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July 30, 2014

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A wordless D-Day conversation

So how did you spend your 30th birthday?

As the years whisk by, most of us no longer remember. But Cliff Morgan, who would have been 100 years old this week, surely never forgot his 30th. After all, he’d just landed on the shore of Normandy, on France’s north coast.

Recently, the queen of England, the president of the United States and a world of dignitaries went to Omaha Beach to honor the sacrifices made there 70 years earlier when 150,000 troops landed at Normandy in 1944. My father-in-law, U.S. Army Capt. George Clifton “Cliff” Morgan, was in the middle of it.

We have watched the grainy newsreels and read the poignant, pain-filled accounts. But we can never really wrap our minds around what it felt like to be in the combat boots of those who were caught in the hellish vortex of that D-Day invasion.

Cliff, who died in 1990 at age 76, really wasn’t one to ever talk about it. And his family always knew better than to ask. That’s how it was with so many members of what journalist Tom Brokaw has so famously called “The Greatest Generation.”

From the get-go, when more than 5,000 ships surprised the Nazi generals by sailing in pre-dawn darkness close to the Normandy shore, the allied invaders found themselves battling two formidable adversaries: nature’s unrelenting forces and the Nazis’ overwhelming firepower.

Gale-force winds created huge white-capped waves that tossed around flat-bottomed landing craft that weren’t built to endure such indignities. Many soldiers found themselves in the sea well short of the beach, forced to wade or swim amid rain and bullets. The first invaders became veritable shooting gallery targets for German gunners. Soon the sea was said to have turned blood red; so many bodies clogged the beach and the waters that some boats couldn’t maneuver around them. Some invaders were forced to delay their landing until the second or third day.

Cliff Morgan was in the second wave, fighting to survive like all the rest. He lost one-third of his men just getting to the beach. Those who made it climbed the tall dunes and dug foxholes so they could hunker and survive beneath the storm of bullets.

By June 11, Cliff’s birthday, the sprawl of U.S. forces along the Normandy beachhead had come together and begun their push inland. They took the war to the Germans. As a member of Gen. George Patton’s Army, my father-in-law participated in the Battle of the Bulge, the historic crossing of the Rhine at the Bridge of Remagen, and in the liberation of the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp.

At the war’s end, he came home to New Jersey for a while, then re-upped for what became a career of service. His postings included four years in a rebuilding Berlin, stateside in the Pentagon, then back to Germany. This time, he brought his family to live with him in Frankfurt in the late 1950s.

In ceremonies at the Normandy cemetery where 9,387 Americans are buried, President Barack Obama spoke of the importance of telling the story of D-Day “so that it remains seared into the memory of the future world. ... For the daughter who clutches a faded photo of her father, forever young. For the child who runs his fingers over colorful ribbons he knows signify something of great consequence — even if he doesn’t yet know why. We tell this story to bear what witness we can to what happened when the boys from America reached Omaha Beach.”

It was the spring of 1956 when Cliff Morgan finally shared his story of D-Day with his eldest daughter, in his own way.

While on a family camping trip on France’s north coast, he walked with her to look at the beach — Normandy. They walked in silence, and all the while, he held her hand; it was the first and only time she remembers him holding her hand in that meaningful way. They stopped on a high bluff overlooking the beach and the sea. It was another windy, gray day at Normandy beach. Father and daughter simply stood, looking silently down at the beach and the churning sea, hand in hand, for the longest time.

Cliff never said a word, and his daughter understood it all. It was the best conversation they ever had.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.

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