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BW 8 B Dad WWII Memorial 2004


Common Ground—Steven Spielberg gets Barbara talking with her father

Common Ground — Steven Spielberg gets Barbara talking with her father

Quiet. That was my father, Frank Clum. He didn’t say much. Couldn’t. The cheerful chatterboxes, know-it-alls and complainers in my immediate and extended family rarely stopped talking, and my father gave up trying to get a word in. The one thing he did talk about, and wouldn’t let anyone talk over or argue with him about when he did, was World War II and the invasion of Omaha Beach.

The Longest Day, the docudrama about the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy Beach was my father’s favorite film. He watched it every time it was on television right up until he died in 2008. He sat himself down in his armchair with a cup of coffee, some potato chips or strawberry ice cream, a pack of Camels and an ash tray (until he was seventy and forced to give up smoking) and disappeared into that film. Every time he did, my mother asked, Frank, how can you watch that movie over and over again?” 

Easy answer for me: He had been there on Omaha Beach, part of the US 1, the Big Red One, Infantry Division. I believe my father didn’t need to watch The Longest Day to remember the heroism and horrors of the invasion and those memories never stopped playing in his head. Was watching this film whenever he could, I wonder, proof that what he saw on Omaha Beach had been real? Did watching soften his memories of the boatloads of men dead before they’d even reached the shore?

Saving Private Ryan opened in 1998. The first weekend it was in theaters, Geoff and I were down in Cape May, New Jersey with our friends Paula and Dee. It was a sunny Saturday. Still, there were people lined up outside the Beach 4 Movie Theater to buy tickets, giving up the sun, sand and surf to sit in the dark and relive the largest military invasion, 156,000 Allied troops, ever staged. We did the same. We’d been warned the opening Omaha Beach battle scenes were brutal. We thought we could take it. We’d seen countless war movies and been scared out of our seats through horror movies before. What could Spielberg shoot that we had never seen before? Short answer: Everything, starting with shooting those opening minutes of the film so that we were on the ground, crawling across the sand and seeing the bombs explode, bodies fly and all the carnage of war through our own eyes. My head spun and heart pounded, pure sensory overload, and I knew I would never have survived that day and needed to know how my father did. 

Monday morning, 10:00 a.m., I called my father, and we talked for the longest I had ever talked to him on the phone. I asked him about that day. He talked. I listened about how he did what he had to do to get himself and his fellow infantrymen off that beach alive, about crawling through the sand while shells from Nazi artillery that rose from massive concrete bunkers built into the hillsides along the coast bombarded them and blew men to their deaths, about going on to serve out the rest of the war under General George Patton. He told me he didn’t think he would see Saving Private Ryan. He had heard about and didn’t think he could make it through the opening scenes. 

No going back: Years later, Geoff and I made plans to take my father and mother to France and back to Omaha Beach. My father got sick. Needed surgery. We didn’t go. We rescheduled. The attacks of 9/11 happened. We rescheduled our trip and my father caught pneumonia. We had to cancel again, and I didn’t reschedule their trip. We went to Omaha Beach on our own, with my brother, Frank, and sister-in-law, Ellen, and paid tribute. I don’t know if my father didn’t want to go back and got sick every time a return trip loomed large or neither he nor my mother were well enough to travel in their eighties. I’ll never know, and I will always regret that we never got them to France and Normandy. At least, I soothe myself, knowing my father, mother, niece, Geoff and I made it to the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. and Geoff and I got my father to every local VFW event, parade or school assembly until July 4, 2008; his last parade.