USACE employees visit little-known D-Day engineering feat
By Jennifer Aldridge
NORMANDY, France — The remnants of 600,000 tons of concrete rising out of the sea are visible nearly 68 years after D-Day. Mulberry Harbor, the temporary harbor developed by the Allies to offload troops, vehicles and supplies on to the beaches during the Battle of Normandy is a lasting example of superb military engineering.
Jay Aldridge, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District attorney and Army veteran, recently traveled to Normandy to visit Mulberry harbor and other D-Day sites.
"The first thing we saw was Arromanches-les-Bains, where the temporary port was established by the Allies," Aldridge said. "They created the lifeline to supply the invasion."
The harbor was designed and constructed to sustain the Allies for three months; miraculously Mulberry harbor continued to operate as a fully functioning port for an additional seven, Aldridge said.
"It was an amazing engineering achievement," he said.
The planning required to bring the components of Mulberry harbor across the English Channel by tug boat was incredible, William Craven, a district program manager, Army reservist and grandson of a World War II veteran said.
"There was intense planning. The floating dock in the breakwater… Who thought that up? It was ingenious," he said.
Floating docks, code named "Whales", connected the harbor to the beach with 16 kilometers of roadways. Troops, vehicles and supplies constantly moved across the Whales during the invasion.
Today, the remaining portion of Mulberry Harbor is a reminder of the Allies' great engineering feat and a memorial to those who served to bring freedom to Europe.
The reason Craven and his family traveled to Normandy was his grandfather -- the late, retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Howard York. York, a 1938 U.S. Military Academy graduate came ashore with the 1st Infantry Division and moved over to the 83rd Infantry Division to command a combat regiment team for the remainder of the war, Craven said.
"Our tour guide researched my grandfather and we specifically visited the portion of beach he came ashore on," Craven explained.
Standing on Omaha Beach, Craven said he wondered how his grandfather did what he was called to do on D-Day.
"He was a lieutenant colonel when we went ashore. How do you lead the men to walk through all of that? He never spoke about it," Craven said. "Being in Normandy, walking the grounds and seeing what our men had to face -- thinking of coming ashore on Omaha against all those machine guns, it took a lot of bravery, a lot of courage."
Omaha Beach was one of two American landing beaches, the other was code named Utah. The British and Canadians landed at Sword, Gold and Juno Beaches during the invasion. According to historic accounts, Omaha Beach was the most difficult beach to take because it was the most heavily defended.
On an overcast day, not unlike D-Day itself, Aldridge stood on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. He could easily spot boaters and children flying kites below him. Being there, in person, visually demonstrated the advantage the German soldiers had over the Americans trying to advance up the bluff, Aldridge said.
"Part of the problem was the Germans had a new commander. He ordered an exercise where all of the German soldiers were to man their positions and practice for an invasion," Aldridge explained. "They happened to be doing this exercise just as the invasion began."
On June 6, 1944, the Germans at Omaha Beach were in a set defensive position.
"It was amazing to see what a disadvantage we were at," Aldridge said. "What the guys had to go through --dealing with the rough landing, the obstacles, and making their way up the bluff under heavy fire--it was remarkable to see that."
Touring Normandy with his daughters and father-in-law, Steven Keen, a district project manager visited the sites of the invasion on a day-trip from Paris.
"One of the guys on our tour was a 24-year-old Soldier on leave. It made me think about the young Soldiers who stormed the beaches, knowing failure was probable…it was heroic," Keen said. "It gives me goose bumps."
Keen walked on the same beach that American Soldiers' boots touched so many years ago.
"Being on Omaha Beach, standing on that sand, it wasn't any different from any other sand. It didn't feel different on my feet," Keen said. "But on the inside it felt different."
As Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day approaches, Americans are called to remember those who have fallen in service to their county. We should remember the sacrifices that were made, Craven said.
"For most people Memorial Day is a kick-off to the summer, an excuse to barbeque on a three-day weekend. Memorial Day really is a day to memorialize the Soldiers that have fallen and given up their lives so we may enjoy the freedoms that we have."
Keen said, the more time passes, the less of a focus D-Day seems to be for Americans. It was important for Keen to experience the D-Day sites with his family. His father-in-law, visiting from the U.S., was able to travel to Normandy and share his World War II stories and memories with his granddaughters.
"Seeing my father-in-law give his perspective to my daughters was my favorite part of the day," he said. "It would be a shame and a disrespect not to pass down the knowledge of World War II to the next generation."
Visiting one of the many American cemeteries in Europe would be a neat thing to do on Memorial Day, Craven suggests.
"Seeing thousands of white crosses and Jewish Stars of David is a sobering experience," he said.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is the final resting place of more than 9,000 American Soldiers.
"It is a beautiful cemetery, immaculately kept and landscaped," Aldridge said. "I am honored that I had a chance to view that and in a way honor the American Soldiers who took on the amazing task of liberating France."
For many Americans, Normandy may be too costly or too far away to visit. Anyone who has the opportunity should go see the area and get a better understanding of what we accomplished and how amazing it was, Aldridge said.
"You don't understand the breadth and scope of it until you are there and you see it."
It is arguable that Normandy is the most significant site in Europe for Americans.
"As an American, there is no place more critical than the beaches of Normandy," Keen said. "Take the time to visit; you deserve it and so do they."