Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy: June 6th, 1944. In memory, it has become one of the defining images of the World War II: American GIs wading ashore against machine gun fire.
Some years back I read a book entitled The Bedford Boys, which chronicled the experience of a group of men from the small town of Bedford, VA -- population around 2,000. The town's National Guard unit had been incorporated into the army for the war, and as a result 34 men from Bedford were in the first wave of soldiers to land on the stretch of French coast planners had designated "Omaha Beach". Omaha was the most heavily defended of the landing beaches, and of the 34 men Bedford men who went ashore, 19 died in the first hours of D-Day.
The book provided a detailed account of the experiences of those men, dead and survivors. One of the astounding things reading that kind of detailed history is the way in which a seemingly impossible task like storming a beach under machine gun fire could work. Or not.
Given the sheer number of men storming the beaches, the difficult odds of an amphibious attack on a strongly defended position played out one person at a time in the stories told. Some seemed simple and predictable: Killed by machine gun fire while trying to wade ashore. But then would come the story of someone who managed to wade ashore despite bullets hitting on every side, approach a bunker, thrown a grenade in, clear the bunker, and thus make is safely off the beach.
This, somehow, is deeply fascinating to me. There is a certain tendency to think in probabilities. On a flat beach, with defenders on the cliffs above raking the landing area with bullets and artillery, the normal thing is to be killed or wounded. We turn "normal" into "everyone". And yet, for some, the extraordinary is what happened. Some managed to run through a kill zone untouched. Some saw the shell land right before them only to find that it was a dud that did not explode. And these happening are not small flukes with no impact on history. It is these flukes who made it close to the emplacements, cleared them of attackers, and made it possible for others to land more safely. The story of 20,000 men landing on a beach is not of each man experiencing the average, but of some experiencing the exceedingly unlikely.