We didn’t watch the finals of Britain’s Got Talent. Not because we were feeling superior I watched Susan Boyle’s first appearance on YouTube 10 times but on the night, we were sitting in the garden with Sam, just home from Edinburgh, exams over, filled with the joys of living in a great city, loving his course, planning his summer. By the time we remembered, the final was over. So we watched a repeat of Timewatch about D-Day instead.
It focused on Omaha Beach, the toughest and bloodiest battle of the D-Day invasions on the Nor-mandy beaches. I grew up hearing the words Omaha Beach, but the uncles and fathers of friends who were part of the biggest amphibious assault in history never talked about it. I only began piecing the story together 15 years ago, when my closest friend from university days wrote from Massachusetts that she was coming to France with her father for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. It was the first time that I knew that Morley Piper, a man I’d known since I was 18 and who’d tolerantly accepted me as a part-time member of his family, was one of the American GIs who landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
Images of that first wave of troops in their landing craft were implanted in modern consciousness long before Saving Private Ryan. The rows of helmets, the 100lb loads of weapons and supplies on their backs, the metal craft bucking with the waves. I was also vaguely aware that, despite the planning for ‘the most important battle in the history of the world’, it all went wrong. Timewatch spelled out the true horror of the disasters. In the 30 minutes before H-hour, the US Air Force dropped 13,000 tons of bombs. Despite claims they could ‘put a bomb into a pickle barrel’, on D-Day, the bombers, wanting to avoid the oncoming armada, flew across the beaches, completely missing the German machinegunners in bunkers in the bluffs. Unharmed, the Germans would turn the beaches into a scene of slaughter.
Morley Piper, a tall, thin boy from the Midwest, was just 19. He enlisted in his second year of college, because he figured that officer training was better than being drafted. But after a few months, the training programme was stopped in order to add units for the invasion. Now a second lieutenant and a platoon leader in the 29th Infantry Division, Morley was bound for England and months of training near Southampton.
His memories of D-Day are of the smoke, the fog and the cliffs, where German machinegunners had perfect aim at the waves of troops coming off the ramps. Of the 30 men in his platoon, only 17 made it to shore. Once on the beach, ‘our well-crafted plan to blast our way through the beach defences became secondary to survival’. There were 300 yards of open sand, no cover, no trees, no trenches. Historians now believe original figures of the carnage 2,000 dead or missing is closer to 4,500 or 5,000.
Morley decided he wouldn’t return to France for the 65th anniversary. A youthful 85 year old who still works full-time as executive director of New Eng-land Newspaper Association, he opted to stay home and attend the graduation of his youngest granddaughter. The truth is, despite a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Morley doesn’t dwell on June 6, 1944, and the months of fighting that followed.
But D-Day’s been in my thoughts all week. I’m still fuming because The Queen wasn’t in France on this anniversary. In consolation, I bought two copies of Antony Beevor’s book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, one for Morley and one for my son. Sam is the age of so many who died on those beaches. I want him to know about the Americans and Britons who had audacity and bravery, and more than a little talent.