Eric Weider’s 60th Anniversary of D-DAY Cruise
From June 4th to June 12th, 2004 my father and I made a pilgrimage to Normandy and other famous battle sites on a cruise which was organized by the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
The cruise was scheduled to bring us to Normandy, site of the D-Day invasion, to participate in the 60th Anniversary celebrations in which leaders from all over Europe and North America would participate including President Bush, French President Chirac and the Queen of England. Also present for the very first time at a D-Day ceremony would be the German Chancellor. Many people believe that this will be the last major celebration of this momentous event to include so many veterans as 12 million of the 16 million American World War 2 veterans have already passed away.
Our cruise ship left London late afternoon on Friday June 4th . By early morning June 5th we were cruising the Normandy coast and as we steamed past the D-Day beaches which will forever carry the famous code names of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword we were treated to first hand accounts of the landings by World War 2 veterans. This was indeed a rare opportunity ? to see the beaches from the English Channel and hear from some of the veterans who landed there.
View of Omaha Beach (Dog Green Sector) from the English Channel. This is the view that U.S. Soldiers approaching the beach would have seen from their landing craft. The Church spire is in the town of Vierville sur Mer and was the landmark that the landing craft were told to steer towards.
After cruising along the Normandy coast, the ship then made its way towards the city of Caen – a key objective on D-Day for the British and Canadian forces. In the battle for Normandy it would take six weeks of brutal fighting before Caen fell to the Allies. As we steamed up the Caen Canal towards Caen we passed Pegasus Bridge. This was the scene of the first action on D-Day where the British 6th Airborne made daring glider and parachute landings to capture the important "Pegasus" Bridge and secure the East flank of the invasion area.
As we cruised up the Caen Canal we were treated to a reenactment of the parachute jump that took place 60 years earlier on D-Day in the vicinity of Pegasus Bridge.
As this was a history oriented cruise there were at least two lectures each day taking place in the ship’s theater. The lectures were given by a number of leading historians including John Keegan and Ron Drez. We were very fortunate to also have a lecture from Viscount David Montgomery. He is the only son of the famous General Bernard Law Montgomery usually known simply as "Monty."
Eric Weider (left) with his father Ben Weider (right) and Viscount David Montgomery. He is the only son of famous British General Bernard L. Montgomery often called, "Monty."
June 6th began early as we departed the cruise ship at 6:00 AM in order to attend the 60th Anniversary ceremonies at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Our bus was stopped and searched at three security checkpoints along the way and of course before entering the Cemetery there was another individual security screening. Altogether it took us about three hours to cover the distance from Caen (where our ship was docked) to Collville sur Mer (where Omaha Beach is located). Under normal driving conditions this would be a 30-40 minute drive! But due to the presence of 15 world leaders security was high.
As we entered the Cemetery it appeared that there were about 10,000 people attending. From the podium where the ceremonies and speeches would take place hundreds of rows of chairs stretched back for at least two football fields. Just as I began wondering how far back we would have to sit my father and I were whisked into a seat in the front row. A French Officer had noticed the Legion of Honor my father was wearing (France’s highest medal) and he told us that the front row was reserved for Legion of Honor of winners! So there we were front and center?about 10 feet from where the leader of the free world, President Bush, would be making his historic address.
Due to my father being a Legion of Honor winner we sat in the front row as President Bush made his historic address to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of D-DAY. I strongly suggested to my father that he keep this medal on for the balance of our trip!
On June 7th our tour of the Normandy battlefields continued. We set out early again for an all day tour of the primary American battle areas. During our tour, we stopped at Omaha Beach and the deadly "Dog Green" sector where so many young men of the 116 th Regiment were killed coming ashore. (The battle on this section of Omaha Beach is graphically depicted in the opening 20 minutes of the film, Saving Private Ryan ). As I watched several young couples strolling on the beach I wondered if they were even aware of what had occurred on the sand beneath their feet 60 years earlier. Today it all looks so peaceful?but 60 years ago it was a killing field as German machine guns and cannons raked the length of the beach with murderous fire.
German Strongpoints (WN72 & WN73) overlooking Dog Green sector of Omaha beach.
These two bunkers were reported by veterans of the battle to have caused the majority of the carnage on Dog Green Sector. WN 73, which is seen here halfway up the bluffs, was finally knocked out by Rangers who scaled the cliffs and attacked it from behind.
This is the view of Omaha Beach from inside the German Strongpoint WN73. From this position the Germans could fire on the whole length of Omaha Beach.
This is the muzzle of the German 57mm gun from WN 73 which caused so much death on Dog Green beach. Today it is rather unceremoniously stuck in the concrete near the beach with no plaque to indicate what it is. Many people use it as an ashtray or small garbage can. I found it very strange that this is how this historic piece is displayed.
Other stops on our tour of Omaha Beach included German Strongpoint WN 65 as well as WN 62 which overlooked Easy Red Sector. At WN 62 we were lucky to actually run into German veteran Franz Gockel who served at this strongpoint. In Voices of D-Day by Ron Drez you can read testimony from Franz about what it was like on June 6 th from the German point of view. In a word, they were terrified as they saw the size of the Allied armada approaching them.
American soldiers relax on WN 65 after knocking it out.
WN 65 as it appears today (June 7th, 2004)
Eric Weider with Medal of Honor Winner, Walter Ehlers, in front of WN 65. Walter came ashore on D-Day about a half mile further up the beach from WN 65.
German veteran, Franz Gockel, who fought in WN 62 overlooking Easy Red Sector of Omaha Beach and whose testimony can be read in "Voices of D-Day" by Ron Drez.
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