Home About Archive Events Links Submit Contact

We Shot D-Day on Omaha Beach (An Interview With John Ford)

by Pete Martin

This article first appeared in The American Legion Magazine, June 1964.

Who saw D-Day in Normandy 20 years ago?

No one man really saw it, for its stage was as big as the world and its actions were as big as history.

While Nazi Germany held all of France after the fall of Dunkirk on the English Channel in 1940, we amassed huge forces in England. In an operation called Overlord we committed them to the perils of the sea and the German-held invasion beaches of the French Normandy Coast, starting at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula at 0015 hours on the morning of June 6, 1944.

Since Dunkirk, millions of men and women had lived, worked, suffered, prayed, died—so that this invasion of Hitler’s fortress would come off. The British had licked their wounds, and rallied behind the indomitable spirit of their Prime Minister. They clawed away at Hitler’s air force as the Luftwaffe tried to pound their island soft for a German invasion. On the Continent, a valiant and vigilant underground army somehow endured, risking torture and firing squads for themselves and their families and friends to hamstring the German occupation forces in a thousand secret ways.

After June 1940, the fight grew more difficult as, one by one, the remaining European nations joined Hitler or were crushed by the weight of his military forces. Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria allied themselves with the Nazis. Only Yugoslavia and Greece resisted. In April and May 1941, they in turn fell before the German Wehrmacht. In all Western Europe only Sweden and Switzerland remained neutral.

Then suddenly in June 1941, Hitler turned eastward, invaded Russia, and England gained a new ally. Two months later the U.S. Congress, prodded by President Roosevelt, voted lend-lease aid to save Britain from a collapse boded by her African defeats and shipping losses to U-boats.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought our own country into World War 2. The year that followed was the darkest of the entire war for the Allies. In the Pacific the Japanese captured everything in sight. They were even on the frightening verge of invading Australia. In Africa, Rommel’s Afrika Korps swarmed into Egypt like the plague of locusts Joseph said would best Pharaoh. Soon it would be within striking distance of the Suez Canal. In Russia, German armies, penetrating the Caucasus, attacked Stalingrad. During most of 1942, U-boats were sinking Allied ships in the Atlantic faster than they could be built and launched!

But General Montgomery, with the help of lend-lease tanks and equipment, stopped Rommel in October at El Alamein; and the Russians held at Stalingrad. The following month, our armies under General Eisenhower invaded North Africa to help the British and Free French defeat the Afrika Korps. By May 1943, this was accomplished. Meanwhile, in February, the Russians had fought the Germans to a standstill at Stalingrad, mounted a huge counteroffensive and captured nearly a third of a million Nazi troops.

With each victory the Allies gained new momentum. From Africa we launched our attack on Sicily, then Italy. That country surrendered in September 1943, though the German forces there did not! It was on June 5, 1944, one day before D-Day, that Rome was captured. Not until the war’s end in 1945 was northern Italy mopped up with finality.

With the invasion of Italy under way in 1943, and the submarine menace declining in the Atlantic, the Allies began to establish the huge base of operations in England that it would make it possible for us to invade Fortress Europe across the English Channel.

Throughout the rest of 1943 and early winter of 1944, preparations continued at a frenzied pace. The Russians were impatient at the delay, for the Western invasion of France would ease German pressure against them in the East. In England the race was against time and tide. Unless the invasion took place during early June, H-hour could not be triggered and set for the prized combination of early dawn and the lowest tide. Without this combination, thousands of underwater obstacles and mines would not stand exposed to be avoided or destroyed by the invading landing craft and troops.

Somehow, by an effort that now seems incredible, almost 2 million men were assembled in England. On D-Day, some 160,000 managed to get ashore on the French Coast. This was a day for which the world had waited anxiously for years. Hearts skipped beats and fingers were crossed around the world while the ebb and flow of events on the Normandy beaches were in question. Failure would throw the free world into gloom. The answer to the question “What now?” in case we were hurled back was one that people hoped they would never have to provide. All that first day, until word came that our troops had begun to plunge inland, hearts pounded while millions clasped their hands and bowed their heads in prayer.

Despite the fears of Overlord’s planners (and possibly because of them), Allied casualties on D-Day, June 6, 1944, were much lighter than had been anticipated. The Allies lost between 10,000 and 12,000. Of these, approximately 6,600 were American, the rest British and Canadian. German casualties were a third of the Allied total, though by the end of June they reached about a quarter of a million, including prisoners.

Nobody who was there really saw the operation. The anxious people all over the world who pieced together the news reports with bated breath saw more of it; the intelligence officers putting bits of information together for the high command and the heads of the contending nations saw it. The Army historians saw it later as they wrote the Normandy invasion into the Army’s huge history of WW2.

But the participants didn’t see it. Each saw his own little acre; his own piece of treacherous, churning water; his own sweep of beach; the bluff ahead that he had to mount against the fire from that house, that cliff; his own comrade who just fell on the sand.

The very first forces ashore were troops of our 82 nd and 101 st Airborne Divisions who dropped on the Cotentin Penisula behind Utah Beach the night before. They saw little of the mighty world drama; in the dark, they even had to find one another out by ear, snapping five-and-dime cricket toys as signals.

The crew of the old battleship Texas stood with the offshore armada to give heavy artillery support for the landing waves. Though it was daylight, they saw but a part of the invasion. Little spotting planes, droning low over the coast, were the Texas eyes to tell it via radio where to fire.

There was one man there on Omaha Beach whose sole mission was to see the invasion for the world, and for history. He was John Ford, the movie director and producer. What did it look like to him?

Ford, a veteran of WW1 as well as WW2, has had a career studded with top cinema awards for such films as The Quiet Man, The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was my Valley, The Long Voyage Home, Stagecoach, and Tobacco Road. After painting motion picture classics with film, he was one of those given the assignment of preserving on movie film the history of the Normandy invasion for posterity. He drew Omaha Beach as his “location” and as a result didn’t see Utah Beach at all. But on Omaha, the acting was real enough and so was the shooting.

This winter I found a tired John Ford back in California between takes of a movie he was directing in Wyoming. He’d talked very little about D-Day in the last 20 years. “What is there to tell?” he asked at first. “My story is in the film we shot! Millions of feet of it!”

Finally he said that the real-life drama he remembers most vividly of all in his film-making career was the tragedy and triumph of D-Day. “Not that I or any other man who was there can give a panoramic wide-angle view of the first wave of Americans who hit the beach that morning,” Ford said. “There was a tremendous sort of spiral of events all over the world, and it seemed to narrow down to each man in its vortex on Omaha Beach that day. My group was there to photograph everything we could for the record. In the States, as Overlord got under way, the film Going My Way with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald was a smash hit. I had nothing to do with it, but the title was somehow appropriate when I remembered what we were starting in Normandy.”

Ford was head of the Photographic Department of the Office of Strategic Services under General “Wild Bill” Donovan. The cameramen in his unit were attached to the Coast Guard and trained for every sort of action. They could drop by parachute, land with raiders, commandoes, infantry. They knew about amphibious landings. All Ford had to do was name it. They could do it. He’d hand picked his group of helpers. They were a superb team. Ford was told to head that team up and get both color and black-and-white footage of the invasion of Omaha Beach from start to finish.

He was in London when Wild Bill gave him the word. Ford (as well as practically everybody else) knew the invasion would start soon. He and his outfit had been in the British Isles for quite a while readying themselves for their part in it. Two high-ranking officers talked out of turn at parties about the impending invasion. Ike broke them both back to pre-war rank—one major general to a lieutenant colonel—and shipped them to the United States with a devastating reprimand.

Ford’s team had been alerted for several days. There had been no passes for the men. They loaded $1 million worth of camera gear on the destroyer Plunket. By June 3 they were set. They went off in convoy on the night of June 4, only to be called back. Bad weather off the French Coast. The next day, June 5, was even worse, but there was a good chance for a Normandy landing in spite of the bad weather. The meteorological experts reported the weather would let up for a while in France, long enough to get the landing started. As it happened, the “bad weather” was the worst Channel storm in 40 years. D-Day, originally set for June 5, was postponed in the middle of a raging gale. Hundreds of ships that had set off for their rendezvous the day before headed back to port. Others flopped around blindly at sea, waiting, their crews and the troops aboard furious, seasick, underfed, weakened by the storm. Finally, at 0415 hours, June 5, while winds of near hurricane force snarled, the meteorologists told Ike and his staff that they would slacken the following morning, and stay fairly clear for 36 hours. Ike polled the staff. Some said yes; others were doubtful. Finally there was a silence and everyone waited tensely for Ike to make the decision as Supreme Commander. Later it was said by some that he deliberated between 15 and 20 seconds, others stated that he took 2 minutes, even as many as 5 minutes, before looking up and saying, “Let’s go… I don’t see how we can do anything else.”

Jack Ford says, “When we did start we were the last ship out in our huge convoy. There were more than 50 other convoys, some bigger than ours. Nobody was quite sure just how many ships there were in all, at least 4,000 though, I heard later. Nothing like it ever in the English Channel, not even the Spanish Armada, 356 years before. I went below for a minute or two and suddenly our flotilla was switched about and we were headed in another direction, which put the old Plunket in the lead. I am told I expressed some surprise at leading the invasion with my cameras. What I’ll never forget is how rough that sea was. The destroyers rolled terribly. Practically everybody was stinking, rotten sick. How anyone on the smaller landing craft had enough guts to get out and fight I’ll never understand, but somehow they did; and well, too. We hadn’t heard President Roosevelt’s hastily scheduled radio address a few hours earlier about Rome having been taken by the American and British forces pushing up the Italian peninsula. I did read later that he gave no hint about Overlord, saying only of the three Axis capital cities: ‘One down and two to go.’

“The Plunket dropped anchor close inshore off Omaha Beach about 6 a.m. Things began to happen fast. It was extreme low tide and all the underwater obstacles put there by the Germans stuck out crazily like giant kids’ jackstraws with mines and shells wired all over them. There were demolition teams on the first landing craft that were supposed to blow such things out of the way for the landings to follow. As the first landing craft started past the Plunket, I could see the troops bailing with their helmets, stopping to heave their guts out every few throws. In the closer LCMs and LCVTs I could even hear them puking over the noise of motors and waves slapping flat bows all the way to the beach.

“I remember looking with pride at the battlewagon Texas anchored to our left,” Ford told me. “She was one of our old, old battleships, not new like the Wisconsin or the Arizona. I was listening on the radio to TBS, the talk-between-ships. The Texas had artillery observers both ashore and in recon planes overhead who spoke back to them and gave directions about knocking out certain points of German defense on the coast. Of all the rounds the Texas fired she only missed once. The only trouble was that for some reason nobody, not even we, expected the flight overhead of all our little L-4s and L-5s—observations planes; and we apparently shot most of them down ourselves. Poor fellows. As a result we were short on observers for a couple of days until we got more on shore. I heard later that U.S. plane production was being cut back that same month. And the Government apparently had just cancelled a contract for 800 cargo planes after the Budd Manufacturing Co. had built only four of them. If we hadn’t gotten ashore that day, a hell of a lot of plans would have gone down the drain. They must have been awfully sure of success back in Washington.

“The fog and mist cleared away shortly and it became full daylight. The cloud cover didn’t go away, however. When our fleet of heavy bombers went in to clobber the beaches, they bombed blind through solid cloud and their bombs fell way inland. That was another mess. They had been supposed to blanket the beaches, the Nazis’ machinegun nests, observers’ posts, big gun emplacements. This would explode a lot of mines in the sand, make convenient craters in which our men could take cover at first, and stun or knock out a lot of enemy gunners. I expect they planned to scare them, too. The Germans opposite us were supposed to be Russian or Polish ‘volunteers’ and service troops. Unhappily, when our bombs missed the troops opposing us they turned out to be a tough infantry division that had been moved up for rest and training without our intelligence finding it out. When they finally opened up with fire power, it was tragic what they did to us.

“Everyone had held his breath while the naval bombardment was going on. We wondered about the complete absence of return fire. Not a shot from shore all the time our landing craft headed in. When our fire lifted just below our first LCVTs began to blow up on the obstacles, we thought they were going to make it without any opposition from the coast. Then the Nazis opened up and hellish fast, too.

“Troops were jumping over side into the water so they wouldn’t have to wade through streams of machinegun fire when the bow ramp dropped. Then some of the tanks with flotation gear started going by. I saw two take direct hits, or hit mines. Others had their canvas flotation gear punctured and sank like stones. I don’t believe more than one or two climbed out on the beach near us. The tanks were supposed to give mobile, close-in artillery support while our men were getting past the sea wall to knock out the pillboxes and machineguns, but they didn’t have a chance.

“Neither did the LCMs bringing in bulldozers and more tanks. They really caught hell. Later I heard that only three bulldozers out of 30 or 40 made it. I also remember seeing landing craft swing out of control and smash against obstacles where they touched off a mine and blew sky high. On a later day, much later, I discovered that it was this very week that the first U.S. shipyards were getting ready to lay off hundreds of men as wartime orders slackened.

“At one point, just before we went ashore with the second wave, our ship, the Plunket, was banging away at a stone building just behind the beach. I said to the captain, ‘I wouldn’t think the Germans are stupid enough to stay in there. It’s too prominent. I bet if you raised your guns and fired at that little house back up there, you might stir up something.’ He fired a couple of shots at it, and by God, the place spewed German troops like a hornets’ nest. It erupted.

“The objective of my outfit was simple—just take movies of everything on Omaha Beach. Simple, but not easy. The skipper of the Plunket loaded us into DUKWs. About midmorning they went off shoreward. I remember watching one colored man in a DUKW loaded with supplies. He dropped them on the beach, unloaded, went back for more. I watched, fascinated. Shells landed around him. The Germans were really after him. He avoided every obstacle and just kept going back and forth, back and forth, completely calm. I thought, By God, if anybody deserves a medal that man does. I wanted to photograph him, but I was in a relatively safe place at the time so I figured, The hell with it. I was willing to admit he was braver than I was.

“The discipline and training of those boys who came ashore in the later waves of landing craft, throwing up and groaning with nausea all the way into the beach, was amazing. It showed. They made no mad rush. They quietly took their places and kept moving steadily forward. Anyone can have hindsight, there is no trick to that, but it is still hard for me to realize that back home in the nightclubs ‘Pistol-Packin’ Mama’ was making the audiences sing, clap and stomp.

“From the Plunket I recall vaguely seeing a landing craft off to my right hit a mine and suddenly go up, and another tangled in an underwater obstruction swinging around in crazy, uncontrolled circles. Most of the kids on board got off and waded ashore.

“Once I was on the beach I ran forward and started placing some of my men behind things so they’d have a chance to expose their film. I know it doesn’t make it blazingly dramatic, but all I could think was that for the most part everything was all so well coordinated, fitted perfectly, went beautifully. To my mind, those seasick kids were heroes. I saw very few dead and wounded men. I remember thinking, That’s strange, although later I could see the dead floating in the sea. I also remember being surprised at how much closer the Plunket looked from shore, much closer than the shore had looked a few minutes earlier from the Plunket! Thoughts are funny things; they wander. I recall wondering how our troops in the Pacific felt. A couple of weeks later they invaded Saipan to establish airfields for the B-29s.

“My memories of D-Day come in disconnected takes like unassembled shots to be spliced together afterward in a film. I can’t remember seeing anybody get wounded or fall down or get shot. I passed men who had just been hit. I saw one group get out of a landing craft and make a rush to their assigned positions. As they rushed they passed two men on the ground who had been hit. They glanced at the two for a minute. They knew that the medical corpsmen would reach them right away. One of the two who had been wounded managed to rise and stagger to cover. The other had to be dragged. It was a good thing that the previous month the U.S. pharmaceutical industry had produced a record-breaking 100 million units of the new wonder drug penicillin. The Army had the highest priority. It needed it.

“To tell the truth, I was too busy doing what I had to do for a cohesive picture of what I did to register in my mind. We stayed on our job and worked that day and for several other days and nights, too. When you concentrate on a job the way we did, there was no time for sightseeing. I was reminded of that line in ‘The Red Badge Of Courage’ about how the soldiers were always busy, always deeply absorbed in their individual combats. In this awful seesaw, the people who were actually there on the beaches only saw the thing the way I did. In my case, it is the extreme example of the narrow view of the participants, because my staff and I had the job of ‘seeing’ the whole invasion for the world, but all any one of us saw was his own little area.

“At first when our outfit hit the beach, we ran for cover. Then we made for the hills, pausing to expose film footage here and there. I’m not sure of the name of the main town just back from the coast—Colleville-sur-mer? If I’m right, that means Colleville-On-the-Sea. After that the Germans made their first stand. Actually, I had expected that we’d meet much more resistance from the Germans on shore, but after all it was a surprise attack. As we began silencing or capturing their guns one at a time, the fighting in our immediate sector slackened and no German reinforcements appeared.

“The Germans thought our landing craft were going to zero in on Pas de Calais, 240 miles northeast, Europe’s closest point of land to England. The Air Force had run all kinds of diversionary movements over that spot and in considerable strength. Our bombers had plastered Calais for weeks. As a result, the Germans were concentrated there. I read later that Hitler had said that we would land where we did, but Rommel disagreed with him. Later each changed his mind and accepted the other’s opinion. But since the net result left them still on opposite sides of the fence, that didn’t help them very much. Hitler held back his Panzer reserves to meet the expected attack on Calais until it was too late for them to counterattack before we had a foothold. In addition, Allied paratroopers who went in the night before D-Day had captured roads and bridges so far inland that it made it difficult for a counterattack to be assembled and set in motion. Ther German High Command had recently ordered the word ‘catastrophe’ eliminated from all military reports and the German vocabulary in general. As I recall it, the only counterattack launched on D-Day was against the British. But the B.E.F. had been able to land their tanks and anti-tank guns so they stopped the Germans cold just inland from the beach on their way to Caen.

“At any rate, it turned out that Rommel was in Germany for his wife’s birthday. I guess we can be damn grateful he wasn’t at headquarters in LaRoche-Guyon when we landed. God knows it was terrible enough without him. We’d heard from a British woman, interned by the Germans and repatriated a week earlier, that the German people were supposedly terrified of being invaded. German newspapers were publishing conflicting reports every day, guessing at dates and locations of the Allied landings. The German troops sure didn’t act terrified!

“As I think back on it now, I doubt if I saw—really saw—more than 12 of our men at one time. Looking back, I saw the Texas and the heavy cruisers still firing. At the end of that day when I listened to the TBS, the only battlewagon I listened to was the Texas, but the others probably had records just as good. It’s amazing how accurate they were, and how effective the observers were on shore. They were Navy radiomen and they pinpointed just about everything.

“ Omaha Beach had cliffs that had to be climbed straight up from the edge of the sand. The plan was for the Rangers to mop up the Germans on top at the fringe of the cliffs. Those Rangers swarmed up ropes. Somehow they got up those cliffs. I was there, but I don’t really know how they did it. I think they shot the ropes with grapnels upward with special rocket guns. I was told later that the ropes got soaked in the rough seas coming in and were so stiff some rockets couldn’t shoot them to the top, and the Germans leaned out and dropped grenades on the attackers as they shinnied up the rope. I only remember that vaguely as a part of all that went on around me. I was busy concentrating on my immediate job, and looking after my unit.

“How would I describe my job??” John Ford said, when I asked him. “Unofficially, I was in charge of cinematography, but in all honesty I was really more or less a logistic officer. It was up to me to see that everybody who should have a camera had one. I take my hat off to my Coast Guard kids. They were impressive. They went in first, not to fight, but to photograph. They went with the troops. They were the first ones ashore. They filmed some wonderful material. Fortunately, most of them came through well. There were a few casualties. I lost some men. It is a coincidence that one of the cameramen who works for me today—his name is Archie Stout—had a son in my outfit. (1) He was one of the two photographers who rode ashore on a Phoenix concrete breakwater. He rode his Phoenix all the way over from England photographing everything in sight. He did a fine job riding that big box. He got a Silver Star for it. Later, he was to be flown back to England to sign his papers for a commission for which he certainly qualified in every way. On his way, even before he’d left France, a lone German fighter popped out of nowhere and shot him down. He’s buried there in a cemetery where the landing was. That cemetery was a new one and Stout’s was one of the first graves there. I’ve been back to it several times to leave flowers.

“I think it’s amazing that I lost no more, when you consider how much some of them were exposed to fire, although I wouldn’t let them stand up. I made them lie behind cover to do their photographing. Nevertheless, they didn’t have arms, just cameras, and to me, facing the enemy defenseless takes a special kind of bravery. When a man is armed with a gun he’s probably much braver than if he doesn’t have one.

“In action, I didn’t tell my boys where to aim their cameras. They took whatever they could. Once they got ashore they just started photographing our troops in different groups rushing to their assigned places. Not that they rushed wildly, they rushed with a definite purpose. After they got ashore, they made for a certain objective. There was no panic or running around. I’ve often wondered why they didn’t run faster. Probably they weighed too much with all their equipment on. They hurried, but there was no frantic dash, just a steady dogtrot.

“I remember meeting Col. Red Reeder on the beach. I knew him well and I met him a long time later when I went to West Point to do a picture, The Long Gray Line. On D-Day, Red was sitting with one leg smashed so badly it had to be amputated. ‘Got any orange juice?’ he asked me. I said, ‘ Orange juice! What the hell would I be doing carrying orange juice? How about a shot of brandy?’ We had been issued little bottles of brandy in case anybody needed it. Doggedly he said, ‘No, I want orange juice.’ I said, ‘Colonel, I’m afraid that’s something I can’t get you, but I can help you get back to our ship which is close in. Once there you can get some aid.’ He said, ‘No, I just want some orange juice.’ Red and I had a laugh about that long afterward at West Point. In a moment of crisis, people get funny fixations. I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you take that brandy?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. It’s the first time in my life I ever refused a drink of hard liquor. All of a sudden I was pure. As a matter of fact, I don’t even like orange juice.’ He was in shock, and as I’ve said, they had to cut off his leg in an emergency operation.

“The film my men took was processed in London, in both color and black-and-white. Most of it was in Kodachrome. It was transferred to black-and-white for release in the news weeklies in movie theatres. All of it still exists today in color in storage in Anacostia near Washington, D.C. My cutting unit was in London, too. They worked 24-hour watches, picking out the best part of the film that had been shot. I’m sure it was the biggest cutting job of all time including the cutting done for the recent picture Cleopatra. The cutters worked four-hour shifts—on four, off four. Allen Brown, the producer, now a captain in the Reserve, was in charge. There were literally millions of feet of film. When Brown’s unit saw something they liked, they pressed a button, and put clips on that portion of film. When they cut the stuff all they did was cut at the places marked by those clips. It saved a lot of time. Very little was released to the public then—apparently the Government was afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen. After all, even The New York Times best-seller list that summer had only six ‘war books’ on it out of a total of 30.

“As I’ve said, I don’t think I ever saw more than a dozen men at one time on that beach. That’s all my eye could take in. For that matter, I don’t think anybody on the beach saw more than 20 at the outside. After all, they all were attacking in small groups. They were trained to do that. The first wave consisted of about 3,000 men, and not all of them got ashore alive. Numerically, that wasn’t so many really.

“I don’t remember just when we reached our first inland village, but I do remember that on my way there our troops ahead were smoking out a nest of Germans on the edge of the town. They had no artillery support, so they sneaked up with flame throwers. It turned out that the house held five Germans and three female French collaborationists.

“As I remember it now, the shells the Texas fired must have been 12-inch jobs. They made a big sound, but the odd thing was how they looked. They gave off yellowish smoke—and instead of rupturing the ear drums of listeners they made a dull boom. Sixteen-inch guns shattered ear drums, but the 12-inch ones went boom like an explosion going off inside of a mine. The 16-inch guns were murderous. You had to stuff your ears with cotton if you were too near them. They tell me Omar Bradley used cotton. He must have been on one of our big battlewagons. I didn’t see him, but I did see young Teddy Roosevelt near Utah Beach on D-Day plus three or four. We had met in Scotland where my unit trained nearby. I thought him a fine man. He didn’t last very long after he landed.

“He was the principal founder of The American Legion back in 1919. While he was alive he did 20 men’s jobs and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He didn’t know that because a heart attack killed him on July 12. He just kept going up and down Omaha Beach with the walking stick under his arm, very neat, very presentable, getting things done, directing traffic, giving orders to the men running up to him. His boss, Terry Allen, who was in charge of the First Division, was a lot of man, too. That was 20 years ago and even now I don’t know too much about what an Army general’s job is, but when I met Terry and Teddy, the impression I got was that they were both good men doing efficient jobs.

“My unit shot motion pictures of the whole Operation Mulberry, too—the construction of the man-made harbor facilities designed to handle 8,000 tons of supplies a day. In the end it handled more. A fleet of old ships was brought across the Channel and purposefully sunk, nose to tail, in a row offshore. This bit was named Operation Gooseberry. It began on the second day. Those ships caught quite a bit of German artillery fire. Each time we sank one the Germans reported to Goebbels that another enemy vessel had been sunk by glorious German fire. On D-Day plus three, by the time the Nazis figured out what was happening, most of those ships were in position and the first of the big concrete Phoenix breakwaters was being pushed into position and sunk. There was an outer line of floating steel breakwaters, too. Finally came the three piers running from the beach straight out to deep water. These were called Whales, and LSTs came right up to them and unloaded in less than an hour. The operation was a triumph for an idea conceived by Britain’s Lord Louis Mountbatten. Two years earlier he had made the revolutionary suggestion of taking our own seaport along with the invading forces instead of trying to capture the heavily defended French ports. The other brass hats laughed at him at first—though never to his face.

“That was quite an improvement over beaching LSTs, unloading and floating them off 12 hours later to fetch another load, which is what was done until the Mulberry harbor was finished on D-Day plus ten. They called the operation Mulberry because the mulberry is supposed to be the fastest growing tree. I never did figure out any of the other code names. Maybe that’s why the secret was kept so well—no one else could either.

“A few days later, on the 19 th and 20 th, when a gale hit and destroyed practically everything, I had some of my unit station themselves on one of the Phoenix caissons. It was blowing like hell and I was out in a small boat picking them up. As I was heading in, somebody yelled at me from an old English ferryboat, a sidewheeler, one of the decrepit old Brighton excursion boats. I could see it was a chief petty officer yelling, ‘Hi, Jack! Hi, Jack!’ I looked at him, waved and asked, ‘Who is it?’ Then I recognized Ian Hunter, the actor, who afterward worked with me in The Long Voyage Home. Hunter played the English officer in that film. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He yelled, ‘What are you doing here?’ I yelled, ‘Damned if I know. What are you doing?’ Hunter said, ‘Damned if I know either.’ It was a brief encounter because I was concerned with getting my boys off and ashore. The gale messed up the painfully assembled and constructed Mulberry harbor. Landing craft of all kinds broke loose and piled into docks and breakwaters. My photographers got plenty of footage of that ‘for historical purposes.’ It was as bad a Channel storm as the first one, if not worse. It was weeks before the harbor was straightened out, though supplies continued to get ashore somehow. That is the best I can do 20 years after D-Day. This is the first time I’ve ever talked about it.

“I would like to say to The American Legion Magazine readers that I am a lifetime member and so is my wife, Mary. We were both given our silver lifetime membership cards in 1955. Mary was a nurse in World War 1. She is a member of the Harold T. Andrews Post in Potland, Maine. I’m not much of a joiner. The Legion is the only organization I belong to. We’re proud of it, and proud of the American soldiers we have known over the years.

”One other thing. I guess it’s the only Hollywood attribute I share with stars: John Ford isn’t my real name. My real name is Sean Aloysius Kilmartin O’Feeney.” (2)

Ford paused while we both thought about D-Day in Normandy and all over the world.

There is small doubt that the preparation for and the launching of Overlord was the most important military movement ever made by this country, with the possible exception of the marching, re-marching and bloody dying of men wearing blue and gray near a small sleepy town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. Even there only our soldiery was involved; not our Navy, our Marine Corps, our planes, our Coast Guard, all blended into one mighty spearhead of men as they were on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, with the British and Canadians on more beaches to the east.

And although the world stood on tiptoe, its hands cupped around its collective eardrums for the first word of how we did there, in its crazy, natural, sometimes silly and inconsequential way life went on elsewhere.

The day before Operation Overlord, a fairly important thing took place as Rome fell and Allied troops marched intro it. In China, squadrons of new super-fortress B-29s were being readied for their first attack on Japan (the first U.S. raids since the Dolittle “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” group had made its gallant gesture 2 ½ years before). Just about that same time, a famous name in show business was singing in New York with Mary Martin. Eddie Cantor sang: “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me.” [On one of the early shows the network eliminated the sound throughout the entire second verse. At the last minute it felt that the lyrics needed censoring.]

In Vicennes, Ind., Mrs. Lyndon Eberly and her daughter, Helen, heard on the radio that their soldier, Sgt. Richard Eberly, 21, had been one of the first to be landed by air in France. The Eberlys were praying. At 3:30 a.m. in Marietta, Ga., the bell of the Methodist Church began to peal; by 4 a.m. every church was lighted, and in very church people prayed. Aloud or in their hearts, plain men were not ashamed to say what General Eisenhower said in his Order of the Day to his men: “Good luck, and may the blessing of God go with you.”

In Japan, German correspondents in Tokyo writing for their newspapers revealed much that was not meant for U.S. eyes. When the Japanese Government closed all theaters, newspapers complained: “The hard-working population cannot live on patriotic speeches and moral sermons alone.”

The invasion of France was the Seventh Front. Maps were bought in large volume by civilians anxious to know where their friends, sons, husbands and families were located.

In Great Britain at Lewisham, Mrs. Edith Robinson, 32, had quadruplets and the news caused hardly a ripple. This was the fifth set born in Britain in a year, the third set born to wives of servicemen, the second set to wives of R.A.F. men.

Like 135 million of his countrymen, Franklin Roosevelt spent the week waiting for invasion bulletins. As the scanty news trickled in, the President, like his fellow citizens, took it steadily, neither optimistically, impatiently nor fearfully. But the nation’s eyes were on the coast of France. What happened in the hedge-rowed fields and the coastal swamps and beaches and in the ancient towns of Normandy was all important. But the people’s look at the war was farther, far beyond Normandy.

Since then Jack Ford has made many motion pictures, and what he regards as “my small, ant-like part in Overlord” has been hazed over by the passing years. Sometimes he thinks the events he remembers most vividly concerning those explosive days have to do with a small priest standing by a roadside before his squat Norman church, waving a tiny American flag, the kind that may be purchased in any five-and-dime store around Independence Day.

“Off to the right there was a little church,” Ford said. “Its little priest stood about five-feet-four. He had a little American flag in one hand and a big jug of calvados in the other. To us, that’s apple brandy. As our troops went by he dipped into it for them. Then he’d pour out another drink. When he ran out of brandy he gave them red wine. After that he served cider and last water. The water was appreciated as much as the brandy. As our guys streamed by and saw this little priest and the American flag, a lot of them asked his blessing and took a drink. My memory of that little man with his white hair is burned on the inside of my skull. He’d been saving that flag for a long, long time.

“When I went back there three years later,” Ford went on, “he was still there and I talked to him. By that time I had more boys buried there in that little priest’s cemetery. In spite of my bad French and the priest’s bad English, we talked up a storm. The priest kept talking about what he called ‘jour de dea.’ It was as close as his tongue could get to ‘D-Day.’ Perhaps no man’s tongue can get closer. It was a day for dying and a day for victory.”


  1. Junius Stout and Brick Marquard were the cameramen Ford selected to go ashore with Army Rangers in the invasion's first wave. Marquard received a Silver Star. -- (Tag Gallagher)
  2. Blarney . Ford’s birth and baptism certificates read John Martin Feeney. -- (Tag Gallagher)


John Ford

Director Links


They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

John Ford's Oral History of the Battle of Midway


Make a donation to The Film Journal

Search this site powered by FreeFind

This publication is indexed in the Movie Review Query Engine.

All material contained herein is © The Film Journal 2002-2005