D-Day Jimmy Stewart

Wave

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

When the boys hit the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, they created a shock wave that crashed through Europe. The subjects of two of my books felt that wave, Jim Stewart in Old Buckenham, England, and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in Velp, the Netherlands. As much as we remember D-Day, as much as it’s celebrated, we simply can’t recreate or recapture the level of adrenalin felt anywhere on or near the European continent that particular day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

First came the anticipation. Everyone felt that, too; the tension, relentless and building—Allied forces in England, German forces in France, and the occupied peoples of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Where would the Allies attack? When would it happen? Word leaked out about Patton’s impressive First Army assembling in Kent. Not Patton, fretted the Germans. Anyone but Patton!

Tick, tick, tick. Time crept by. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. March turned into April. April into May. As detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, brisk action in barracks pools at Jim’s 453rd Bomb Group and elsewhere handicapped where and when the invasion would finally take place. In 453rd Operations, Jim knew the invasion was getting close because bombing missions by the group’s B-24s had transitioned from strategic flights against German cities and factories to tactical raids of key sites in France. It might be a railroad yard one day and a bridge the next, but the targets would be a couple hundred miles apart to reveal nothing about the intended invasion site. Would it be the Pas-de-Calais? Surely, yes, the shortest point between England and France. More daring gamblers said Normandy just because it was the last place Hitler would expect. For the Allied invaders, Normandy meant a long, torturous boat ride on choppy seas while rugged and heavily defended beaches awaited at the end.

A few hundred miles due east, the Dutch lived quite a different reality, as detailed in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. At age 15 and a junior member of the Resistance, Audrey was at this time helping downed Allied airmen avoid capture by day, while in the evening, dancing illegally to raise money for Jews in hiding. All the while her country experienced slow strangulation by ruling Nazi authorities who had extracted from the Netherlands all the food, coal, rubber, clothing, paper, and petrol they could in an ongoing effort to support the war effort on the Eastern Front. Dutch civilians had begun to suffer malnutrition that reached in and twisted bellies, all the while facing the anxiety of executions by firing squad for any random Resistance offense. By now, the Germans had confiscated radios from the Dutch—except for illegal sets that still operated on the sly. Officially sanctioned Nazi radio and newspaper reports boasted that invasion of the “Atlantic Wall” was no threat. According to the Germans, Allied attack was welcomed so the Americans and British could be defeated once and for all.

So the Dutch waited, hoped, and prayed. Every day those with radios listened secretly to regular broadcasts from Radio Oranje on the BBC. The Dutch listeners dared not speak the word that hung at the front of every mind: Liberation! If the day ever actually arrived, an Allied invasion would give hope to the hopeless, not just in small towns and large cities in the Netherlands but across occupied Belgium, throughout occupied France, and in all the concentration camps in Germany and Poland where Jews died by the day and Allied prisoners held out against disease and lice and inertia. In America, hope would spark through millions of mothers and fathers praying for the safe return of their children, the young people actually fighting this war.

If you watch The Longest Day, you get a sense of how the Germans on the Normandy coast felt when they beheld the invasion armada that misty dawn. If you watch Saving Private Ryan, you get horrifying glimpses of the killing machine the liberators faced on the beaches that day. And yet there’s no way history, let alone film, can do this day justice. As the news spread of military action at Normandy, as the titanic struggle played out on those beaches, as men fought and screamed and died, struggling dune to dune, hill to hill, hearts swelled in the United States and across Europe. Hands shook. Tears flowed. The free world held its breath through the longest day in history.

Seventy-five years later we can tour the beaches and imagine what the battle looked like. We can marvel at the crosses representing supreme sacrifice. We can revisit stirring eyewitness accounts. But we can’t feel the shock wave because it remains unimaginable. Jim was positioned to feel it in Operations at Old Buck when gates locked down and orders dictated what targets would be hit; Audrey felt it on a quiet street in Velp as secret radios barked out play by play and the Dutch dared hope they might break free of the oppressor.

What a day, that Tuesday in the fifth year of war—the day when everything changed, when the world felt a shock wave that tilted it in a new direction.

Zero Hour

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Here is Lt.-Col. Jim Stewart one month after the D-Day landings. I chose this image for the cover of Mission because it reflects the toll of war on a man so recently thought of as youthful. He had by this time flown 14 combat missions, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and supervised his bomb group’s D-Day bombing missions. The photo was found in Jim’s personal collection, which he had donated to Brigham Young University.

 

One of my favorite chapters in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe concerns the run-up to D-Day, which Maj. Jim Stewart had a hand in, as did just about everyone in the Eighth Air Force. I well remember sitting in a Brigham Young University library looking at records from the 453rd Bomb Group at Old Buckenham and feeling chills along my spine as I read a rare history of the 453rd written during the war. It described “invasionitis”—the endless speculation over when and where the attack would take place—as it reached its peak, and then suddenly, after weeks and months of anticipation, the base went on lockdown. No one in or out. All leaves cancelled. No phone calls. All fliers on alert. Imagine how those guys felt—the invasion of Europe was at hand. It was Zero Hour, and they were literally on the front lines.

Now I’m researching my next book and looking at the impending invasion through the eyes of civilians in Nazi-occupied countries. As they felt the iron fist of Hitler’s Germany close around their throats, as Jews were sent away and innocent civilians were executed in reprisal for partisan raids, as young men and women were kidnapped off the streets where they’d lived all their lives and sent to Germany as slave labor or worse, the only hope of entire populations was an Allied invasion. Every day and every day and every day they waited and hoped and prayed, and it kept not happening. On the continent as in England and the U.S., rumors filled the vacuum of information as top-secret preparations continued. Loose lips could do a lot more than sink ships in May 1944—loose lips could result in a repulsed invasion and a prolonging of a war that had already killed tens of millions of human beings.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The landing craft that the B-24s couldn’t see as D-Day commenced.

Seventy-three years ago right now as I sit here in the New York time zone, B-24s took off from Old Buck to hit targets immediately behind the beach code-named Omaha on the Normandy coast. Jim Stewart briefed his bomber crews that they would be able to look down and see the mightiest fleet ever set to water, but upon return hours later, the pilots and bombardiers complained bitterly to Stewart that they had seen nothing because of heavy cloud cover. Among the things they didn’t see during those early June 6 sorties were their targets (Wehrmacht barracks and gun emplacements), which the bombardiers missed, and badly. Eisenhower had ordered a ‘Go’ to the operation despite continued lousy weather, and so shortly after dawn, tens of thousands of young men hit beaches that were supposed to be neutralized by bombing but hadn’t been softened at all. We know the result: Omaha was a bloodbath.

As the years pass by and the veterans of that day’s assault pass to glory, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate the gravity of D-Day, the shock of the headlines, the importance of the news to simply everyone in the world: to soldiers throwing up in landing craft in heavy seas knowing a storm of lead awaited; to parents across the ocean fearing for their sons in harm’s way; to oppressed civilians in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands desperate for liberation; to Jews heading for concentration camps or already there; and, yes, to Germans who could see their empire and dreams of a unified Europe slipping away. They knew that if the Allies got a foothold in France and headed toward Germany on one side with the Russians moving in on the other, the Reich was doomed.

For Baby Boomers (defined broadly as the children of service men who returned from WWII), D-Day is represented by The Longest Day, made by Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox in 1962 over the course of 10 months at more than 30 locations in France. It’s an occasionally brilliant, mostly ham-handed, decidedly G-rated version of a brutal 24 hours in world history. If anything, The Longest Day trivializes what really went on as it lays on globs of irony that’s supposedly clever and amusing and gives us some of the more unusual casting in Hollywood history. Everybody who was anybody got a cameo to the detriment of what this epic picture might have been. Even 18 years after the event when The Longest Day was released, there was no way to convey what D-Day meant to the world. So many decades after that, it’s downright impossible to do justice to this day and these people on all sides, particularly all those men who stormed the beaches code-named Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah, and Omaha. All I can say is, I salute each and every one of them for what they gave the world—a chance for an end to the most catastrophic war in history. And beyond that, a chance for a peace in Western Europe that remains to this day. Stated plainly, the accomplishments of the men of D-Day will always dwarf any and all acts of terror, for it infused the continent with a steely resolve that I’m convinced will endure forever.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

John Wayne and a bunch of guys who looked nothing–NOTHING–like the generation of young Americans who participated in D-Day. Press materials noted “an unusually large and attractive cast.” Um, agree about the large part, at least in the Duke’s case.