Five Hundred Yards

One afternoon over the December holidays while my young son and daughter were visiting for a week in Kerrville, together with my Mom and sister, Ethan and I settled into the living room couch and one of the recliners to begin watching the 10-part series by HBO called Band of Brothers. My daughter Tori (Victoria) and Ethan had gone in together to buy this incredibly excellent production and historically precise production as my gift as it had already won several awards.

My kids and family had known I had always been a history buff, especially military history buff, and more so a WW2 buff since my boyhood. They had heard on numerous occasions — actually tolerated — how much I praised the astonishing historical detail that HBO’s Executive Directors with historical-military consultants, utilized Stephen Ambrose’s bestselling book of the same name which went into the making of the final cut of Band of Brothers. Ethan had been looking forward to watching it with me. He knew well how passionate I was about personal authentic history. At that time, he was a bit of a military fan too. Where he may have got his interest I couldn’t say. But I would be lying, wouldn’t I?

When Mom and sister saw what we were about to watch, they rolled their eyes, a bit put out and both essentially griped, Dwain, why are you such a huge fan of war films, documentaries, graphic violence, and showing it to Ethan!? Do you love violence and war? Later that evening when he and I were done with parts 1-3, I hoped I had answered their question and deep concerns for my son.

But I’ll share that at the end of this post.

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Seventy-five years ago this morning at 5:50am Caen, France time, June 6, 1944 the Allied invasion of Normandy began. To this day, it is the largest amphibious military force ever assembled in history. The Allied invasion force consisted of around 346,700+ souls, comprising of almost 7,000 naval vessels crammed into a tiny French Bay (Seine) off the coast of northern France—about 900 sq. miles of sea and only about 50-miles of flat beach. A flat, sandy beach 3-5 football-fields long at low-tide, from waste-deep water to land, when the first wave of troops landed; meaning nothing to hide behind to protect yourself except narrow, German-landing obstacles (many booby-trapped) until the first natural or German-made obstacles… 500-yards ahead of you.

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Omaha beach, Normandy, today — low-tide

Of the five different landing zones that morning at Normandy, Omaha beach was a slaughtering section on the first wave of the V Corp., 29th Infantry Division, 116th Regiment with Companies A-D, each with 230 men. Dog Green Sector where Company A of the 116th landed was the most horrific scene any human being could ever witness.

Much of the Allied’s intricate, precisely planned timing of Operation Overlord went wrong on many levels. For Company A (first wave) their section of the beach was nothing like they had been told or trained for back in England. With up to 60-75 lbs of gear, weapons, and ammunition to name only three, they had not trained for disembarking into waist-high or neck-high water with 200-yards in front of them until sand. Then the additional 200-300 yards on open beach and sand bars was supposed to have hundreds of bomb-craters from air force and naval bombardments to shelter for seconds or minutes to rally and organize before rushing forward to their objectives against a severely weakened or destroyed German defensive emplacements. None of this had happened when they lowered the landing-ramp of their LCI’s (Landing Craft Infantry) into 4-6 feet of water.

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What lay ahead for these 230 young men of A-Company was a superbly designed defense by one of Hitler’s most brilliant combat Generals, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. His objective was to inflict upon the Allied landing forces as many casualties as possible by slowing down landing craft and infantry getting to the beach, and then across 200-300 yards of flat sand before arriving at his first-line of gun emplacements, trenches, bunkers, and pillboxes. Rommel had 7-months preparation to build and reinforce this Atlantic Wall. He believed the only way to have a chance of repelling the invasion was to drastically slow the Allied forces at the beach making the losses so unacceptable for Eisenhower and Bradley the invasion would be unsustainable and abandoned. It almost worked. Against the 116th’s A-Company it did work, to appalling results.

Two of Germany’s most lethal weapons of WW2 and during D-Day were their 88-millimeter artillery guns and the MG-42 machine guns. All Allied combat soldiers and their commanders feared these weapons. In any engagement Allied units had to quickly disable or destroy them or they would wipe out entire platoons or more.

The earlier air force bombardments were suppose to pummel these German weapon units days/weeks before. The early morning naval bombardments were also suppose to pummel these targets. On D-Day the 116th Regiment and A-Company did not know they were still operational and waiting for them, particularly the combat experienced German 352nd Division defending Omaha Beach. Typically, each of this division’s 200 companies had a minimum of one or two MG-42’s per company, or about 250 deployed at Omaha Beach. This is a formidable slew of this weapon pointed at the incoming LCI’s landing-ramps when it opens and attempts to unload 36 men packed inside.

To get a proper feel for what the MG-42 (nicknamed Bone-saw by the Germans) could inflict on unsuspecting infantry, listen to this 1-min video. It is not graphic, just demonstrates by audio:

The MG-42 Bone-saw fired 900 – 1,500 rounds per minute. That is about two cartridges per second for 60-seconds when the barrel wasn’t overheated, fairly cooled, or just replaced. The 2-man crews usually had 4-5 barrels at their disposal to keep switching out.

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Of the 230 men assigned to A-Company first wave of the 116th Regiment, 7 survived. These seven soldier’s narratives below, collected shortly after the day ended, tell firsthand what happened to 223 men in less than eight minutes. When the German squads located A-Company’s surviving commanders that had reached the shoreline, they had all their experienced snipers take them out with one, maybe two shots in a matter of 7-10 seconds per American officer. The 88-mm gun’s fragmenting shells ripping to separate pieces human body parts along with the MG-42’s mowed down the rest of A-Company.

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On this historic day 75-years later we remember, salute, and thank the veterans of D-Day still alive, but more importantly those who made the ultimate sacrifice to achieve victory. A victory that was enormously costly, particularly to the one Regiment that paid the most and one town, Bedford, Virginia of about 4,000 residents at the time, who lost 19 of their boys, more than any other town in America that day per capita, June 6th, 1944. Four more lost their lives during the remainder of the Normandy campaign. Director Stephen Spielberg was inspired by a book called The Bedford Boys which chronicled these 23 men’s sacrifice and it resulted in his multi-award winning 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. As most movie-goers know, the opening scene of the D-Day landings have been confirmed by most survivors of that day as ‘precise as any screen-portrayal ever made about Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944.’ Some could never watch the movie again.

As the Allied forces proceeded inward through western Europe and toward Germany and Hitler’s Nazi Third Reich the next 11-months, started by the victory in Normandy, we’d eventually learn the horrid truth about their concentration camps. So now I have reached the point in my story where I answered my Mom, sister, or anyone who asks or questions me: Why are you such a huge fan of war films, documentaries, graphic violence, and showing it to Ethan!? Do you love violence and war?

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I tell them if that ever makes me an advocate of war, a warmonger rattling his sabers or shooting off his personal arsenal of weapons on weekends, then please… you have my permission to shoot me.

No, on the contrary it is precisely BECAUSE it is so horrific, so insane, so life-damaging, and the worst of humanity’s behaviors—witnessed by combat soldiers returning home with PTSD, Holocaust survivors scarred for life by what they lived through—that I am stubbornly anti-war! I remind myself and any others I can by watching, reading, and understanding profoundly what really goes on at the front lines. And hence, I emotionally remember the harsh reality of what slaughtering looks and sounds like in order NOT to use war rashly and foolishly like many of our politicians or aggressively hyper-patriotic citizens—with no combat experience themselves—seem too ready to fight and too frequently oblivious of its cost! Its real and long-term human costs. Therefore, do everything humanly and diplomatically possible to avoid war before sending our men and women to exact it and pay with their lives.

As one of the scenes and parts in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers impart, after they had liberated one of the many concentration camps, it’s why we fought. Let us never forget how precious life is before a violent conflict breaks out. It is never the same after… for any of the soldiers and their families.

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Since I Was A Boy

Several years ago I lived in an apartment no more than a mile from a suburbia airport north of Dallas.  It is the home of a vintage flight museum I have visited countless times and volunteered two or three times just to touch and be near the famous warbirds.  Like a boy loves his dog or a little girl loves her favorite doll, I marveled at the history, pilots, and flying machines of World War II.  Some days I would utterly frighten my son and daughter by suddenly dropping whatever I was doing and run out the door as fast as I could.  Seconds later they would hear what I already heard.  Sometimes the windows and knickknacks on the mantel or shelves would vibrate.  Turn your volume up as loud as is appropriate to get the full effect and play this 20-second clip:

My kids would chase after me, sometimes out of breath because I would keep moving around in order to see as much sky as I could watching the spectacle arrive and depart.  “How can you always tell the difference between modern planes and the old ones!?” my daughter would ask.  That is amazing!” as she shook her head bewildered.  As I have gotten older, been to many airshows, and gotten more informed and educated on EVERYTHING World War II Aviation, a few of those traumatic surprises would start with pumped adrenaline, then goose-bumps, and then tears.  My son, always emotionally connected to me since his first breath, upon seeing my tears would ask “Why are you crying Dad?”  And this is how I would describe to him the honored, revered tears.

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I love almost all of the WWII planes whether they were combat or cargo, they all had a vital importance to the war effort.  Their pilots were some of the bravest heroes under the most extraordinary circumstances.  All of our veterans from any war or combat service are and will be heroes.  However, if I had to choose just one WWII plane to love most, I know exactly which one she would be.

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The P-51 D Mustang

If you are not aware or cannot remember, at the onset of the Second World War the Allies were grossly unprepared to fight Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan.  Both Axis nations had a big head start in fine machinery and experienced well-trained pilots.  In the first 24 to 30 months of combat, most air battles were won by Germany and Japan with much better maneuverable faster planes and better pilots.  Losses due to combat or dogfights were often staggering for the Americans and British.  Plain and simple, the German Messerschmitts and Folke-Wulfs, and the Japanese Mitsubishi Zeroes were flat-out better machines.  Any high-ranking general will tell you every time, if you don’t control the skies, you either will not win or you might win but at astronomical losses in men and materials.  In 1942 and ’43 the war in both theaters was very uncertain for America and Britain.  The Germans controlled the skies over Europe and the Japanese controlled them in the Pacific.

The Allies desperately needed an edge in the skies!

The primary reason Great Britain thwarted Hitler’s Luftwaffe (air force) in the Battle of Britain was because of their Spitfire and Hurricane pilots.  Spitfires could handle the Messerschmitts while the Hurricanes could take out the bombers.  The problem was that Britain could not quickly replace losses; both in planes or pilots.  The Spitfire housed one of the most superb engines ever built:  the Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12.  The Americans had a few good fighter-designs but most of them at the time were under-powered and couldn’t match the high-altitude performance of the German engines.  Finally, with British ingenuity and American manufacturing, emerged a single fighter-plane that would change the course of the air war in Europe and the Pacific…

The North American P-51 Mustang.

You might ask how can just one fighter plane change the course of a war?  Simple, the P-51 D Mustang saved thousands of American bomber crews from their deaths.  From 1942 to early 1944, American bomber losses were intolerable because the bombing raids required deeper penetration into Nazi Germany.  In the Pacific air war, vast oceans with few islands also required long-range aircraft.  The Allies had no such fighter plane capable of escorting bombers all the way to their target and back until the P-51 Mustang.

Not only did the Mustang, with its high-performance high-altitude Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, match and exceed those of its enemy fighters, but it was also highly maneuverable and lethal in the hands of a good pilot.  To put it in perspective just how much the P-51 Mustang changed the air war, the survival rate of American bomber crews in Europe prior to its introduction was 1-out-of-3 crewmen killed from 1942 to late 1943.  After the winter of 1943-44 when Mustangs flew escort, the survival rate rose to 67% after 25 missions flown, then 81% by 1945 and the end of the war.  The P-51 Mustangs were quite literally their knights-in-shining-armor for bomber crews, or “Angels on our wings” as many bomber pilots and crewmen would describe.  The Mustang helped turn the tide of war and bring it to a quicker end.

That is the historical impact of the Mustang.  Now I want to describe from a boy’s perspective the emotional impact of this gorgeous mighty bird.

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to capture the moment perfectly how it feels for a boy.  His 1987 film Empire of the Sun starring a young Christian Bale, tells the story of a small British boy fascinated with flight and “the brave daring pilots” of the Japanese Zero fighter.  He gets separated from his parents in Shanghai, China at the outbreak of war with Japan.  Though his captors are brutal to him and his “new” British prison-family, Jim (Christian Bale) worships the Zero pilots and their magnificent planes throughout the first half of the war.

After they are moved late in the war to an airbase to build a runway for the Zero fighters, Jim hears rumors about a new fighter plane called the Mustang, the Cadillac of the Skies.  He eats breaths and reads everything he can get his hands and ears on.  I relate completely to Jim’s obsessions of flying and the machines these brave pilots fought in.

And then one morning while paying his respect and admiration to the Kamikaze pilots and planes, Jim’s whole world and those of the planes and pilots he worshiped so long are turned upside down.  Apologies that this heart-wrenching scene is broken up into two clips – blame YouTube!

It is hard to put into words how the flight, the speed, the beautiful lines of a P-51 looks and feels to a young heart.  There is no other sight or sound in this world like the air being sucked into the intake whistling at a high pitch as it dives toward you, and a second later the reverberation of that V-12 roaring by as it climbs away at over 4,160 feet per minute!  “Go P-51…Cadillac of the Skies!”  As Jim screams, “HORSEPOWER!

Since I was a boy I have always dreamt of flying in this mighty magnificent warbird.  To feel the immense rumble of that Rolls-Royce Merlin engine supercharged and forcing me back into my seat.  That would absolutely be one of the best days of my life!

For a few very lucky months the software company I use to work for had their offices at the end of the runway.  Every two or three weeks the owner of the flight museum and the P-51 D Mustang would take it out for some fly byes.  On one particular occasion he throttled it out on take off.  Just over halfway down the runway he had enough airspeed to lift-off and put this beautiful bird into a 35-40 degree climb with ease, banked it, and then leveled off about 600-700 feet at cruising speed.  It seemed effortless.  I thought to myself, so that’s how it must have looked and sounded back in 1940’s Europe and China.  Imagine if you were Japanese or German what it meant watching the Mustangs fly by and listening to that whistling horsepower.  Imagine how it felt if you were British or American back then:  finally, the beginning of the end.  Wow!  I still get chills up and down my spine every time I hear that distinct engine and watch it zip from one horizon to the other.

Some of man’s creations are works of beauty and timeless.  Today my son no longer has to ask why I have goose-bumps and tears watching famous warbirds; he gets it…just like I did when I was his age.

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