Wednesday, June 06, 2012

`They Didn't Have a Chance'

As the epigraph to “Keeping Their World Large,” Marianne Moore uses a sentence from a New York Times article published June 7, 1944, one day after D-Day: “All too literally, their flesh and their spirit are our shield.” The setting of Moore’s poem is Italy, where the Allies had landed nine months earlier, but its concluding lines surely contrast the scenes in Normandy with those on the home front:

“They fought the enemy,
 we fight fat living and self-pity
 shine, o shine,
 unfalsifying sun, on this sick scene.”

To call this an anti-war poem is misguided. Moore expresses a patriotic civilian’s sense of gratitude mingled with horror and guilt-ridden impotence. On June 6, on Omaha Beach alone, the Allies suffered more than 2,400 casualties. Moore writes: “bodies lay as ground to walk on.” Capt. Joseph T. Dawson of the 16th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 1st Infantry Division, was thirty years old that morning sixty-eight years ago:

“The beach was a total chaos, with men’s bodies everywhere, with wounded men crying, both in the water and on the shingle. We landed at high tide, when the water was right up to the shoreline, which was marked by a sharp-edged crystalline sand, like a small gravel, but very, very sharp. That was the only defilade which was present on the beach to give any protection from the fire above. That was where all the men who had landed earlier were present, except for a handful who had made their way forward, most of them being killed.” [from D-Day as They Saw It, 2004, an oral history edited by Jon E. Lewis]

The section of Normandy shoreline designated as Omaha Beach by the Allies stretched four miles from Port-en-Bassin to Vierville-sur-Mer. It was flanked by limestone cliffs and a grassy ridge running parallel to the shore. It was a defender’s dream and the German fortifications had hardly been touched by the Allies’ air and naval bombardment. Most of the first wave of infantry, starting at 6:30 a.m., was American but British crews and a few troops accompanied them. Among them was Sub-Lt. Jimmy Green, an LCA (Landing Craft Assault) flotilla commander:

“Practically all of A Company, the first wave, was wiped out. There were very few survivors by the time the second wave came in. All the people I landed from my boat were killed including the captain, Taylor-Fellers. Practically all of A Company had perished within minutes of walking up the beach. They had no cover, no craters to get into, and as they walked up the beach they were just sitting targets, well, standing targets, and down they went, mowed down by machine guns. They didn’t have a chance.” [from Forgotten Voices of D-Day, 2009, edited by Roderick Baily in association with the Imperial War Museum]

Go here to read A.J. Liebling’s first-hand account of the landing at Omaha Beach, “A Reporter at Large: Cross-Channel Trip,” published in The New Yorker and collected in Mollie and Other War Pieces, 1964.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Thanks, Patrick. I hadn't read the Liebling and am grateful for the link.