This post is also available in: Dutch

A gentle spring breeze is coming in from the dunes just behind me. On the beach below, a little boy is playing football at low tide. An older couple is sitting on a bench overlooking the peaceful sea. Maybe they are just old enough to remember what happened here, today exactly 72 years ago.

On June 6, 1944, an eclectic bunch of daring young men landed here, on the beaches of Northern France for the biggest military operation the world had ever seen. Over 1,200 aeroplanes, 5,000 boats and 160,000 arrived that day. In this early summer sun, it’s hard to imagine the massacre that took place. On Omaha Beach alone, around 2,000 American soldiers died. German losses were around 1,200. But is was the local population that suffered the most: 3,000 French civilians died on June 6, 1944. Yet, in spite of the heavy toll, the Liberation of Europe had begun. The massive invasion didn’t mark the end of World War II as such, but it certainly marked the beginning of the end of the war.

Pathfinder

Every year since 1949, the Normandy coast commemorates the arrival of the allied freedom fighters. In 2009 I had the pleasure to be in Normandy to report on the celebrations of the 65th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, or D-Day as it is better known. Near Omaha Beach, one of the five landing sites, we met Julius Eisner, a charming 85-year old New Yorker. In 1944 he was Private First Class Eisner. Born on January 12, 1923 in Brooklyn, he served in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne. He was a Pathfinder, the specially trained paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines to mark a drop zone and to prepare operations. They were the first to arrive in Normandy, a couple of hours ahead of the troops that landed later that night, in the early morning, on the beaches.

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Until today, the church of Sainte-Mère-l'Eglise commemorates John Steele's unfortunate landing. Photo: Anton Bielousov/CC BY-SA

A little after midnight on 6 June, Eisner jumped out of the C-47 airplane, beter known as ‘Dakota’. It was one of the 432 aeroplanes that had left England that night. Eisner landed at 01:21 a.m., after a very low jump, just 350 feet. Of the 17 planes with pathfinders, his was the only one that landed in the right place. A couple of hours later, his battalion took the village of Saint-Mère-Eglise, the first town on the French mainland to be liberated (Corsica was liberated in October 1943). Although Eisner was wounded, he continued fighting. Other paratroopers were less lucky. Many were killed. Private John Steel landed on the clocktower of the local church where he hung for two hours, pretending to be dead. Steel and Eisner later participated in the operation ‘Market Garden’, in the Netherlands, where Eisner also was a prisoner of war for couple of days.

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D-Day, 6 June 1944

We interviewed Eisner in the field not far away from the grasslands where he landed 65 years earlier. In June 1944, a large part of the area was flooded. A lot of heavy equipment, radios, and guns were lost in the swamps. Some soldiers even drowned because they were too heavily packed. After the War, Eisner returned regularly to Normandy. Every time he came to France, he was staying with the same French family. His hosts only spoke a little English, but just enough to express their deep admiration for the old paratrooper. At first I just thought it was a pleasure to meet such a vivid old man, but the encountered soon turned into an honour. He was actually the first soldier I met who fought here, and he was full of fascinating and terrifying stories. Watch the interview with the late Julius Eisner (in English with Dutch subtitles) and several other D-Day veterans:

I was humbled by the Eisner’s story of the young Americans risking (and often giving) their lives to liberate a continent they had never set foot on. But “It was worth it” Eisner told us. After the war, Julius was a postman for US Postal Services for forty years. In 2009, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor. He passed away in 2013, but there is no doubt that he would have loved to be at today’s celebrations.

“Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne blessent mon cœur d’une langueur monotone…”

Violins

The night before the landing, the French resistance was informed of the operation by a coded message broadcasted by BBC Radio, consisting of the first lines of a poem by Verlaine, “Long sobs of autumn violins, wound my heart with a monotonous languor”. Although the message was correctly deciphered by the Germans, it was too late to use it to crush the Allied Invasion. Today, these words echo on the peaceful beaches of Normandy, in remembrance of Julius Eisner and all those kids from Kentucky, the lads from Leicester and the guys from Canada who participated without hesitating in Operation Overlord to give us, Europeans, seven decades of liberty. Here’s to you, Julius!

Anyone interested in Operation Overlord should read D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by the excellent Anthony Beevor.

Historic raw combat footage of the US 82nd Airborne Division during the Invasion of Normandy in the Summer of 1944, WWII.