Background. About 2 years ago, my wife Mary Anne got a catalogue in the mail announcing a cruise sponsored by the WWII museum in New Orleans and the Navy SEAL Museum in Ft Pierce, Fla. The cruise started in Amsterdam, and proceeded down the northwest coast of Europe to conclude with several days visiting the beaches of Normandy, to be present on 6 June for the 75th anniversary of the invasion. It wasn’t inexpensive, but she had just received a modest inheritance from her mother and said, “I’m signing up. Do you want to come with me, or not?” Of course I said yes. I’m glad I did.
After returning home, Mary Anne and I both decided to write up our impressions of the trip separately, and compared them afterward. Hers is much more personal than mine, no doubt because she is much more personable than I am! I really like her write up, which she will share with her own network, but I include it at the bottom of this post, for anyone interested in a somewhat different take on what I share.
Summary: The cruise included a cohort of Navy SEAL Museum supporters which included Rick Woolard and his wife Sandy, and Britt Slabinski and his fiancé Christine. I had worked for Rick a number of times during my career and he remains a close friend and mentor. Britt is the most recent Navy SEAL Medal of Honor recipient and one of America’s bonafide heroes from the war in Afghanistan. We made many great new friends not only from the SEAL museum, but also from those with the WW2 museum.
On our way to Normandy from Amsterdam, we visited Rotterdam and learned of the German bombing and occupation. Then with a solemn salute to the horrors and sacrifices of WW1, we visited Ypres and Flanders Fields and the American cemetery there where we had a small remembrance ceremony for the fallen, and placed poppy-crosses on some of the graves. The next day, the beaches and museum of Dunkirk to better appreciate the amazing evacuation of the British army from Europe in 1940.
And then we visited the British and Canadian beaches of the Normandy invasion (Sword and Juno) and were able to visit Pegasus bridge, the site of the most renowned pre-landing mission of D-Day and visited the excellent museum there. I had recently read Stephen Ambrose’s Pegasus Bridge about the glider-borne commandos who landed 50 meters from the bridge, surprising the guards and taking the bridge to prevent German tanks from potentially decimating British forces landing at Sword beach a few hours later, a few miles a way. Finally we arrived in the port of Cherbourg and prepared to visit Omaha and Utah beaches the following days.
- Omaha Beach – we spent only 45 minutes on Omaha Beach which was not nearly enough. We did NOT get to the American monument, the cemetery, or the museum (which I had briefly visited before) due to all the preparations for the President’s speech the next day. But we ran into Lou Bremer, a SEAL with whom I had served 20 years ago who was hosting a group of WW2 veterans with the Greatest Generation Foundation. We would have loved to have stayed longer – the problem with guided tours: they are often on an inflexible set schedule.
We did visit Point du Hoc where the Rangers had scaled the cliffs, which was my second time there. What made this visit particularly gratifying was having read Dog Company – the Boys of Pointe du Hoc, and being with Joe Balkoski who explained a lot to us about what had happened there.
- Utah Beach – The SEALs were represented in force at Utah Beach. Cdr Olin Sell drove up to Cherbourg and retrieved Mary Anne, myself, Rick and Sandy Woolard and brought us to Utah Beach on 6 June, while Britt and Christine attended the President’s speech at Omaha. Britt was on the stage behind the President with the WW2 veterans.
At Utah Beach, we attended a ceremony dedicating a new Navy Memorial statue which should be completed this fall. One of the speakers at the ceremony was SEAL Master Chief Derek “Wally” Walters, former Force Master Chief for all the SEALs and currently Fleet Master Chief for all US Navy forces in Europe and Africa. He spoke about the role of the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs – the fore-runners of Navy SEALs) at Utah. Also speaking was Elisabeth Wright, the granddaughter of Angelos Chatas, one of the NCDUs on Omaha (see his brief bio below), as well as Adm Foggo, the current 4-star Commander of US Naval Forces Europe/Africa. We also spent a great hour and a half at the fabulous Utah beach museum, and attended an after-ceremony party at the home of Val Simon, a retired US Marine Lieutenant Colonel who lives on Utah Beach.
The next day, June 7, Rick and Britt and their ladies were able to break off from the scheduled guided tours and be at Utah Beach for a SEAL Team re-enactment of the NCDU obstacle clearing on 6 June 1944. This event was attended by our current Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer. The SEALs wore replica clothing and equipment used by the NCDUs 75 years ago (there are companies in the UK that make that stuff.) Master Chief Walters had parachuted into Normandy on 5 June with the boys from SEAL Team 10 and Naval Special Warfare Unit 2, and also participated in the re-enactment, showing everyone that old SEAL Master Chiefs still have what it takes!
- The highlight of the trip for me was not just the too-short visits to Omaha and Utah beaches, but being on a relatively small cruise ship (only 500 passengers) with people who were very interested in WW2, who came on this cruise to learn about and honor the sacrifices of the allies during the invasion of Europe. I became friends with many of the great sponsors of the Navy SEAL Museum, spent some time with my old boss and shipmate Rick Woolard and his wife Sandy, got to know Britt Slabinski and Christine better.
The Navy SEAL Museum group included Cheryl McCleskey, the daughter of Alfred Palacios who after losing an arm to enemy fire on Omaha Beach, continued with his mission, and afterward, went on to live to age 97. His incredible story of courage under fire on Omaha beach you can read in an article about him in the Virginian Pilot.
Because it was sponsored by the WW2 museum, the cruise included some of the world’s most highly regarded historians on D-Day and WW2. This was an invaluable addition to the cruise – the opportunity to get to know these historians, hear fascinating presentations from them every evening, and to get to know them at meals and on the tours.
- The cruise also included 17 WW2 veterans, 7 of whom had participated in the Normandy invasion. One of the many great presentations on the cruise was a panel discussion in which each of the 7 shared a story or two from their experience in Normandy and WW2, and then took questions. These nonagenarians (and one centenarian) were solid – and shared incredible stories and perspectives. What a great evening that was. The session was recorded, and I’m waiting for the WW2 museum to give us a link to that so that I can watch it again and share it.
Some things I learned about the D-Day invasion that surprised me:
- The Missing. I recall seeing somewhere that more Americans were missing at the end of 6 June than were known casualties. A large number of the missing had drowned, either on the invasion beach (mostly Omaha) or parachutists who landed in fields that the Germans, unknown to the Allies, had flooded with 6-10 feet of water. Others were simply blown to bits when artillery shells scored direct hits on the landing craft.
- Size of the invasion area. I had no idea the invasion area was so large. The Normandy invasion beaches ran east and west, nearly 50 miles from the east end of Sword beach to the west end of Utah beach. The American, British, and Canadien forces landed in five discrete sectors each 3 – 5 miles wide.
- Preparations in the UK. All of the reading I did emphasized the extent and intensity of the training and rehearsals in the UK prior to the invasion. For most, it lasted 6-9 months. For some it lasted 2 years. All of this with an intense focus on security – the allies knew that the success of the invasion completely depended on surprise. The Germans knew we were coming – they just didn’t know when and where.
- Frogmen. The “frogmen” didn’t swim in – they essentially walked in thru shallow water, carrying their explosives, wearing boots, since the landing was scheduled for low tide and most of the obstacles were on the exposed beach. In the open as they were, (see the picture above) they were easy targets for German snipers and machine gunners. Those on Omaha Beach suffered over 50% casualties – much less on Utah Beach. The difference is due in large part to poorly coordinated pre-invasion bombing to destroy or disable German defenses on the beach.
- Role of the Navy: German soldiers who looked seaward on June 6th said that it appeared that the entire ocean was filled with ships and boats, from one end of the horizon to the other. Over five thousand craft were involved in the invasion – everything from cruisers and battleships to landing craft. Also when some of the destroyer COs saw our troops being decimated on Omaha Beach, they violated orders and came in as close as they could, in some cases even scraping the bottom, to provide near point blank naval gunfire onto German fortifications on the beach. They Army took the brunt of the German response, but the Navy played a key role, not only in getting the troops and equipment ashore, but also in providing gunfire support, especially after radio communications with the troops ashore were finally established.
- Fratricide – The allies mistakenly killed hundreds if not thousands of their own troops. Fratricide is always a problem in war, especially in an operation of this magnitude and scope, but I was shocked at the level. In one operation, I read that the Canadians soldiers marked their own positions with their standard yellow smoke. They were unaware that RAF bombers were used to having ground forces mark targets with yellow smoke. So they bombed away – and the Canadians frantically threw more yellow smoke, and of course, the RAF continued to bomb. This tragic mis-cue cost hundreds of Canadian lives.
- Gliders and parachutists – were the means by which the allies inserted troops behind the beaches to interrupt and intercept German counter-attacks against the landings. To succeed, such tactics require precision execution and a lot of luck. The allies didn’t have much of either on the night of 5-6 June, with hundreds of gliders, and over 13 thousand paratroopers, going in against fairly robust German air defenses. A large percentage of gliders and parachutists landed great distances from their assigned areas, a significant number of gliders crashed killing all aboard, and great numbers of parachutists did not survive the jump, having drowned in the channel or flooded fields, died of injuries landing, or from Germans, or other misfortunes.
- Allied and German mistakes, and the role of luck – In spite of the best military minds planning and rehearsing for a year or more, the “fog of war” will always be a factor, and an operation of this scope and magnitude will have its share of coordination failures and fatal mistakes. Reading about D-Day, it almost seemed that success would come to the side that made the fewest and least costly screw-ups and mis-calculations.
- Post D-Day violence and killing. Operation Overlord (the D-day invasion) was one of the most successful gambles in military history. But compared to the violence and killing that took place afterward, it was relatively benign. Once the Germans realized that Normandy was THE invasion, and gave it their attention and priority, the fighting became very intense. I had never heard of the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, or Operation Cobra which took place just a few miles behind the beachhead at Normandy two months after the landing. The fighting was brutal and there were huge numbers of casualties on both sides.
A month later and throughout the fall, the fighting intensified in the Hurtgen Forrest, Ardennes, Bastogne, the Bulge – allied and German forces were engaged in intense combat for weeks at a time resulting in incredible amounts of killing and suffering on both sides. As the war continued, the fighting and killing continued to escalate. Historian Joe Balkoski shared with us that the 29th Infantry Division – one of the two US divisions to land at Omaha beach in Normandy, actually had more casualties in April of 1945 just before VE day, than it did in June of 1944.
- How we succeeded at Normandy: My rough evaluation of how the allies succeeded:
- Planning: Thorough planning and rehearsals reduced the impact of bad luck and inevitable coordination failures;
- Strategic Surprise: The allies were able to achieve surprise at Normandy. The German High Command expected a landing, but didn’t know when or where.
- Air Superiority: Allied unchallenged air superiority made it extremely difficult for German forces to move during the day;
- Overwhelming Resources: Once they established a beachhead at Normandy, the allies overwhelmed the Germans with soldiers, weapons, ordnance, transport, and all supplies necessary to successfully wage war.
- Courage and initiative: The amazing initiative and courage of our men in the air and on the ground, even though most were in combat for the first time. They believed in what they were doing.
- The Eastern Front: Germany still had the majority of its forces on the Eastern front fighting the Russians. One of our historian lecturers made the strong point that our fight in Normandy and the Western Front would have been exponentially more difficult if the Russians weren’t giving the Nazis such a hard time on the Eastern Front.
Books I read to prep for my trip – w links to my reviews of them:
- The Longest Day, by Cornelius Ryan
- D-Day, by Stephen Ambrose
- D-Day through German Eyes, by Holger Eckhertz
- Pegasus Bridge, by Stephen Ambrose
- Beyond Band of Brothers, by Maj Dick Winters
- Dog Company – the boys of Point du Hoc, by Patrick O’Donnell
- The Guns at Last Light, by Rick Atkinson
- (next to read) Omaha Beach by Joe Balkoski (one of the great historians on the cruise)
THE STORY OF AN AMERICAN FROGMAN AT UTAH BEACH – from a speech given at a ceremony at Utah Beach on June 6, 2018 by LtCol Valerie Simon USMC (ret) who currently lives at Utah Beach. Val is President of the Association Frogmen d’Utah Beach, dedicated to preserving the memory of the Americans who led the way in opening the door to the liberation of France. She was a driving force in organizing the ceremony we attended at Utah beach this year.
Petty Officer First Class Angelos Chatas, was one of the first Americans to come ashore at Utah Beach in the early dawn of 6 June 1944. Assigned to a Navy Combat Demolition Unit which was one of several “gap units,” created especially for this mission, his team’s mission was to destroy obstacles on a 50 meter wide lane of the beach, from low tide to the beach wall, to permit landing craft to deliver the infantry onto the beach to achieve their assigned objectives ashore. Under heavy bombardment by the German 88 MM cannons*, Petty Officer Angelos and his team accomplished their mission without any loss of life. Altogether 400 men of the beach clearance task force (which included Army engineers as NCDU) cleared the beach of the un-mined obstacles in about an hour with a total of 6 killed (2 NCDU) and 11 wounded. It took about a week after D-Day to clear all the obstacles that were on the Utah landing beach.
As a result the efforts of the NCDUs and others in the task force, the 8th and 22nd Infantry regiments of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division were able to land before noon on D-Day, suffering only 12 fatalities and 106 injured. Eventually the entire 4th Division with 20,000 troops and 1700 vehicles landed and crossed Utah Beach by the end of 6 June.
After the war, Petty Officer Chatas became a Petroleum engineer in Texas and raised a family. On the 50th Anniversary of D-Day he was awarded the Order of National Merit by French President Francois Mitterand and on the 65th anniversary was made an honorary citizen of Saint Marie du Mont, the first French village liberated after the war. Angelos returned to Utah beach many times over his lifetime and made many friends there, finally passing away in 2009.
*Then-1st Lt Dick Winter was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for leading an attack that took out a four-gun battery of 105 howitzers that was taking those landing on Utah Beach under fire. By disabling that battery, Winters and his airborne troops certainly saved many lives. Dick Winters was the platoon commander of Easy Company, of Band of Brothers fame, and his story is in his book Beyond Band of Brothers. I wonder if the “88 mm cannons” referred to in the Chatas bio above, may indeed have been those 105s.
Well, that was a rather long post, but it was an amazing trip and it made quite an impression on me. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for hanging in there! Now for a much more personal and heart-felt description of the same trip….
My wife Mary Anne’s description of our trip to Europe and the Normandy Beaches May 27 – June 9, 2019:
This trip has been in the making since August 2017 when I was with Bob in Los Angeles. He was in a conference and I was in the hotel, reading and relaxing. I’d brought my mail with me from Imperial Beach. I planned on relaxing at the pool, but stayed in the room because it was August in L.A…….very hot and humid. This gave me time to read our mail. One of the pieces of mail was an impressive catalogue from the World War 11 Museum and the SEAL Museum. ( The SEAL Museum is located Fort Piece, Florida. It’s the original training area for the forerunner of the Navy SEALS.)
The catalogue described a luxury cruise from Amsterdam to Southampton. England. There would be stops at ports close to all of the D-Day beaches, with guided tours of these beaches, as well as indepth discussions with historians who were onboard with us. Regent Seven Seas is a smaller cruise line, with less than 500 people (and 500 staff to tend to all our needs!). It looked luxurious.
I thought to myself…..I need to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity; the 75thAnniversary of the D-Day landings. So, I called right then and there and booked our room. I was surprised that the staff at the WWII Museum said there were only 3 or 4 rooms available since I called as soon as I received the catalogue……and the cruise was still two years away!
There was allot I needed to do; book airline flights, rooms before and after the cruise, shuttles from airports to hotels to the cruise…..as well as check and recheck that we had all the necessary papers and all that goes with overseas travel. I needed those two years to get organized!
So, I also hoped all would go as planned!
The two years flew by and we were on the plane to Amsterdam on the 27thof May. Two great days in Amsterdam at the Marriott near to the cruise terminal. We took a canal cruise through Amsterdam and marveled at the beautiful old buildings and meandering canals. I’d forgotten how great it was to be in a city that had some ‘age’ to it. California is so new, that it lacks that quality.
On day three, we went to the terminal and I had mentioned to Bob that I’d wondered if we would see anyone we knew …..or was it just us two who would have to meet and make friends with strangers. With that, I turned to the line that we were in and saw….Rick and Sandy Woolard! Bob’s former C.O. at SEAL Team 2, and good friend to boot. They had served together at other commands and we’ve known each other for over 39 years! What we didn’t know at the time was the Navy SEAL Museum had their own contingent of supporters, their own historian and a few SEALs who had arranged for this tour, and we never knew about this.
Anyway, we were included in this group for the whole cruise and it was wonderful to sit with them at dinner everynight and share stories. One of the SEALS was Medal of Honor recipient, Britt Slavinski, who had received this honor in May 2019 for his heroism at Roberts’ Ridge in Afghanistan. What an impressive guy and a credit to the US Navy. He came with his wife, Christine. She was a delight. There were also a large contingent of supporters, civilians who believe in the work and care deeply for this group of military members. All in all, there were about 24 people that we could relax with and talk with and drink wine with during those ten days.
Our room was, in a word, luxurious! Champagne and munchies greeted us. The room had a walk-in closet for our clothes, and for a cruise ship, a bathroom to die for! We then had the mandatory safety drill and after that, we went to the welcome party on the pool deck. The Victory Girls, a trio of singers, who knew all the ‘oldies from the 40’s’ sang and flirted with the veterans (WWII vintage) who were there. Those guys were obviously delighted with the attention.
We mingled with some other guests and then saw Rick with the SEAL group and spent time with them. They had invited a WWII historian, joe Balkoski, who had written 8 books about the Utah and Omaha landings, and who was just so approachable and fun to talk with…..we had an immediate connection since he had been born in Brooklyn and was raised Catholic, like me. There are lots of stories that come from those two groups! I liked him because not only could he relate to us stories about the war but he was also able emotionally connect with these WWII veterans and tell about their experiences with ‘heart’.
I did not go on the first tour through Rotterdam because I needed some ‘me time’ and I don’t think I missed too much. So, here’s a rundown of what we saw and I’ll follow with my impressions.
Second day we went to Flanders Field and visited the cemetery where so many men (American, British, Canadian) were buried after WWI. After the cemeteries, we toured the museum in Ypres. It’s a great, yet distressing, view of the incredible suffering by the soldiers and the agony of life in the trenches. Great tour guide, who was ‘easy on the eyes’ . A tall, good looking British rugby player with a PhD in military history, so he had my attention! And he knew his history!
Our next day was shorter, but we did go to the site of the Dunkirk retreat where 200,000 or so British soldiers were evacuated from the shores of France. The evacuation was aided by civilian boats that picked up the troops and brought them out to the navy ships for safe passage back to Britain. As our guide said (yes, the handsome rugby player) that the Brits know how to take their defeats and celebrate them!
Next day, and the next tour that we took, was to the site of Pegasus Bridge. This was close to Gold and Sword and Juno beaches, which were landing sites for the British and Canadian forces. The museum was at the site of the remains of the bridge.
Omaha beach, the site of the American landings was our next tour. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to totally take in the enormity of the task at hand for the Americans in 1944. I think that this and Utah should be revisited, along with the museums in Caen and Bayeaux.
Thanks to Facebook, I was able to connect with one of our SEAL friends (we were stationed in Stuttgart and Olin Sell was an Ensign at the time). He is now a CDR and married with four children and stationed in Rota, Spain. He mentioned that he would be on Utah beach during the remembrance ceremonies and he graciously picked us up at the ship (along with Rick and Sandy Woolard) and he gave us a personal tour of the beach, the museum and the dedication ceremony of the Lone Sailor monument that will be near the site of the NCDU monument. What a day!
I took the next day off. Stayed on the ship and relaxed. Swim and hot tub and lunch with wine! I needed that!
We crossed the English Channel that night, after a farewell dinner with our group. Let me tell you, the food and drink were over the top and that the people we were with made it so much more meaningful.
Both Bob and I did do allot of reading prior to the trip, and went to most of the evening lectures by various WWII historians and several D-Day veterans. This background gave me a better understanding of the size and scope of WW2 and how D-Day was so important in terms of turning the tide of the war, preventing Hitler from conquering Europe. What remains with me now is a somber understanding of the sacrifice made by these young men (and women) who gave their all.
How can one be 18 or 19 and march into hell? Many of those who landed on the beaches knew they were most likely going to die. How did they do this? I am awed and humbled by their sacrifice. I am also keeping in mind that their parents, who let them leave home, were patriots. If not for these guys and their families, we would not be living such an easy life here in the USA now. They were able to improvise and take control when all around them was in chaos. Would this happen today? Would we have those who would fight to the death for freedom and a belief in a way of life that is ours? God bless these men and we need to hold them in our hearts forever.
It was an emotional trip, and I am very grateful that I was able to do this with Bob. Many of our table-mates on the cruise had parents or grandparents who were in this war and we talked about them and honored them. I thought of my father, who was a Marine in the Pacific and how he never talked of his time in the Phillipines. What I do know is when he came home, he stayed in his room at his father’s home for months and finally came out when my mother (they were dating) persuaded him to do so.
I thought of my uncle, an Army parachute packer who was at the liberation of Paris and got so drunk that when he came back to the U.S. , he never took another drink in his life.
I thought of my uncle Bill, who was a Army Air Corps pilot who crashed into the English Channel on 21 January 1945. My grandfather had his body returned to the U.S. to be buried in the family plot in Holy Cross Cemetery.
How do we thank and honor these men? We Remember.