Unbelievably, in one week we will celebrate our nation’s birthday, July 4. The day will be full of parades, family gatherings, cook-outs, swimming and of course, fireworks.
Most of us will barely remember the real reason for the celebration, our nation’s independence from Great Britain. We won’t even think about all the brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives since 1776, so we might enjoy a national holiday.
These sacrifices came home to me recently, when the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, my husband, Drew, and I are history buffs, and enjoy watching old movies, in particular old World War II movies.
On D-Day, Drew and I watched one of our favorites, “The Longest Day.” It’s a “docudrama,” part documentary and part drama, which narrates the key events of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, and is approximately three hours in length. The movie concentrates on the drama of the first day, when some 100,000 Allied troops landed on the coasts of Normandy, France.
The movie boasts great actors including Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton and Sean Connery. As with many war movies, actual footage is interspersed in the film.
Over time, the movie’s historical accuracy has been verified. Of course, the movie doesn’t accurately portray the bloodiness and horror of the D-Day landings, but it does accurately describe the worries over the weather and the landings of paratroopers in France.
Alfred Thompson, who grew up on Saddle Mountain on the Alleghany/Wilkes line, was sent to Omaha Beach shortly after the D-Day invasion. He was assigned to C Company of the 310th Transportation Unit, which mainly hauled gasoline and refueled trucks.
In an article in the May 24 edition of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot which recapped an interview by John E. Carpenter, Thompson said when his unit was sent to Omaha Beach, they had difficulty landing because of all the dead bodies of American soldiers and the destroyed vehicles. They had to use road graders to move the dead bodies out of the road.
He was then assigned to help fly gasoline to the front. The planes flew at tree-top level, sometimes towing gliders.
Thompson’s unit eventually went into Germany, ending up in Frankfurt. After the war was over, he went to Scotland, then took the Queen Mary back to New York. He developed pneumonia and was sent home.
One of our favorite scenes in the movie takes place in a small, French farmhouse. A Frenchman and his wife are in their kitchen getting ready for a meal. The wife is cooking and the man is listening to the radio, which is broadcasting coded messages from the French Resistance. Suddenly, “Jean has a long mustache,” comes across the radio.
The man jumps up and runs to the closet to retrieve a helmet and weapon shouting over and over, “Jean has a long mustache,” which is the code for the arrival of D-Day and the mobilization of the resistance. The man runs out the door and his wife picks up his mug and sniffs it, thinking he is possibly drunk.
The scenes with the paratroopers and their “clickers” are also memorable. Because so many of the Germans had learned English, it was hard to distinguish the Allied forces. Paratroopers were equipped with small clickers. One click was to be answered by two clicks.
In the movie, John Wayne plays Col. Benjamin Vandervoort who was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion of the 505th paratroopers during the airborne landings at Normandy and led his battalion in defending the town of Sainte-Mère-Église, despite having broken his ankle on landing.
July 4 isn’t just a day for celebrating; it’s a day for remembering.