High above the Normandy shore, an American in his late 80s slowly walks through rows of white crosses looking for the grave of his commanding officer.
“Vito V. Stabile, that’s him,” says his daughter as she pulls him over. He turns from the camera in tears.
Below is Omaha Beach, where soldiers like Stabile, a medical doctor just out of school, landed on D-Day 70 years ago, in waters sedulously mined by the Germans.
Floating just beneath the surface, the horned orbs were the lethal ornaments of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Hundreds of ships sank before nightfall.
The area is an eerie graveyard slowly disintegrating along with the men who survived. NOVA’s “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets” (airing on May 28 on PBS), spends two riveting hours in the company of divers, historians, archaeologists and several veterans brought back to Normandy. Linking past and present, the soldiers keep us spellbound as they fold their senior selves into tiny submarines or squint into the sunlight remembering a much darker day.
One veteran describes the incredible noise and smells. Another, how the skin came off a fellow soldier as he tried to fish him from the water.
About 5,000 ships and landing craft set off from England’s coast in the dark of night for the largest amphibious landing in history. The Germans in the pillboxes that lined the cliffs never suspected they’d tasted their last sausage.
Days of bad weather seemed to argue against any attack. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, entrusted with improving the Atlantic Wall’s defenses, spent June 6 celebrating his wife’s birthday. (It would be his last. Vaguely implicated in the plot against Hitler in July, the washed up Desert Fox committed suicide on his overlord’s orders).
An enjoyable clip from the 1962 film “The Longest Day” conveys the surprise that spread through the pillboxes on the morning of June 6 as a flabbergasted German slowly puts down his binoculars, gasping: “Invasion.”
Jawohl! Even now, the historic footage of those big ships suddenly materializing on the horizon conveys the excitement and fear of that day.
Just how did the Nazis miss an armada carrying 200,000 men? NOVA shows us pictures of the inflatable tanks that were part of the phantom army assembled further north opposite Calais. Commanded by (a real) General Patton, with a cameo part for (a fake) Montgomery, the dummy units fooled Hitler and his generals better than anyone had expected.
D-Day was really not a good day for the Fuhrer.
Portable harbors and pontoon bridges spelled further disaster as ships pulled them across the Channel and assembled them in a matter of days.
All along, the remarkable choreography of vast armies moving to an unforgiving clock is thrillingly recreated by writer and director Doug Hamilton.
To illustrate the huge complexities of the harbors, code-named Mulberry, we step into a virtual world conjured up by a Parisian software company. It’s epic. You feel you are on the beach as the ships quick unload their cargo for the long slog to victory in Berlin a year later
“These are the men who made a difference and you need to know that,” says Adrian Lewis, a history professor at the University of Kansas, and one of several eloquent historians appearing on NOVA.
Here’s to you, Vito Stabile, and all the others we often forget on Memorial Day.
“D-Day’s Sunken Secrets” is also available on DVD.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)