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‘Bloody Omaha’

LAST MONTH the nation lost one its most distinguished public servants. Our family lost a dear friend. Domingo Siazon Jr., the first career diplomat to be appointed secretary of foreign affairs passed away in Tokyo after a lingering battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.

“Jun,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, was a member of Ateneo High School class 1955. Among his classmates were former president Joseph Estrada, Ambassador Jesus Tambunting, businessman Antonio Lopa, and a host of other prominent personalities in society and government. Siazon had a degree in physics from Tokyo University and a master’s degree in public administration from the JFK School of Government in Harvard.

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Prior to his appointment as foreign secretary, Siazon served as director general of the Vienna-based UN Industrial Development Organization, one of the few Filipinos to head a specialized agency of the United Nations.

Kay and the children remain in our thoughts and prayers.

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Most tourists go to France to have their picture taken with the famed Eiffel Tower in the background, or to visit the Louvre with its treasure trove of valuable paintings and historical artifacts. Many Filipinos head for Lourdes to wash at the springs located in the town where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared before the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous.

My boyhood dream was to visit Normandy in the northern part of the country, site of several allied invasion landings during World War II.

Ten years ago, Penny and I attended the wedding of a nephew in Geneva. We decided to leave a bit earlier so as to be able to include a side trip to Normandy. It was the fulfillment of dreams that were nurtured by two movies, “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

For those of the younger generations who may not be too familiar with events during World War II, “The Longest Day” is the title of a book on the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, by Cornelius Ryan. The title has its origins in a comment by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, six weeks before the assault was launched. Rommel declared, “The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. The fate of Germany depends on the outcome… for the Allies as well as Germany. It will be the longest day.”

On the sixth of June 1944, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, gave the signal to commence the invasion of Europe. His orders: “In company with our allies and brothers-in-arms you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in the free world… We will accept nothing less than full victory!” That same day, he scribbled a far different message and tucked it in his wallet. It read “Our landings have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

June 6, 1944, was also the graduation of his son John from West Point. The class of 1944 was graduated a year early because of the needs of the war. On June 9, in possibly the classic understatement of the century, General Eisenhower sent the following telegram to his wife Mamie, “Due to previous engagement, it was impossible to be with you and John but I thought of you and I know you understand.” Incidentally, Eisenhower’s appointment as supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force came as a complete surprise.

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Before he received the four stars he wore on his shoulder, 53-year-old “Ike” Eisenhower had never commanded so much as a platoon in battle. The man who was tipped to command the invasion of Europe was Gen. George C. Marshall, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not feel he could spare Marshall from Washington. And so, Eisenhower who had impressed all his bosses with his intelligence, hard work and strategic vision was chosen to lead the most important operation in World War II.

History tells us that the invasion plan called for five landing beaches in the Normandy area: “Utah” and “Omaha” were to be hit by American forces led by Gen. Omar Bradley, while British and Canadian units under Lt. Gen. Miles Dempsey were to move into areas designated as “Gold,” “Juno” and “Sword.” The landings were preceded by airdrops spearheaded by the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 6th British Airborne. For the French resistance forces operating inland, a couplet from Paul Verlaine’s “Chanson d’automne” (Autumn song) would be the signal by radio for them to start preassigned sabotage missions.

Of the five invasion beaches, “Omaha” turned out to be the bloodiest. For one, US forces went up against one of the best defensive positions laid out by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Over 2,000 GIs died during the initial assault as they were raked by interlocking machine gun fire and by heavy guns from concrete bunkers. Aerial bombardment was ineffective due to poor visibility. Total Allied losses on D-Day exceeded 10,000 with the Americans suffering some 6,500 killed, while the British and Canadian losses were about 3,000.

At Colleville-sur-Mer, on a cliff overlooking Omaha beach, is the Normandy American Cemetery, home to over 9,000 American casualties from all over Europe. A total of 173 acres in the Normandy area were ceded in perpetuity by France. Along with the American cemetery, there are also British, Canadian and German memorials honoring their soldiers who fell in battle. They are gardens of silence and serenity, perhaps evincing the desire of all nations involved to forgive, if not to forget.

In comparison, the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial located in the Philippines is home to 17,206 US soldiers who perished in the Pacific War with some 36,000 in the missing rolls. For me, it remains one of the most impressive of the memorials established by the United States in honor of their war dead.

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TAGS: Cancer, diplomat, Domingo Siazon Jr, Foreign affairs, France, invasion, Normandy, Omaha, opinion, Siazon, World War II
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