Veteran’s Day Salute

This Veteran’s Day is not a shopping sales day, but a time to reflect on our gallant men and women who have served in our Armed Forces.

And when it comes to famous battles, nothing is more remembered than D-Day. There is an abundance of books and movies specifically on the subject of that day — June 6, 1944.

Such an event inspired Lewis Seiler’s film Breakthrough, starring Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger and Curt Jurgens. It depicts the landing of a group of soldiers and their subsequent advance on Saint-Lo, just south of Utah and Omaha Beach. Seiler also made The Tanks are Coming, starring Philip Carey, Steve Cochran and Paul Picerni, about an armored unit that took part in the battle of Saint-Lo.

In 1956, the D-Day landing was the subject of a film called D-Day the Sixth of June. Robert Taylor and Richard Todd played the part of two officers who spoke about the women they loved before they landed.

Two years later, the magic trio of Marlon Brando, Dean Martin and Montgomery Clift starred in Edward Dmytrick’s The Young Lions. The film is directed from the German and American points of view. Brando is particularly superb in his role of a German officer.

The Longest Day

Probably one of the most well-known movies about D-Day was The Longest Day, released in 1961. This monumental movie about day one of the D-Day invasion portrays some of the most important events of that intense battle. This was Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck’s pet project. He used three directors and an all-star cast, and he spent a fortune to make it. The story is based on a novel by Cornelius Ryan’s compilation of interviews with D-Day survivors. The invasion was shown in three segments. But before I continue with the movie, let’s talk about the actual events that inspired the film.

At the beginning of June 1944, 58 German divisions occupied France, Belgium and Holland. These forces totaled about three-quarters of a million ground soldiers, many of them tough veterans of earlier German victories. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall gave them added strength. Troops were also supported by German naval and air commands.

General Eisenhower’s forces were getting ready for Operation Overlord, scheduled to take place the first week of June 1944. Forty-five divisions stood ready to take part in the invasion, two-thirds of them Americans. With additional artillery, tank and engineer units, the build-up totaled about 1 million men. An additional 1 million soldiers were ready to provide care for the sick and wounded, drive trucks, repair equipment and operate radios and telephones. Nearly another million men comprised the naval and air forces taking part in Operation Overlord. Bad weather on June 5 delayed the invasion of the Western front until 6 a.m. on June 6.

A Trio of Settings

For the movie, Zanuck gathered a prestigious cast for The Longest Day, including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Peter Lawford, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowell, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger and Robert Wagner.

The invasion of Europe was presented in three parts. According to reports, Zanuck directed all of the American and British interior scenes. The first part shows the Americans and British preparing for the invasion, then waiting for the bad weather before crossing the treacherous English Channel to the French beachheads.

The high command meets in long sessions, until Gen. Eisenhower (played by Henry Grace) finally makes the decision to send the armada across the channel. On the mainland, the Free French underground is busy sabotaging bridges and railroads. The Germans, alerted to increased resistance, begin to suspect that the invasion is at hand and alert coastal defense units on standby alert.

The second part of the movie begins with a wave of gliders carrying infantry inland, including troops who secure tactical locations while paratroopers land behind enemy lines and begin independent battles. Next, a massive armada of ships are seen by a German officer who calls headquarters and says, “Those thousands of ships you say the Allies do not have? Well, they have them.”

The third part shows the massive assault on the French beachheads — the British at Sword, Gold and Juno, the Americans at Omaha and Utah and the French at Quistreham.

Heroic commanders — Henry Fonda as Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., John Wayne as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort of the 82nd Paratrooper Division and Robert Mitchum as Brig. Gen. Norman Cota who succeeds in moving his men off Omaha Beach where they were being slaughtered by German firepower — lead the charge.

The 82nd Airborne had to jump behind German lines without knowing their location. Many were slaughtered similar to those who dropped right into Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Others made an awkward landing in the marshes, tangled in their parachutes and weighed down by their equipment. Some even drowned in 3 feet of water.

In the film, the 82nd Airborne are dropped into heavily occupied Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where crack German troops wiped out the Americans helplessly floating downward into the fire of German machine guns. In this scene, Red Buttons’ parachute gets caught on the steeple of the Church Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and he helplessly watches the nightmare massacre while pretending to be dead. This was one of the most chilling scenes ever recorded in a war-related film.

Soon the Allied forces succeeded in penetrating Hitler’s defense lines. The front line German Commanders calling Hitler were told he had gone to bed. He knew the end was near.

Good Reception

The Longest Day was enthusiastically received by the public, encouraging a number of films on this same subject, such as The Victors (1963), The Day After (1964) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). In 1967, Robert Aldrich, a specialist in war films, told the story of suicide commandos dropped by parachute behind German lines on the eve of June 6, 1944. You know them as The Dirty Dozen.

While D-Day launched the Allies’ main offensive, these forces had to fight a war on two fronts. In the Pacific, forces were always in invasion mode. Many islands were occupied by the Japanese, and each had to be taken over, resulting in brutal battles.

In films covering this front, I recommend Guadalcanal Diary, Bataan, Back to Bataan and Sands of Iwo Jima.

Joe Marinelli is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.

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