When 156,000 men were landed on the beaches and countryside during the Normandy Invasion of June 6th 1944 with over another 200,000 in support roles, it has to be remembered that many of these men were not career soldiers. They were butchers, bakers and candlestick makers and some of them went on to establish themselves during peacetime as household names.
John D Salinger
The world famous American author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye” was born in 1919 to a Catholic mother and a successful Jewish father. He didn’t excel as a student and was described as an awkward, skinny underachieving kid. He did, however, start to show his writing ability when he attended Columbia University under the tutelage of an inspiring teacher called Whit Burnett.
By the age of 27 and on the morning of D-Day he found himself taken away from his privileged life and was in an assault craft that was part of the first wave to land on Utah beach. He landed and carried with him throughout the Normandy campaign the first six chapters of his now world famous book. After Normandy he fought in the carnage of the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, where he shared champagne with Ernest Hemingway, who was reporting the war. He was also amongst the first troops to enter the Dachau Concentration camp. Salinger survived the war physically, but was left scarred mentally by what he saw and suffered from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He never released any works that referenced his war experience, but starting in 2015 some of his never before seen work will be published. It will be interesting to see if there are any references to his wartime experiences.
Promotional photo of the cast of Star Trek during the third season (1968–1969). From left to right: James Doohan, Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley, Majel Barrett, William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, and George Takei. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
James Doohan (Scotty)
Any Trekkie can tell you that James Doohan plays the dour Scot in the original Star Trek series and movies and that he was actually from Vancouver in Canada. What many people don’t know is that on D-Day he landed on Juno Beach as a lieutenant with the 13th Canadian Field Artillery Regiment that was part of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. When he and his men came under fire, Doohan personally shot two snipers and led his men to safer higher ground through a field of anti-tank mines, where they took defensive positions for the night. Crossing between command posts at 11:30 that night, Doohan was hit by six rounds fired from a Bren gun by a nervous Canadian sentry. He took four in his leg, one in the chest, and one through his right middle finger that was later amputated. During close up acting scenes a stand in’s hand was used, but if you look carefully you can see his four fingered hand on Star Trek. The potentially fatal bullet to his chest was stopped by a silver cigarette case.
After the war Doohan moved to London to further his education and started to do the voiceovers that eventually led to him being the worldwide star that we know today as Scotty.
Cropped screenshot of Richard Todd from the trailer for the film Stage Fright (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The quintessential British Hollywood star was born in Dublin to affluent parents. His father was a physician in the British Army. Todd initially entered Sandhurst to follow his father in the military, but by the time that war broke out he already had a blossoming career as an actor. He soon enlisted and by June 6th 1944 he was a Captain in the 7th Parachute Battalion. He and 600 other men from his battalion landed very early on D-Day with the objective to support Major Howard and his men, who had landed earlier, in holding Pegasus Bridge and to secure the eastern wing of the overall invasion. At 00.40 Todd was flying over the channel in the Stirling Bomber that was to drop them. He was encumbered with kit including a rubber dinghy, entrenching tools, a Sten gun, ammunition and grenades. By 00.52 he was on the ground and landed disorientated, in the pitch black with bullets flying around him. He heard a whistle being blown by Major Howard at Pegasus Bridge and made his way towards the sound.
Todd arrived at the bridge, was given his orders, went over the bridge and turned right into Le Port to set up position just below the church. The 7th Battalion came under heavy fire and by noon they were only just holding on against sustained German attacks. There was also the problem of a sniper in the church tower that was eventually dislodged by one of Todd’s men firing a PIAT. It wasn’t until the afternoon that Todd and his men were relieved and the situation was stable.
Todd carried on fighting with the British Army until the end of the war, when he returned to his acting career and became one of the leading men of his time. He returned to Pegasus Bridge in 1962 when he played Major Howard in Daryl Zanuck’s “The Longest Day”. He was delighted to play the part, but he wasn’t happy at the historical inaccuracies portrayed in the name of entertainment.
Todd continued his acting career almost up to his death from cancer in 2009. His life was however clouded with sadness and tragedy: he divorced twice and two of his sons committed suicide. He likened these tragedies to his experiences he had to deal with during the war.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s grave marker at the American World War II cemetery in Normandy. He lies buried next to his brother, Quentin, who was killed during World War I. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr
At the time of the D-day landings Theo Roosevelt Jr was a well-known personality. He was the son of the former American President with the same name and he was the distant cousin of the current President, Franklin D Roosevelt. He was an unlikely general, he had a flair for politics and literature and the rigours of army life hardly seemed compatible for such a bon vivant. He had even had his own books published with titles such as “Trailing the Giant Panda” and “The Three Kingdoms of Indo-China” and he had been the Governor-General of the Philippines.
He was by now 56 years old with leathery brown skin and walked with a cane, due to arthritis and a knee injury sustained during the First World War. He had used all of his political guile and obstinacy to ensure that he would be with the first wave of troops landing on Utah Beach. He landed at 06.30 as the Assistant Divisional Commander of the US 4th Division. He was among the first to realise that he and 600 troops had landed at the wrong part of the beach – they were about 2000 metres south of their designated landing point. Poor weather conditions and the “fog” of war were to blame. Roosevelt quickly took control of the situation – realizing that their pre-determined plans were now redundant he made the famous directive to his officers and men; “We’re going to start the war here”. His quick decisive thinking ensured that the landing was a success. If he had marched his men up to their original objectives they would have at the very least suffered more casualties, as the area was more heavily defended than where they had landed.
Roosevelt worked all day with his cane in hand ensuring that his men safely got off the beach. He personally welcomed subsequent waves of troops landing on the beach and gave them new objectives whilst remaining cheerful and telling stories and anecdotes to calm the nerves of the troops. He walked around apparently oblivious to the dangers and at no point did he draw his pistol.
For this unfaltering bravery Roosevelt was awarded America’s highest award for valour, the Medal of Honor, one of only three on D-Day. It was unfortunately awarded posthumously as Roosevelt was to die of a heart attack just a few weeks later on July 12th. He now lies in a grave at the American Cemetery above Omaha beach next to his brother Quentin, a pilot killed in World War I aged only 20.
The great British actor who won an academy award for playing Colonel Nicholson in Bridge over the River Kwai also played a real part in the war. He was part of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, serving first as an ordinary seaman and then commissioned in 1942. He was to take command of a Royal Navy landing craft and see action during the invasions of Sicily and Elba. Come D-Day, he was again in charge of a landing craft, ferrying men and materials to and from the British designated beaches.
He was better known later in his acting career as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, although he thought that it was “fairytale rubbish”. He did however say, “I gave my best performances during the war – trying to be an officer and a gentleman.”
The famous film director, a veteran of World War I, was not an actual combatant in the Normandy Invasion but played his part as head of the Photographic department of the Office of Strategic Services. Based on board U.S.S Plunkett, which was stationed off Omaha Beach along with $1 million worth of photographic gear, he witnessed the ill-fated first waves of troops landing. He would land later on in the day to film the Normandy invasion for posterity. When he landed he ran forward and started placing his men behind obstacles. He was in the thick of the fighting and saw dead and injured men on the beach – later he said that he felt disconnected and can’t remember actually seeing anyone get shot. He was absorbed in his work and his own small world around him and carried on filming all of that day and for several days afterwards. The only shooting he did was with a camera, but he was no less brave than any other soldier.
His films were shipped back to London and processed in both colour and black and white. Some parts were released in US cinemas, but it was felt that many of the films showed too many American casualties. Ford insisted before his death that all of the films still survived, but unfortunately, it seems that today many of them are lost.
Ford carried on filming the war until it was over and then became a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy Reserve during the Korean War. He returned to civilian life and continued to make films to the end of his life, including his famous Westerns starring John Wayne.