The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

The Last Word – Band of Brothers

The statue of Lieutenant “Dick” Winters of “Band of Brothers” fame. (Photo: M Fisk)

Alexandria, VA – We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;

                                          Henry V, Act IV Scene iii,

William Shakespeare


The 2024 Paris Olympics are attracting the masses to observe a unique Olympic Games. The City of Lights is scurrying to complete repairs, renovate and clean buildings and parks, and make “smart” public transportation available to accommodate the throngs of visitors for the world’s #1 tourist destination by adding public announcements in a variety of languages.

Paris is known for its beauty, architecture, art, fashion, and cuisine. Parisians tend to get a bad rap for their abruptness or seemingly curt attitude. There is, however, a softening occurring in the culture. France will experience a most significant tourist season this year, an unusually longer one due to the Olympics and the reopening and rededication of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

But even the haughty aura of Paris is being overtaken by more solemn air due to its neighboring region to the west – Normandy – and the events that occurred some three generations ago during World War II.

What is traditionally a more laid-back, passive region due to its agricultural traditions, the fields of Normandy are busier than usual this year. The reason is simple. This June 6 marks the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe against the Nazi occupation and the beginning of the long drive to end the war in Europe.

By the time you read this, the pastoral Norman roads will be crowded with cars, buses, “caravans” (RVs), and reconditioned military vehicles from that era. Military re-enactors will be in WW II uniforms. Local citizens will be in period dress everywhere. Nearly every town throughout the region is hosting parades, concerts, military reviews, dances, and commemorative ceremonies to mark the day known as “D-Day.”

The Royal Navy veteran we met visiting Normandy near the anniversary of the D-Day landings. We never got his name but he was happy to have met two U.S. Navy vets — almost as happy and honored as we were to meet this old Jack Tar. (Photo: M Fisk)

After moving here, I began my retirement gig of conducting tours of Normandy and have had the blessing of taking visitors to see a variety of sights to experience the chateaus, the churches and cathedrals, museums, and the architecture, and wander the villages and hamlets of this beautiful and historic region. But the beaches named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword have become so noteworthy that you don’t need to know the names of the towns. Type “Omaha Beach” and your GPS will take you to Vierville-sur-Mer.

Over the past several months, several of my Naval Academy classmates and families have made the trek to the spot where freedom came ashore on that fateful night when upwards of 130,000 soldiers and some 195,000 sailors, Coast Guard, and merchant seamen in over 7,000 ships and landing craft executed the largest amphibious landing in history.

Walking the beaches and villages where military personnel representing 13 nations walked nearly a century ago is an awe-filled, humbling experience. After reading accounts of D-Day, many visitors are struck by the sheer volume of troops, landing craft, and vehicles trying to squeeze into landing sites along a mere 50 miles of rugged mined and booby-trapped coastline, defended by entrenched and heavily armed German troops and fortifications.

My classmates Lance and Jack (Naval Aviators) had read the history and studied Operation Overlord, but to see it up close and personal is a profound experience. Visiting the very field where Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters led his platoon of “E” (“Easy”) Company 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division on June 6, 1944, to knock out German guns aimed at our troops on the beach made drab history texts come alive.

Seeing the mannequin and parachute of Private John Steele hanging from the church steeple in the village of Sainte-Mère-Église made his ordeal of hanging there until captured by German soldiers seem all too real to Lance.

Standing on the cliffs where 225 soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion attempted to climb its 100-foot height under withering German fire was terrifying for Jack to imagine. At the end of two days of fighting, only 90 Rangers were still standing.

Over on the British end of the beaches stands Pegasus Bridge, where at 0:15 the night of June 6, British Horsa gliders of the 6th Parachute Division landed in darkness within 50 yards of the bridge and defeated its German defenders within 10 minutes, holding the vital position until relieved by British troops landing at Sword Beach some eight hours later.

All across Normandy, hundreds of markers, statues, plaques, monuments, and cemeteries commemorate the courage and sacrifice of the Allied troops to free France from occupation. Seeing them all would be nearly impossible without unlimited time and resources. There are 12 cemeteries given by the people of France to the United States, managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission in France. Seven are for the dead of WW II.

As we walked through these sites, past the markers, through the museums and the cemeteries, there were many, many groups touring. Many were school groups of teenagers on field trips. But what was remarkable was that despite their youthful exuberance, a hush and solemnity fell across their ranks when they entered these places. Experiencing a part of their ancestors’ pasts and the sacrifices of all these soldiers, sailors, airmen, and coast guardsmen from France and all the other Allied countries made a visible impression on them.

The cliffs at Pointe du Hoc where the 2nd Rangers made their mark on history. (Photo: M Fisk)

The people of Normandy and France at large have dedicated a portion of their countryside to the people who participated in D-Day, young people much like them, who were willing to cross oceans and sacrifice their futures – their human treasure – for a people and country they didn’t even know.

Inside the church in Sainte-Mère-Église, Lance and I walked along the walls and read the inscriptions. Standing to one side was an old gentleman in a blue blazer, a young man in his 40s assisting him as he walked with a cane. I noticed a row of medals hanging from his Blazer pocket, so we approached and inquired about his medals. We chatted for a few minutes and learned that this man served on a Royal Navy (British) destroyer, supporting American soldiers landing on D-Day. This was his first and probably only trip back to France since that day. We thanked him—not for his service, as is routine today—but for his time and the story he told us.

Their ranks are thinning now, and many of their stories lost. But meeting him—one of the men who were there that day—is something we will carry for the rest of our lives. He had made history and made it real.

This column has been updated to correct a typo. The piece originally said Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters led his platoon of “E” (“Easy”) Company 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Winters led the 506th. 

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