D-Day art and letters—“Into the Jaws of Death”, hero weathermen, poets

Robert F. Sargent, who served in the US Coast Guard, took this photograph of Allied troops on D-Day. He captioned it, "Into the Jaws of Death."
Robert F. Sargent, who served in the US Coast Guard, took this photograph of Allied troops on D-Day. He captioned it, “Into the Jaws of Death.”

If you’re a baby boomer, you know what D-Day was and what it stands for. If you’re younger, probably not so much. The tragic dearth of history, both global and domestic, in US classrooms has led to broad ignorance on more topics than I can count. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 men were carried across the English Channel to begin wresting France from the hands of the National Socialist German Workers Party, more popularly known as the “Nazis.” Mother Nature had actually delayed the crossing by a day. Thousands of Allied troops died; thousands of Nazis died. Thousands of French civilians died. Some of the lesser known heroes that day were weathermen.

The BBC described D-Day plans:

“More than a year in the planning, D-Day was originally set to start on 5 June, judged to be the most likely date to combine calm seas, a full moon and low water at first light. However, storms meant it was delayed by 24 hours to 6 June.”

A British squadron and a Scottish weatherman had flown missions across the ocean in order to get information about prevailing weather. In those days, weather forecasts relied on human assessments more than today. Had the invasion date not been changed, things might have worked out differently for all involved:

“Group Captain James Martin Stagg, from Dalkeith near Edinburgh, was the chief meteorological adviser who persuaded US General Eisenhower to change the date of the Allied invasion.

Stagg not only predicted a storm on 5 June 1944, but made the vital forecast that the weather would break for long enough the following day to allow Operation Overlord to go ahead.

Some of the data that helped inform Stagg’s decision came from a little-known RAF squadron operating on Tiree [Scotland].”

One of the most iconic photos of the D-Day landings came from Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent. The Coast Guard is not quite as high profile as other military entities in the US, but had it not been for combat photographers and reporters embedded with troops, we would not have the wealth of information we have about D-Day. A press release accompanied Sargent’s photograph, and, as LT Stephanie Young recounts the release at the link to the Coast Guard site above, the details provided give an idea just how brave all those men were that day. Sargent’s photo captioned “Into the Jaws of Death” is often featured by media and historians in their accounts of D-Day.

It would take roughly three months for Allied troops to liberate Paris. The site Newspapers.com has a great deal of material about D-Day reports contained in the original publications.

One of the best repositories of information on D-Day and many other historic events is the US Library of Congress. Everything from oral histories to political cartoons can be found there.

US troops practice for D-Day
In April, 1944, US troops landed on a British Beach to practice for the D-Day invasion to liberate France. (US Signal Corps Photo; Acme News Pictures, Inc.; US Library of Congress archives.

In stories I heard as a girl from family members and others who had served in the war, a recurring theme rested on US reluctance to enter World War II. After all, the “war to end all wars”, World War I, had ended less than 25 years ago and the US was just emerging from “the Great Depression.”

War has long been a topic artists in all genres have addressed. War chants in antiquity, epic works praising warriors, even ancient paintings in countries far away have captured the sense of heroics and sacrifice war levies on society regardless of the actors’ political positions. D-Day was a day that captured heroics alongside French turf, that tested even the most battle-hardened soldier, that truly sent troops forward into the “Jaws of Death.”

The Poetry Foundation selected poems about World War II—the poems written during that era were written when poets still wrote verses people of different educational levels could comprehend. It was a poem that helped shape my perspectives on war. W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is probably one of the most widely read such poems, so popular even the late president Lyndon B. Johnson paraphrased it (without credit to the poet). One of the verses in particular I still turn over in my mind. I realize Auden had inside him the hope we all do, that one day war will be unnecessary. The line that haunts me most isn’t the well-known line, “We must love one another or die.”

The lines that creep into my consciousness from time to time, because they contradict themselves when the history of the human race is considered, are these:

“There is no such thing as the State/And no one exists alone.”

Auden, by the way, came to hate that poem.

(Kay B. Day/June 5, 2019)

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