June 6, 2019 – 75th Anniversary, D-Day
This day was the sole reason for all of the musicians attending this service trip. My writing today is by far the longest and most detailed. It is important to me to preserve the memories, inscriptions, and history that we absorbed today. Much of the writings on the memorials and information tablets are difficult to take in. Some of these details are especially sobering, and may bring up emotions as you read (I know they brought up emotions in me as I re-read them and typed them out for you).
Pointe du Hoc
Our tour guide, Patrick, worked it out so that we could make our first beach stop at Pointe du Hoc. This was one of the most eerie places that I have ever visited. Walking around, we saw huge craters in the ground that were carved into the earth by bombs and explosions decades ago. They are covered in grass today. Looking through all of the fortifications that were left since WWII, we shuddered as we thought of Nazi soldiers hiding inside. We looked across to the horizon and noted that today was extremely peaceful, warm, and calm. It almost made me feel guilty to view such a beautiful sight at a place that was filled with pure carnage 75 years ago to the day.
We were able to visit the US Army Ranger Memorial. The following text was taken from informative plaques as we visited Pointe du Hoc: In 1943, Allied commanders began the detailed preparations needed to organize, transport, land, and support the hundreds of thousands of troops who would come ashore in Normandy. Allied assault units exhaustively practiced combat operations while logisticians stockpiled weapons, supplies, and equipment. US Army Rangers undertook particularly demanding training exercises in preparation for their crucial role in the invasion. The 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions took part in the Normandy landings. The plan called for 3 companies from the 2nd battalion to assault the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. If this initial attack succeeded, additional Rangers from the 2nd and 5th Battalions would join them as reinforcements. If they did not receive a signal indicating success by 0700, these reinforcements would head to Omaha Beach instead and attack Pointe du Hoc by land. US Army Ranger units sustained heavy losses during the Normandy Landings. Of 225 Rangers that left the ships in the first wave to attack Pointe du Hoc, only 90 men were still able to bear arms when the relief force arrived on the morning of June 8. In the larger battle, the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions taken together suffered 96 killed, 183 wounded, and 32 missing during the battles for Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach. Of the 350,000 Allied personnel who took part in the D-Day Invasion, including the 156,000 troops who landed on Normandy’s beaches, approximately 9,000 were casualties on June 6. By the end of the campaign for Normandy, the Allies suffered more than 200,000 casualties, including over 50,000 killed. The Normandy American Cemetery holds the remains of 9,387 Americans and memorializes 1,557 on the Walls of the Missing.
After we visited Pointe du Hoc, we quietly boarded the bus and headed for Omaha Beach. There were hundreds of old army jeeps driving around with military re-enactors walking around. Many of them were drinking lemonade and eating ice cream before the event took place, which initially struck us as strange. We certainly got used to seeing them around! There were hundreds of them, driving their vehicles, walking around, and in duck boats driving in and out of the ocean. Getting off of the bus and approaching the 29th Infantry Division Memorial (Colonel Gabriel’s division), we were hit with how “real” this all started to feel. Again, looking at the beautiful ocean on this calm day just seemed wrong, compared to what he witnessed in 1944. We visited the memorial, which bears the inscription, “29, Let’s Go! From North and South in our land we came that freedom might prevail. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, in the great allied amphibious assault, the 29th Infantry Division stormed ashore on Omaha Beach to win a beachhead. Our fallen lie among you, they gave the last full measure of their devotion. Sleep comrades, forever young. We salute you. Remember us.”
National Guard Memorial
I want to write the inscriptions of the National Guard Memorial, as they are quite moving. The photos of the memorial are below.
“For our comrades in arms who have fallen, may be the blessing of the almighty God descend upon this spot and remain forever a chaplain. 29th Infantry Division, June 1944”
“Thousands of citizen soldiers of the National Guard stormed ashore on these beaches on 6 June,1944, as part of the Army of the United States. They fought valiantly and with great distinction in all the ensuing battles and campaigns of World War II. More than a quarter-century earlier, in World War I, their fathers shed blood in Europe in the cause of freedom. To all of them, and to the principles for which they fought, this moment is dedicated.”
“In the greatest war in history, citizen-soldiers of the National Guard fought in every action in which the United States Army engaged, compiling brilliant combat records in every corner of the world. Some 300,000 National Guardsmen were mobilized in 1940-41 as America made ready for a conflict that was to engulf much of the civilized world. National Guardsmen took part in 34 major campaigns and seven assault landings including the historic assault which took place on the beaches below this site. On June 6, 1944, thousands became casualties within view of this monument, many of them cut down by fire from the battered enemy pillbox upon which this memorial stands.”
A couple of friends and I walked along the beach wall after we sat and enjoyed our boxed lunch that was prepared for us. We were commenting on how incredibly different this day felt compared to the horrific stories that we’ve been told on this trip. We pictured Colonel Gabriel, 18 years old, jumping off of a boat, ready to give his life for our country. It all then felt very heavy, and we had to prepare for his wreath laying ceremony, parade, and our concert. While we waited, we saw the opening ceremony at the American Cemetery off in the distance, about 2 miles along the beach from us. We saw many planes flying through the sky, some letting out red/white/blue colors as they flew over the cemetery. Colonel Gabriel was sitting in his wheelchair, listening to the mayor of the town (Vierville-sur-Mer) give speeches and thank all of us for being there to commemorate this event. The Colonel then rose from his chair, was given a wreath of flowers with a ribbon that said “D-Day Memorial Wind Band”, and placed it at the base of the memorial. He then stared at the words on the stone- we all knew exactly what he was thinking, and who he was thinking of. Then, a Florida State University trumpeter played “Taps”. His salute was a moment that I will never forget for the rest of my life. In the moment of silence after “Taps” was played, his arm floated down, and he began to cry. We all then turned around and sang along to the FSU’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It was now time to follow Colonel Gabriel in his Jeep, as he was the Parade Marshall for the one-mile route along the beach wall, toward the D-Day Memorial (our concert site). As we walked along the route, we witnessed people shouting their thanks and appreciation to him. We all waved small American flags as residents of the town waved to us from their front lawns in appreciation. The whole time, my eyes were on Colonel Gabriel and the horizon, just trying to imagine this kind, sweet, smiling man armed with a weapon, storming this very beach 75 years ago. It is beyond imagination, but it is the truth. People died in circles all around him, and we were the lucky recipients of his presence today. I felt fortunate, filled with gratitude for the sacrifice that he made, and the utmost pride and honor to be there with him as we approached his landing site.
The concert began after 220 of us musicians put our instruments together and took pictures of our stage for the event. The band was facing inland, to the right of the D-Day Memorial. Colonel Gabriel was looking in our direction, which faced the ocean. I could not stop thinking of what was going through his mind, staring at the horizon while we played “Hymn to the Fallen” and “America, the Beautiful”. I cried, mostly when I was resting. I held the Haynes D-Day Flute #16173 close to my chest when I wasn’t playing, whispering a silent prayer for Mr. Dale Shaffner and his heroic act of bravery in the water behind me with THIS flute in his pack. I was playing music on the instrument today. 75 years ago, the “music” in the air was deafening and filled with terror. How lucky I was to give this instrument a return to this hallowed ground and give it another purpose at Omaha Beach. For the rest of my life, I will remember all of the special moments of this concert, listening to the sound of this borrowed flute. I looked back at Tracy Wright, my colleague from ABC who made the connection to the D-Day flute back in the Fall. He transported it to Europe from Georgia, where it is currently owned by William Fisher, Dale Shaffner’s student. I felt thankful for Mr. Fisher, who allowed a total stranger to take custody of it this week in Europe. The Colonel gave us a life-changing experience on D-Day 75. I know that our music brought peace, beauty, and symbolic messages of unity on Omaha Beach. I am profoundly changed and I know it will take me a lifetime to truly absorb what this experience meant to me.
My hometown (New Bedford, Massachusetts) newspaper did a fantastic article on June 6, 2019, on my involvement in the event on D-Day in Normandy. Please feel free to take a look. It features quotes from myself, my parents, and my grandparents. Much of this trip was inspired by my pride and affection for my grandfather, Antero S. Gonsalves, a US Army Soldier in the 624th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, 6th Army, 11th Corps. He was stationed in the Philippines in World War II. Much of the information about my grandfather was not known to my family and I until we took a trip to Washington, D.C. in 2015. We took Odie (as we call him) to the World War II Memorial. This trip brought back many memories for him, and we were in awe of his stories. We were also touched to see so many strangers coming up to us, thanking him for his service, offering handshakes and hugs. I’m so proud of him and all of the teenagers through adults who answered the call. I’ve always heard people refer to them as “The Greatest Generation”. I finally and completely understand why.