My Great Day in Normandy
A Special Journey with Two World War II Veterans
Editor’s Note: In June 2011, Wesley Strackbein journeyed with Doug Phillips and a team to Normandy, France for A Final Farewell, a 3-day event sponsored by Vision Forum Ministries to honor Normandy’s last living heroes. Wesley would serve as producer of the 7-part film series, D-Day and the Providence of God, as well as the documentary, A Final Farewell.
On June 6, 2011 — one year ago today — I was blessed with one of the most joy-filled days of my life as I took two veterans of the Normandy invasion back to the beaches of their youth for a last goodbye. Sixty-seven years before, the greatest amphibious invasion in recorded history commenced there on D-Day against an entrenched Nazi foe, and the men I walked with on the anniversary of the Allies’ historic landing hazarded their lives as part of this assault.
Our journey on June 6 took us to Utah Beach, where veterans Donald Carter and Russell Pogue made their stand as young soldiers.
Mr. Pogue, who took part in nine campaigns during World War II, helped lead a secret mission in the pre-dawn hours on D-Day before the main invasion force landed. At 3am on June 6, Pogue joined a small, elite demolition crew who dove underwater off Utah Beach to detonate explosives. Their goal was to destroy huge concrete barriers placed there by the Nazis for the purpose of ripping the bottoms of approaching ships and landing craft. Pogue’s mission proved to be a success.
Mr. Carter, who was a replacement soldier with the 4th Infantry Division, landed at Utah Beach on D+2, following the initial invasion. Within fifteen minutes of arriving on the shore, he was fired upon by the Nazis and would go on to help the Allies take the Port of Cherbourg in a hard-fought battle and participate in the pivotal St. Lo Breakthrough.
During one excursion to Utah Beach, we trekked through Normandy’s hedgerows in two WWII jeeps, accompanied by a vintage motorcycle. The trip was exhilarating, as we meandered through the back country near St. Mere Eglise and St. Marie du-Mont on small, mostly unpaved roads. Several lanes we ventured down featured eight-foot tall hedgerows on both sides that were just wide enough for our jeeps to pass through. The landscapes we traversed were picturesque and beautiful.
Our guides for a portion of the day were a band of Dutch men and their families who knew the unmarked roads of Normandy as if they had spent their whole lives there. In point of fact, this contingent of Dutch has journeyed with their WWII gear and vehicles from the Netherlands to Normandy for roughly fifteen years, and their association in Holland helped raise a significant portion of the funds used to erect the Easy Company monument at Brecourt Manor where Dick Winters famously took four guns on D-Day. We were blessed to see Brecourt Manor, as well as Colonel Sink’s headquarters, as part of our back-country excursion in Normandy.
Our first jaunt to Utah Beach was with Russell Pogue, and to get to the landing shore, we had to walk through a marsh. Our feet got wet, but Mr. Pogue showed real perseverance, and we made it to the beach in good stead where he shared his war experiences with his distinct Mississippi flair. Mr. Pogue’s first words on seeing the beach were a bit unexpected. “It’s a beautiful place,” he said with a warm smile. His recollections then grew more sober, as he recalled the heavy loss of life he personally witnessed. “It don’t take long to die,” he remarked that day, even as he emphasized his hope in Christ.
Our second jaunt to Utah Beach was with Donald Carter, whose wife Mary joined us for the outing. We entered the newly-expanded Utah Beach Museum complex where Sen. John Kerry was giving an address as part of a special reopening ceremony for the museum. At the conclusion of the formalities, we made our way to the beach nearby where Mr. Carter related many detailed recollections from the war. In a touching demonstration of honor, more than a dozen people not with our group gathered around him, attentively listening to him speak. Many of them had their picture taken with Mr. Carter and got his autograph. He had a delighted twinkle in his eye as he interacted with these grateful admirers.
God gave me a gift on June 6 — a gift I will always cherish. I was blessed to journey with veterans of D-Day to the beaches where they fought and sacrificed for our freedom. I stood with these men as they recounted their stories on the anniversary of the conflict that was defining for them as well as for the outcome of the war. It was a profoundly rewarding experience I will never forget.
While there are many lessons I gleaned from their testimony, one simple truth stands out about the rest: When tyranny threatened the wellbeing of civilization, these men rose to meet the enemy head on. They did their duty at the critical hour. My hope is to one day impart this lesson to my children and grandchildren. They will not personally know the veterans of the Second World War, as I have. Yet as great new evils rise in the world, I pray that this lesson gleaned during my day in Normandy will spur them on to brave action.