Two men forever bound to one ‘Longest Day’
Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha — five code words for beaches far away in a time fast becoming long ago. For many Americans today, they carry little significance.
Yet to those of us who still believe that for the future to have meaning the past must be remembered, they are five words that hearken back to one of the most significant dates in human history, June 6, 1944.
It was a day that dawned with the largest invasion fleet ever assembled approaching the beaches of Normandy and more than 4,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers breathing in the last few precious breaths of their lives. Their brothers in arms in the British 6th and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions — having dropped behind enemy lines hours earlier — were already in the fight of their lives.
We know more about the courage and sacrifice of that day than perhaps any other. And much of it we owe to two men who were never there.
One was born June 5, 1920, in Dublin, Ireland, was in London during the Blitz, flew with the U.S. Army Air Corps on bombing raids into Europe and ended the war embedded with none other than Patton’s Third Army. In 1951, he would become a naturalized U.S. citizen and unfortunately leave this world on Dec. 9, 1974, at the all too young age of 54.
The other came into this world Jan. 10, 1936, in Lovington, Illinois, and had planned to follow the path of his physician father until William Hesseltine’s “Representative Americans” college history class sparked within the young man a fire for history that would not be extinguished until his death in 2002. The former was Cornelius Ryan; the latter was Stephen Ambrose — two men, born oceans apart yet forever bound by a single day.
The inspiration for Ryan was a 1949 trip to Normandy, where he realized the story was incomplete and set about to complete it. Utilizing thousands of accounts from survivors on both sides, his work culminated 10 years later in the definitive: “The Longest Day, 6 June 1944 D-Day,” published in 1959.
For Ambrose, it would be a 1988 visit to a reunion of Easy Company veterans that would inspire him to bring to a new generation the sacrifices of those known as the “greatest generation.”
Out of the firsthand accounts of Easy Company came “Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest,” in 1992, followed up with “D-Day” in 1994, which built upon additional oral histories of the combatants.
Darryl F. Zanuck would immortalize “The Longest Day” in the 1962 20th Century Fox epic, and Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would turn to HBO Films to bring the story to life from the airborne infantry perspective in the 2001 “Band of Brothers” series.
While we must never forget the blood and sacrifice of that day, we should also remember the contributions of Ryan and Ambrose and their kind, who bring meaning to it all, because without the historian willing to research it, absorb it and write it, the entire history of the human race would still be but one blank page.
In a footnote to that page, if not for a storm in the channel the night before, Ryan would have shared his birthday with his “Longest Day,” for it was June 5, not June 6 that was the original invasion date. Such are the quirks that fill in the blanks of those pages we call history.
GEOFF CALDWELL lives in Joplin. He can be reached at gc@caldwellscorner. com.