Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Wound My Heart With Monotonous Languor

That line above is from Verlaine: The long sobs of autumn's violins wound my heart with a monotonous languor. And, although you may not know that line if you are not a devotee of French symbolist poetry, you may know it from the movie about the Normandy Invasion, The Longest Day. The reading of the second line (wound my heart with a monotonous languor) on BBC radio signaled to the French Resistance that the allied invasion would occur within hours. With that, the French set about destroying rail lines, communications, and other German targets to pave the way for liberation.

On this anniversary of D-Day, that climactic day of World War II, I wanted to share that little bit of poetry, but also a few local stories. If you are interested and are suitable equipped, you may listen to original re-broadcast of NBC newscasts from that day on XM, beginning at 12:41 a.m. Eastern on Channel 4.

Mark Stevenson and General Roosevelt
I've known a few D-Day vets through the years. When I was a kid, a friend of my Dad's named Joe Cummings from Waco, a red-haired firecracker of a guy shared his stories about landing in the first wave at Omaha Beach with a unit of combat engineers from the Big Red One. There was also another old friend of my father's who took the time to share his stories, a guy I've mentioned before, Marcus O. Stevenson of Dallas.

On D-Day, Stevenson was aide to Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the assistant division commander for the 4th Infantry Division -- that's a picture of them together above. They landed in the first wave that morning at Utah Beach. Years later, when I asked him about what I thought going in that day, Stevenson -- by D-Day was already a veteran of landings in North Africa and Sicily -- was succinct in his answer. "I thought we were going to die."

But they didn't. Roosevelt was the only general to land in the first wave on D-Day. When the general learned that the landing craft had drifted more than a mile south of their objective, he made the decision that typifies the American power of improvisation. "We’ll start the war from right here," he said. And young Lt. Stevenson, who Ernest Hemingway would describe later in the Normandy campaign as looking like a sheriff out of the Old West with his handlebar mustache, was right there by his side as history was made.

With artillery landing close by, Roosevelt made his way around the beach wearing a knit cap rather than a helmet and using a cane rather than a rifle. He got the men of the 4th moving inland to their objectives and worked as a self-appointed traffic cop, untangling traffic jams of men and material.

General Raymond O. "Tubby" Barton, the commander of 4th Division, later remembered meeting Roosevelt on the beach that morning: "While I was mentally framing [orders], Ted Roosevelt came up. He had landed with the first wave, had put my troops across the beach, and had a perfect picture (just as Roosevelt had earlier promised if allowed to go ashore with the first wave) of the entire situation. I loved Ted. When I finally agreed to his landing with the first wave, I felt sure he would be killed. When I had bade him goodbye, I never expected to see him alive. You can imagine then the emotion with which I greeted him when he came out to meet me [near La Grande Dune]. He was bursting with information."

Roosevelt and Stevenson made their way inland with the rest of the 4th and eventually made contact with paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, commanded by another former Roosevelt aide, Gen. Matthew Ridgway. After their first meeting, Roosevelt remarked that Stevenson and Ridgway had a lot of good qualities, much like Stevenson. "Keep it up, and maybe you can be a general one day, too," he said, slapping him on the back.

For his courage and leadership on D-Day, Roosevelt would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on September 28, 1944. However, he didn't live to see the award. He died of a heart attack on July 12, 1944, while commanding troops in the field, and he's buried with many of his men at the Colleville-sur-Mer Cemetery in Normandy. Roosevelt was 56 years old on D-Day. He had been seriously wounded in the First World War and was already in poor health. He could have stayed home and let men like Mark Stevenson fight it. But he didn't.

The RAF Pilots of Kaufman
The British, French, Canadians, Russians and pretty much everyone else in the world like to point out -- correctly I might add -- that the Americans didn't beat the Germans alone. So I would like to tell another local story to remind us of that.

I discovered Monday that the RAF had a training base in Terrell, southeast of Dallas, thanks to a documentary on KERA. During World War II, almost 2,000 RAF pilots trained to fly there and almost a third of those men went on to perish in the skies over Europe and Asia.

And those young men from England are still remembered by the people of Kaufman County. Many who trained have returned over the years to visit and one cadet, Henry C. Madgwick, returned, became a citizen and served as Mayor of Terrell in the 1990s. Even today, the graves of 18 RAF pilots are tended by locals at Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery with a monument there inscribed with the words of Rupert Brooke: Some corner of a foreign field that is forever England. For those who are interested in finding out more, a book on this subject is available through UNT Press.

To the men and women of the French Resistance, to Joe Cummings and the men of the 1st Infantry, to General Roosevelt and Lt. Stevenson and the men of the 4th Division, to the RAF pilots who trained in Terrell and the people of Kaufman County who supported them, to all of those people who have passed into history and those who are still with us, thank you for the sacrifices you made and the things you achieved.

2 comments:

All Blog Spots said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Stash Dauber said...

when i was in the air force, stationed in abilene, my next door neighbor's father-in-law was an ex-paratrooper who jumped into sicily and normandy with the 82d airborne. we took him to see the static display c-47 on base the same day the dimbulbs that ran the aviation museum there were sanding off the original d-day stripes to paint the aircraft in vietnam-era camouflage. duh.

a few years later, when i was attending an air force school in montgomery, alabama, i paid a visit to hank williams the elder's grave there. he and his wife are buried next to all the ww2 british and french aviators who were killed in training accidents at maxwell field.