establish themselves in France during one long day. (That’s why the movie is called that.)

They were aided by some 11,000 planes and 5,000 naval craft, most of which were built by American women. American troops took the toughest two beaches, code-named Omaha and Utah, which had high cliffs where German guns in concrete bunkers could fire directly down on them. The charge up the cliffs demanded tremendous courage and ability, but partly because Hitler waited for the “real” attack at Calais and refused to reinforce the Normandy bunkers, casualties were less than expected.

Navy Nurse Corps women treated patients on hospital ships almost immediately after the invasion began. Martha Gellhorn [Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife] defied the rules against press coverage and sneaked onto the very first. Her news report began with the vulnerability that always was the case for nurses:

The ship itself was painfully white. The endless varied ships…were gray or camouflaged… We, on the other hand, were all fixed up like a sitting pigeon… We were to travel alone, and there was not so much as a pistol on board…We saw the coast of France and suddenly we were in the midst of the armada… The first wounded man to be brought to that ship…was a German prisoner… It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them…

Gellhorn assisted with this work and translated for medics who did not have her fluency in German – but army press officers nonetheless would punish her for stowing away. She wasn’t the only woman to do so: Lee Carson of the International News Service broke the rules on the morning of D-Day by simply going to an air base and talking a pilot into letting her on his plane. Her aerial photographs may have been the first obtained through non-official observation. The Boston Globe’s Iris Carter also violated press restrictions in an ambitious attempt to get the story first.

Army Nurse Corps women entered France on D-Day plus four. One of the first, who later won the Bronze Star, said of Utah Beach: “Soldiers and cargo swarmed…like ants, and everywhere were shattered concrete pillboxes, shell holes, and smashed buildings… [We] settled into an apple orchard, and we slept on our raincoats and shared with a buddy, using her raincoat as a cover… German planes zoomed overhead as searchlights constantly probed the sky and antiaircraft fire chased enemy planes.”

German resistance increased after D-Day, and it took until August 25 for the Allies to reach Paris, with death and destruction all along the painful way. The Red Cross sent its first “clubmobile” in mid-July. Although the nomenclature makes their work sound trivial, these women often provided the first hot food a soldier had in many days. Traveling in the back of a two-ton truck, they went through barbed wire and wrecked vehicles to Cherbourg; eventually this group of two dozen women would go all the way to Czechoslovakia.

The planning paid off, as Allied forces were so well trained and so well equipped that the war in Europe would end less than a year later, in May of 1945. D-Day was the beginning of the end for European fascism and its adherents, not only in Germany but also in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. If Eisenhower were alive to give advice today, I’m sure he would include three points: don’t rush into anything; plan carefully and then recheck your plan some more; and use all of your resources, including those of women.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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