In July of 2016 I joined a tour group and took an 11-day trip to Europe to tour World War 2 battle sites in France, Belgium and Germany - places that some of our Indiana veterans once walked on or flew over. This series of articles is a summary of what I saw and learned there as I followed the path of American heroes who answered the call of duty over 75 years ago.
Utah Beach is the western most of the 5 invasion beaches at Normandy. Strategically, it was an important objective so that the Allies could gain control of the Cotentin Peninsula and the port facilities at Cherbourg which enjoys a deep water harbor.
On June 6th, 1944 at 6:30 am the U.S. 4th Infantry Division together with elements of the 90th Infantry Division and the 4th Cavalry Regiment made their landing at Utah Beach.
The sector of Utah Beach stretches out for 3 miles. Unlike Omaha Beach it does not have the high cliffs beyond the beach head. It is relatively flat, with a small rise of sand ascending from the water's edge.
While Omaha Beach was a slugfest-turned-slaughterhouse with the entrenched Germans, Utah Beach was considerably easier to capture. Army soldiers stormed up the beachfront overwhelming the German defenses of the 91st Infantry Division and two battalions of the 919th Grenadier Regiment. They had control of the beach within 45 minutes.
Accomplishing the objective did not come without price. There were 197 casualties among the 21,000 troops that landed there.
Among the casualties was a Battalion Surgeon named Murray Franklin, who was born in Brooklyn, New York. Assigned to the 90th (Texas-Oklahoma) Division, he was wounded in the leg during the landing. He suffered two more wounds before being evacuated back to England for recovery.
After the war Franklin had a long and distinguished medical career in Chicago, focusing much of his medical practice on serving poor patients. He also pioneered a helpful modification to biopsy needles which allowed for larger tissue samples. The improved needle was later called the "Franklin Needle". It is still in use today. Franklin died in 1999 at the age of 86.
Dr. Franklin's son, Cory and his grandson, Sam were part of our tour group in Europe. They brought some of Murray Franklin's ashes to disperse on Utah Beach, which had been his request years earlier. Most of his other ashes had been interred at Arlington National Cemetery following his death.
There was a brief ceremony of remembrance led by our tour guide. Then Cory and Sam walked ahead of our group toward the water to disperse Franklin's ashes on the sand he once walked upon. They placed 6 white roses into the sand, said some words in private, embraced each other, and then rejoined our group.
It was very moving to be a part of that personal tribute to a man who 72 years earlier had run across that beach in service to his country.
Not far from Utah Beach is Pointe du Hoc, a promontory with steep 100-foot cliffs that jut out into the shoreline and separate Omaha Beach from Utah Beach.
On June 6th, 1944 as Army units invaded Utah Beach, the Rangers of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Regiment bravely scaled the high cliffs to neutralize the German artillery guns that had been positioned there in concrete casemates and gun pits.
It was no small feat! Just arriving at the sight was difficult in the rough seas and with the Germans firing upon them. Of the ten landing crafts carrying the Rangers across the water, one of them was sunk before getting to shore and all but one person drowned.
Once close enough to land, the British landing crafts used rocket launchers which had been installed in them to fire the ropes and grapples skyward toward the top of the cliffs.
Upon landing at the base of the cliffs the Rangers began their dangerous ascent climbing up the ropes and wooden ladders which had been secured in the rock above with the grappling hooks.
After reaching the top of the cliffs the Rangers neutralized the big guns, the emplacements and casemates of which can still be viewed today by visitors.
Isolated from other Allied units, the Rangers had to endure several counter-attacks by the Germans while they waited for reinforcements. By the end of the 2nd day of combat (and by the time reinforcements came) only 90 Rangers of the original 225 were still in the fight.
The success and sacrifice of the Rangers are the stuff of legends. Their accomplishments are proudly memorialized today at the top of Pointe du Hoc with a granite monument (presented with gratitude by France) in the shape of a dagger.
From the monument's high vantage point the visitor can see the impressive panorama of all of Normandy's historic beaches.
While walking around the Pointe I noticed some European sheep grazing on the grassy landscape which had been pock-marked with large craters from the bombs that had been dropped by the Allied planes in preparation for the landing.
It was a strange contrast to see the sheep grazing contentedly along the very craters once caused by the weapons of war. Briefly the image from Psalm 23 came into my mind. "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me."
Words of serenity now aptly describe this place which has finally found peace following its years of brutal war.
Next time: Inland from the Channel (Airborne Drop Sights & Two Historic Churches)
Ronald P. May, USN (Ret.), is author of the book, "Our Service, Our Stories". He helps veterans share and preserve the stories of their military service. For more information or to tell your story, contact May at 317-435-7636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook at Our Service, Our Stories.