In 1994, Bill and I travelled to Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, the landing of the Allies on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Here is an excerpt from the upcoming Arthur, Publisher, Marketing Man. – Sandra
Montreal, May 23 – Bill was invited to sail to Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day on the refurbished historic World War II Liberty ship, SS Jeremiah O’Brien. The crew would be made up of “old salts” (average age 70) and young cadets from the California Maritime Academy.
The O’Brien had participated in the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944 and made eleven crossings of the English Channel carrying personnel and supplies to the Omaha and Utah beachheads. Of the more than 5,000 ships that formed the original D-Day armada, the O’Brien would be the only Ocean-class ship to return to Normandy 50 years later. Only smaller vessels from other countries would be returning. (Note: Of the 2,710 Liberty ships in service during WWII, only two survived and are fully-operational: SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco and John W. Brown in Baltimore, Maryland.)
Bill was part of the volunteer crew that had been working since 1991 to hopefully get the O’Brien in shape for the trans-Atlantic crossing. Thanks to thousands of volunteer hours and donations of money and supplies from individuals and businesses, the O’Brien was declared sea-worthy for the voyage. She would steam through the Golden Gate, down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic to England and France, and then return to her home in San Francisco.
However, I had another plan. The Royal Viking Line was offering an 18-day trans-Atlantic crossing on the Royal Viking Sun from Montreal to Paris, with two days in Cherbourg for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day ceremonies. I persuaded Bill to reconsider sailing on the O’Brien and reluctantly he gave in. Later, he admitted that sleeping in a private cabin with room service did have its appeal versus sharing bunk quarters with a bunch of shipmates.
To prepare for the cruise, Bill went on a Jenny Craig diet and dropped 15 pounds, and I signed us up for five lessons at the Arthur Murray studio in Santa Barbara, where we were living at the time.
At sea on the Royal Viking Sun, May 24-June 4 – The majority of passengers on the Sun were World War II veterans – some with spouses, some without. The veterans were mostly Army, men who had stormed the beaches of Normandy fifty years ago.
The Allied invasion of Normandy commenced on five beaches. Troops from the United States landed on Omaha and Utah; British troops landed on Gold and Sword, and Canadian troops landed on Juno.
During the fourteen days at sea, some Normandy veterans shared memories and others did not. One evening, a gentleman showed me an old, wrinkled photograph he had kept in his wallet for almost fifty years. In the photo, he was pointing his rifle at a dozen German soldiers who had their hands raised. “I don’t look it,” he said, “but I was scared to death.”
One of our tablemates had been with the heroic 2nd Ranger Battalion when they scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. He did not share the details of that day other than to comment he always wondered why he was one of the lucky ones.
On board was Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. She signed copies of her book, Over Here, Over There, and sang with the ship’s orchestra.
One afternoon in the laundry room, I noticed an elegant-looking man wearing a green t-shirt with “Val Verde” printed on it. “I live in Montecito,” I said, “and there’s a beautiful grand estate there named Val Verde.”
“Yes, I know. I own it,” said Dr. Warren Austin with a charming smile.
Dr. Austin had been a young Army doctor in the European theater and brought his 50-year old uniform with him to wear at the D-Day events. (See below for a photo of Dr. Austin in his uniform.)
It was on June 5, 1944, with a heavy heart and knowing he was sending many of his troops to their certain death, that General Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the D-Day invasion and famously said, “Let’s go.” (Some historians claim Eisenhower said, “Okay, let’s go.”)
The next day, June 6 at 0130, hundreds of paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions parachuted during the night, and landed in and around the town of Ste-Mère-Eglise. Their mission was to clear the ground between the sea and Ste-Mère-Eglise, so the troops landing on Utah Beach on June 6 could advance rapidly inland.
Private John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment became a legend when his parachute got caught on the church spire in town. He was shot through the foot and hung there in pain for two hours pretending to be dead before the Germans noticed he was still alive and cut him down. One story has Pvt Steele escaping from the Germans in Ste-Mère-Eglise; another story has him being taken prisoner for two years, then escaping. (Red Buttons would portray Pvt Steele in the 1962 movie The Longest Day.)
At 0430, the American flag was raised in front of the Town Hall, making Ste-Mère-Eglise the first town in France to be liberated from the Nazi occupation.
Bill and I reboarded the bus for the drive to a nearby field for the re-enactment of Operation Overlord. Assembled were 560 troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and 38 World War II veterans from the 82nd and 101st who had been in Overlord, ages 68 to 83.
After the re-enactment, one of the veterans said to Bill and me, “When I jumped 50 years ago, I was scared to death. This time, I was only half scared to death.”
Aboard the Royal Viking Sun, June 6 – As a World War II veteran, Bill had priority booking for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day ceremonies at Pointe du Hoc, followed by a ceremony at the U.S. Cemetery where President Clinton would speak.
However, the night before, we received notice that the excursions were cancelled. Needless to say, there were many upset passengers and the captain was flooded with complaints and questions.
Bill and I ended up watching the solemn ceremonies on CNN in our cabin. It was anti-climatic, to say the least, as having priority access to these June 6 ceremonies was one of the reasons for taking this particular cruise. We did receive a letter of apology from the Sun’s Shore Excursion Manager explaining the cancellations were due to certain French dignitaries, who, at the last minute, decided to attend the ceremonies, thus creating a need for additional security.
The atmosphere aboard ship on June 6 was solemn – veterans remembering the horrific events of that day and more than a little peeved that their presence at the ceremonies was cancelled. There were other glitches and logistical problems, and the re-surfacing of terse feelings between the French and Americans.
London/Paris, June 8-11 – After the D-Day ceremonies, the Royal Viking Sun headed to London for a few days, and then to Rouen, France, where we disembarked.
Bill and I stayed on in Europe for the next fourteen weeks visiting Paris, Warsaw, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Wengen (in the Swiss Alps), Florence, and Venice.
In Paris, we attended the American Ball at the Hotel Intercontinental and danced to Big Band music by the Glenn Miller Band. We had drinks at Harry’s Bar. Bill was a charter member of Harry’s International Barfly Association since his first visit to Harry’s in Paris in 1954. He was on a round-the-world business trip as a steel importer in the world trade business. By the end of our fourteen weeks in Europe, Bill and I had imbibed expensive martinis at Harry’s in Paris, Florence, and Venice.
Before embarking on this trip, someone said to me, “Sandra, you won’t enjoy this cruise, being around all those older people.”
On the contrary. I have never forgotten the brave men I met on this Return To Normandy – one of the most meaningful experiences in my lifetime.
From Author, Publisher, Marketing Man by William L. McGee and Sandra V. McGee coming out in 2022.