Confession # 15 The Song of Freedom 

Part 1: D-Day Normandy

Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death, Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard, June 6, 1944. 
"American invaders spring from the ramp of a Coast Guard-manned landing barge to wade those last perilous yards to the beach of Normandy. Enemy fire will cut some of them down. Their 'taxi' will pull itself off the sands and dash back to a Coast Guard manned transport for more passengers."

I once read that D-Day and the invasion of Normandy touched the life of every person in America; some very directly and deeply, others less immediately, but none were left untouched. I think it must be true. This was a time when hearts rejoiced or were broken, girls were married or left unmarried, babies were born or were never born; people found work in factories, moved their families to new and unfamiliar cities, raised their children and pulled themselves out of the poverty inflicted by the Great Depression, all because of events that took place on beaches thousands of miles away. Everyone rationed food and gasoline, factories stopped making new cars, new radios and so many other consumer goods, and women went to work in factories, all due to the all-encompassing effort and total mobilization required to arm, feed, supply and support the soldiers, sailors and Marines who fought to bring peace, order and security to nearly every quarter of the globe.

And sometimes, too often, they did not return. Those who did often suffered crippling wounds to both body and mind. Few spoke of the terrors they had faced overseas but instead attempted to get on with the true and correct business of the living: building and enjoying life!

These events certainly touched and shaped my own family-----my maternal step-grandfather, Oliver "Bud" Nelson, was a U.S. Army Combat Engineer who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day+3 and then built bridges for the front-line combat troops and tanks all across France and Germany, including the first to cross the river Rhine. The stories he told me as a boy and as a young man are forever etched upon my mind. My maternal grandfather, Arnold Johnson, a simple cowboy who pined deeply for the hills of his native Utah, moved his young family to the San Francisco Bay Area to work in the great shipyard at Richmond producing Liberty Ships-----and at a rate so fast that it outpaced their losses from the German U-boats who menaced the Allied supply convoys attempting to cross the Atlantic. A total of seven-hundred-forty-seven ships were built by the workers of the Richmond shipyard for the war effort, the greatest production of any American shipyard and a record unequaled anywhere even to this day. Four of those ships took part in the great D-Day armada.

Meanwhile, contributing to the effort on the opposite side of the world, my paternal grandfather, Tommy Kennard, a young husband and father, was drafted from the oilfields of Texas into the U.S. Navy to serve aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and through the terrible battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. His wife, my grandmother, in an attempt to be as near to her husband as possible, packed herself and her baby, my father, up and moved to San Diego where she found work "bucking" rivets on B-24 Liberator bombers at the Consolidated Aircraft Factory. She, my grandfather and my father would spend the final days of the war living in a tent at Yosemite National Park while my grandfather recovered there at the Ahwahnee Hotel, then appropriated and turned into a U.S. Naval Hospital, from wounds received while contributing to the fight for freedom and democracy---though that didn't seem to count anything much towards his receiving special consideration from a wandering and hungry Yosemite bear who had no qualms about robbing him of his buried stash of bacon and illicit cache of Schlitz beer one night!

Coming from such people and having known and loved and been loved by many others------like Uncle Gene (Gino Pallotta) who was among the very first American boys to face the Nazis, at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, where he was gravely wounded when a shell from a German 88 mm gun penetrated his tank, killing all of his crew and leaving him helpless, captured and held as a prisoner of war. His poor little Italian mother, Filomena, back in Utah, not knowing what had happened to her son, only that he was missing in action, died of a broken heart. Uncle Gene eventually returned home to Utah but lived the rest of his life with a chunk of his M4 Sherman tank embedded in his skull. I knew, admired and loved this sweet man and spent precious moments with him in Grandmama Marciel's tomato garden pulling weeds-------I know that the sacrifices that he and so many others endured were very real, and that we all are the very fortunate recipients and beneficiaries of all that they gave to make our world a better place.

I wish now, now that they are gone, that I had gotten to know them better----and not as grandfathers and grandmothers or aunts and uncles---but as the young people that they once were and still were inside of their aging bodies; to have heard even more of their stories and to have understood more fully the things they had experienced and faced in their lives; to have listened to their records and known much more about the things that were important to them when they were young. But most of all I wish I had thanked them, very deeply and from the very bottom of my soul, for the sacrifice of their youth for the cause of liberty and for the protection of the freedoms which I enjoy each and every day of my life. I would not feel myself much of a man if I were ever to forget them and what they did, especially on a day such as today.

What follows is something of what I know of the story of these people and their contributions to the great song of freedom. 


General Eisenhower talks with paratroopers of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division in England just prior to
their boarding the airplanes from which they will parachute into France during the predawn morning hours
to begin the initial assault on Normandy. June 5, 1944

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, American and Allied forces launched the greatest amphibious invasion the world has ever known. Supported by an armada of more than 2,500 ships, 3,000 landing craft and thousands of aircraft----and built upon two years of intensive planning and the building and stockpiling of great caches of weapons and material, and resting upon the shoulders of countless efforts and sacrifices by ordinary citizens from Coventry to Chicago, New Mexico to New Zealand----Allied combat troops landed on beaches of the Normandy coast to begin the massive operation that would liberate Western Europe from the clutches of torment and terror of the Nazi regime.

Invading Allied troops faced fierce opposition from well-prepared and dug-in Nazi occupiers and the fighting was brutal-----more than 2,500 Americans and nearly 2,000 of their allies would perish on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and in the bluffs, fields and towns above, on that first terrible day. Many, many more would be killed and wounded in the days, weeks and months to follow. But from the small patches of occupied France first snatched up and held onto so tightly by paratroopers who jumped into the countryside during the night, and from the precarious foothold of sand and gravel beaches so tenaciously clung to by the great waves of soldiers who would emerge from the sea at dawn, a beachhead of democracy was established and upon it more than 125,000 men would land in Normandy before the sun set that first day.

U.S. troops brace themselves for what is to come as the Higgins boat which carries them approaches 
the Normandy coast, June 6, 1944.(National Archives and Records Administration)

An American soldier is among the first to face the terrors of Omaha Beach on D-Day. 
Robert Capa, photographer 

 American G.I.s recover the bodies of their fallen comrades on Omaha Beach. Walter Rosenblum, photographer
(U.S.  Library of Congress)

With five days the beachhead would be expand into the surrounding countryside and another 700,000 troops would be landed upon the beaches, bringing along with them more than 148,000 vehicles of all description----from tanks to jeeps to everything in between-----and more than 570,000 tons of supplies comprised of every item ever possibly conceived that could be useful in keeping the momentum of this army moving forward and hastening the day when the heel of its boots would be upon the throat of their stubborn enemy.

And with every passing day, every passing hour, more men, more trucks, more tanks, more weapons and more supplies continued to pour into France from England and America.

Looking back now, through the lens of seventy-five years, it seems absolutely inevitable that the Allies would win the battles on the beaches of Normandy and succeed in the invasion; utterly impossible to imagine that they might have been defeated and turned back into the sea from which they came. 

But those uncertainties were a very real possibility seventy-five years ago. It was an uncertain time----on all fronts----and nothing was certain or inevitable, least of all the dislodging of a determined enemy who had spent two years in preparation for this day by an improbable amphibious and airborne assault, one that had to cross the natural defense of the English Channel, and one comprised chiefly of the "soft" pleasure seeking young Americans the Nazis so despised and ridiculed for their devotion to leisure and jazz, what they deemed "nigger jew music" and the "art of the sub-human". The chances of the invasion succeeding must have seemed remote, indeed------or at least to those who did not know that free men and women will always stand and fight for the freedoms which they know and enjoy!

And nearly all news from the other areas of the war seemed just as uncertain. The Allies were fighting a hellish and devastating battle up the Italian peninsula from Sicily northward against an equally determined Germany army; Rome had been liberated only the very night before the invasion of France began, and Italy had descended into a civil war between those supporting the liberating armies and those clinging to fascism. The Soviets were engaged in their own brutal fight with German armies, suffering staggering casualties and enduring great horrors; and the war in the Pacific was still largely limited to fighting along the outer perimeter and far flung outposts of the Japanese empire but was heating up and becoming more ferocious and costly with each new battle and each island invasion.

But as news of the success in Normandy reached America, though earned through unimaginable courage, grit, determination, suffering and death----and knowing that much, much more would be required to complete the job, a new mood began to emerge as Americans began to believe that the war had turned a corner, that their cause was likely to prevail and that the end might be in sight. 

And in the wake of the invasion and the penetration of armies into the countryside and into the towns and cities of occupied countries, American soldiers carried with them new ideas about youth, fashion and music which were to have profound effects on local populations. Good ol' Uncle Sam, not wanting his nephews to be deprived of much while on his errand, had done much to encourage, support, and facilitate their every need and in the process, opened a door to another kind of invasion, one that was just getting started, and one that would eventually lead to the establishment of a new form of expression that would link freedom-loving and youthful-spirited people from all over the globe.

Workers at the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company Richmond, California pause from their work to pray in silence   
for the brave men who invade the beaches of Normandy, June 6, 1944.
(Henry J. Kaiser photo collection)

To Be Continued

Coming Soon
Part 2: An Invasion of Youth and Music

A U.S. Coast Guardsman of LCI (L)-326 plays a record for G.I.s of the U.S. Army 90th
Infantry Division while enroute to Utah Beach, Normandy, France, June 6, 1944.

6 June 2019


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