Dr. Harold Baumgarten is a delightful hero. Supple and springy at 82, as clear-minded about the past as about the present, proud and modest, open-minded and open-hearted, he stands straight and tall physically and spiritually. I had the privilege of spending September 10 at Omaha Beach in the company of Dr. Baumgarten, his wife and son, and a group of over 40 well-informed history buffs on a tour of the Normandy beaches.
The trip began with a two-hour train ride from Gare St. Lazare to Bayeux on a beautiful Indian summer afternoon and then, by cab, to H√¥tel Mercure at Port-en-Bessin through the emerald green Normandy countryside, the very image of peace. Cows grazing, apples ripening, timeless cottages basking in the sun; it looks like Technicolor. Little narrow roads, gently dipping and rising, made for the chug of that French tin Lizzie, the “Deux chevaux.” Signs of D-Day at every turn in the road. Monuments, memorials, museums…and cemeteries. Stinging tears in my eyes as I walked out of the provincial train station into the parking lot.
I arrived at the sweet little hotel, checked in, opened wide the picture window looking out on the terrace and pool, and went outside to get acquainted with members the group gathered around a table, while others were taking a swim. I met one of the organizers, Darren Moran, when I spoke to an American Committee for Foreign Relations chapter in Naples, Florida. Now he introduces me to Dr. Baumgarten, his wife Rita and their son Hal.
All that evening, and through the night and the following day, at the dinner table, in the lounge, on the beach, in the tour bus, on the bluffs, standing before the monuments, walking through the museum, walking through the cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer I stretched my thoughts to the utmost to grasp the reality of that day, that landing, that war and, at one and the same time, this day, this war, this “landing” that has not yet occurred.
Our conversation isn’t an interview, it is communion. At times our stories – and our origins – interlock.
Dr. Baumgarten’s paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Austria. They had 15 children. He was studying at NYU on a scholarship. He had already tried to enlist when he was 16. His father had served in WWI.
Spielberg drew on Baumgarten’s experience for the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. The 19 year-old infantryman painted a huge Magen David (Jewish star) on the back of his jacket, and wrote “Bronx, NY.” He wanted the Germans to know who was coming to get them. Spielberg changed the Bronx to Brooklyn. That’s forgiven, because his reconstruction of the landing was so close to the bloody truth.
A bright young student before the war, a fine surgeon after the war, and yet he wanted to fight. That’s how it was in those days. Our uncles, brothers, fathers went to war. Their portraits, in uniform, looked out from living room windows.
Wounded five times that day, June 6, 1944. The scars on his face are barely visible now, lost in the embroidery that long life applies to flesh and muscles. Looking deep into his eyes, past the decades, to find that smooth young face–nineteen years-old, a man in those days, a kid today – torn apart by shrapnel, “my teeth and jaws resting on my tongue, blood streaming…” Behind them the turbulent waters of the channel, a bitch of a day on Dog Section of Omaha Beach, 20-foot high waves. Ahead, a 3-football-field stretch of wet sand at low tide. Above, on the bluffs, the Nazis in well-heeled bunkers shooting down at the soldiers as they tumbled out of the landing craft. The British seamen scuttled back across the channel and left the foot soldiers to their fate.
“There’s two categories on this beach: the ones who are dead and the ones who are going to die,” the saying goes. I’m not sure if I got the words exactly right. Was it the captain who said it? The essence is there: dead or about to die. And they pushed forward inch by inch in the blood-red sea, up the beach littered with fresh death and, later, up the bluffs to kill the Germans with healthy wrath.
Words and images flash as we sit in a well-lighted room filled with bright, warm, American energy circulating up and down the long tables. Every single face invites my curiosity but I have to concentrate on the central issue; how did he do it? How does a man fight under those conditions? War is hell but nations that do not have the courage to fight back when warred against are damned.
One of the organizers leaves his seat- across the table from us for a minute. A callow waiter bearing a tray full of glasses filled with wine makes a faux pas. Red wine spills over the recently vacated chair. My Frenchified manners bristle at that uncouth wine service. Ca ne se fait pas. You bring the bottle or pitcher to the table and fill the wine glass before the guest’s eyes.
Our D-day hero returned to Omaha Beach for the first time in 1988, for the dedication of a monument to his unit, the 29th regiment of the 116th infantry division. That day, visiting the graves of his buddies in the Coleville sur Mer cemetery, he realized he had to speak for them, because they had been silenced. “God spared me,” says Dr. Baumgarten, with utter modesty, “so I could bear witness.” He shows me a snapshot of himself with George H., Barbara, and George W. Bush. He has been received with honor, decorated with honors, and he bears himself honorably. The Magen David painted on his jacket has never faded. The hero and his wife Rita retired to sleep early, and I spend long hours with their son Hal, who has lived with his father’s war stories since early childhood.
This is the first time he has seen the beaches. Another sort of heroism is required for the son of such a warrior. How to live by his light and not in his shadow, by his side and not in his footsteps? And how to prepare for that fateful day when the survivor will lose the last battle, the one that no one wins.
Breakfast. The bread and cheese are delicious. The coffee is thick, strong, tepid and tasteless. I get acquainted with some members of the group, and just as I am ready to leave I fall again into conversation with Hal and Darren. My search for truth trumps my sense of time. Suddenly it’s a mad dash to finish packing, check out, and jump into the giant tour bus. Six minutes late! The Colonel reminds this “embedded reporter” that this tour is running on military time.
It is a clich√©, but how can you avoid it? The site of unbearable suffering has healed. It’s all prettied up. Thickly wooded bluffs rise with deceiving gentleness over a lovely beach basking in the sun. Dr. Baumgarten wearing his medals and that cap… what it is called? I ask a member of the tour, and he says “garrison cap.” That’s not what we called it when my father was in the Marines. Was it “overseas cap”?
We thought we would cry. Hal and I talked about it ’round about midnight. Something stronger than tears wells up as a man stands straight and tall and tells us what he lived through that day. Something that doesn’t flow like tears but expands, in the heart and mind, and fills you with awe. Awe and a throbbing disembodied pain and, for me, childhood memories – we followed battles day by day, hour by hour, uncle by brother, and we did not know if our forces would prevail. It was called ‘the duration.’
“Icy sea water swept into the LCAs, we took off our helmets and bailed, some were seasick, everybody was scared, many were praying. I kept reciting the shema [Hear O Israel...] . The landing had been carefully planned by our generals in England. But things didn’t go exactly as planned. Passenger pigeons were shot down, air drops fell short, backup came too late… The young men carried a hundred pounds of equipment. The LCAs stayed out of the firing zone. Some of the boys were shot down as they walked down the plank, some sank and drowned as they stepped into deep water.. The Germans had crisscrossed the tidal strip with traps, obstacles, mines. The ship next to me exploded, splashing us with shrapnel and body parts.”
The veteran stands alone, his voice is steady and his words bring the bullets flying, bring to life the young men dying, fill the water and beach with horror. A bullet tears through his helmet, a bullet zings through his rifle, an 88 mm shell fragment shatters his jaw, the tide is coming in, the wounded are screaming, medics landed too far up shore can’t reach them. Officers are killed, and the Germans, supremely secure in their pillboxes, rain down hellfire with utmost cruelty. Baumgarten’s fifth wound was inflicted as he lay on a stretcher, waiting to be evacuated. The Germans fired at the medics, fired at the wounded.
But…it was the beginning of the end for them! Up on the bluffs and from there into the towns and all the way to their starting point in the Third Reich they would be smashed and defeated. I whip out my notebook and jot down a detail that is so incredible I’m afraid I’ll forget it: by midnight on the 6th of June 1944 the German position on the bluffs was totally silenced. They were either dead, POWed, or on the run.
“And we were outnumbered 16 to 1.” We watch our hero kill one. He points… his hand still steady but thinned with age. Up there, to my right, I saw the sun glinting off his helmet, I was a sharpshooter, got him with one shot.
We grunt, tears flowing down our bloody cheeks, as he grabs a buddy by the arm, slings him over his back, and crawls up the beach with him. We shiver as we listen to the gurgles of a young man’s life going down the tubes. And the silence.”
Four thousand men died in that landing! A figure that the anti-war hucksters would never use as a weight and measure for four years of combat against jihadis in Iraq. Anti-war is the upper face of a tarnished medal; the hidden face is pro-cowardice. How was that nearly unanimous courage mustered by our nation in WWII? Patriotism, national identity, heroism; the courage was individual and collective. And single-minded. Once you are in a war, you win. There is no other choice.
We visited the monument to the 29th regiment. A few of us gathered around Dr. Baumgarten’s wife Rita who told us how the young man who monitored her botany exam, saw her peering into a microscope and giving the wrong answer. And fell in love with her. She’s pert, with sparkling eyes, her red jacket is decorated with a sparkling I Love the USA brooch.
After lunch we visit the D-Day memorial museum. Life-size plaster mockups of the landing, scenes of life under the Occupation, an Allied communications post, a German military camp, jeeps and trucks and weapons and mess kits; cigarette packages, photos, and other memorabilia; the concentration camp uniform of a r√©sistant. Traps and obstacles and mines on tripods planted in the tidal zone to kill the soldiers as they landed.
Compared to our day, the military equipment, the weapons, the uniforms look so primitive, just a step above spears and slingshots. My cell phone rings. It’s someone from the French international TV channel France 24 inviting me to take part in this evening’s debate on General Petraeus’s report and the situation in Iraq. Wouldn’t I just love to trudge into that studio direct from the sands of Omaha Beach! But I can’t make it back to Paris in time.
We scramble over the bluffs, peek into underground Nazi bunkers, look down from there onto the beach, imagine their glee at the panoramic shooting gallery. Behind them, a conquered France, the collaborationist Vichy government, a cowed population. La R√©sistance, yes, but that was a tiny minority. And there were the militia, another minority, actively on the side of the Nazis. The Germans had time to dig in and fortify their coastal defenses.
Ah! But we fooled them. They didn’t expect that invasion, that massive operation, at that point on the coast. And no American or British journalist, jumping with joy, scooped the story. There were warning posters everywhere during the war. “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” We bought Liberty Bonds, collected tin cans, practiced air raids, did without when the ration stamps were used up. And we didn’t know who would prevail. We followed the war, on all fronts, battle by battle, with baited breath.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Coleville sur mer is our last stop. First the museum, then the cemetery. There’s a photo of the young Harold Baumgarten in uniform. Strong resemblance to his son. He’d told us, earlier in the day, that when his lip was torn apart and his jaw smashed, he thought he’d never be whole again. He didn’t know about plastic surgery back then.
There is so much information here in the exhibits, the films, the recorded testimony of other veterans. And so much information on the tour I am accompanying. These people have a wealth of knowledge about the military, the landing, the battles, the formations, the weaponry, the progression of our troops. Our veteran is a treasure house of vivid details remembered as if they were happening in front of our eyes.
There’s no way I could catch up with them, no way I could note and retell all that I heard that day. So I concentrate my heart and mind on the essential: how can a human being bear such fear, face such danger, function with such searing pain, and never give up? Why can’t we recycle their sacrifice into fresh courage appropriate for our day? How can we recreate – in addition to the plaster mockups – the combined sense of uncertainty and determination that would guide us to victory today? General Eisenhower, on the eve of D-Day, said it was a crusade. And no one slapped him down.
We parted company. I wished Harold and Rita Baumgarten shana tova and promised to go to the synagogue for them, too. The tour would be on the road on the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and then they’d be flying back to the States.
As I waited for a taxi on the dark side of the Gare St. Lazare watching creepy figures pass in the dimly lit street, I was ashamed for France. What have you done with your liberation? Why are you collaborating again?
And that was the evening of September 10th and the next day was 9/11 plus six years. A low priority in the French media. They preferred to highlight a court decision in favor of Moulinex employees who hadn’t received their fair share when the firm went bankrupt years ago. What’s a war to preserve us from jihad compared to a juicy labor dispute? Occasionally a news report mentioned that “the Americans commemorate 9/11.” Got it, mon vieux? It’s their 9/11…and their flop of a war in Iraq…we told them so.
The regional channel France 3 is the most anti-American, anti-Sarkozy unit in the state-owned TV network. Here’s how they covered 9/11 on prime time news. Item: the Americans commemorate 9/11. Brief shot of tearful people at a solemn ceremony. Longer item: it’s all very well to commemorate the victims of the WTC etc. but the city of New York doesn’t want to hear about rescue workers ill from breathing that lethal mixture of pulverized debris! Longest Item: it’s tough to be a Muslim in the U.S. after 9/11. Discrimination, insults, attacks. Bridges TV in Buffalo NY is doing something about it. And here are the studios and here is the personnel, see the newscaster in hijab, and how about the news director, an ex-CNN, and how wonderful are their programs and how humane their bridges. Pan to Miss Hijab who says, “We are very careful about our vocabulary. For example, we don’t use the word ‘terrorist’ because one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Yeah, sure.
I don’t use the word “terrorist” either. I say “jihadi.” But the worst is yet to come. France 3 just happens to be showing a documentary about the “crimes of the liberators” at 11:30 PM…on September 11th.
Who are those criminal liberators? Three guesses. First, they occupied England. Then they stomped through France. Finally, they roughed up Germany. The GIs bien entendu! The documentary is made in collaboration with Professor J. Robert Lilly, who decided in the spring of 2003 (= “war in Iraq”) to investigate the heinous crimes committed by American military men naively lauded as heroes. Lilly, a reputable criminologist whose research is appreciated in Europe and “unfairly” rejected in the U.S., dug up the dirt in the archives. The monotonous low-budget film is mounted like a do it yourself kit: Zoom on GIs dancing with the local girls, fielding kisses in newly liberated villages, horsing around in pastures; freeze; pan to Lilly’s hands turning the pages of a confidential court martial report; and then bonk with a horror story of brutal rape often ending in murder. It begins in the Normandy villages I just visited and ends at the Coleville sur Mer cemetery. But the heroes are monsters, the liberation is an occupation, rapes and murders are slathered up and down the screen as if they were an everyday occurrence. Lilly, postulating that most rapes weren’t reported, multiplies by a huge X the number of documented cases.
But it’s nothing compared to what they did in Germany, they report. Propaganda taught them to hate the Germans. Terrible brutality, mass rape, but no one was punished: the US authorities considered German women as booty.
Gory scenes — in grainy black & white–of rapists hanging from the gallows as the troops look on were revealed, in the closing credits, to be reconstitutions.
The D-Day landing is misrepresented by archive shots of mop-up operations taken at least ten days later. And the film, apparently produced by France 3 (the production company is named France 33), accuses the Americans of racism for hanging so many black GIs while simultaneously claiming that black GIs were particularly active in rape.
This travesty of a documentary ends at the military cemetery at Coleville sur Mer. As the camera pans from face to face of a group of midshipmen & women visiting the cemetery– the picture of clean-cut upstanding goodness–the voice off intones: “the more patriotic the images the darker the secrets they conceal…the terrible reality of war”… bla bla bla…
I look up from the beach and see the sun glinting off the helmet of a France 33 operative, shooting down on us from the bluff…
Nidra Poller participated in a one-week tour, organized by the American History Forum, was led by multi-decorated D-Day survivor Dr. Harold Baumgarten, author of D-Day Survivor; Col. Robert J. Dalessandro (Director of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, US Army War College, Carlisle, PA); Col. Curtis P. Cheeseman (Chief Information Office, Carlisle Barracks, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Pa(.; Dean Armstrong (Northwest Airlines pilot and expert on the Utah Beach landings); Darren Moran (long-time student of the Normandy Campaign); and Belgian author Michel De Trez