Last week's observance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day is fading, but at least two things will help keep the memory of that battle alive between such landmark ceremonies. One is the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. The other is Cornelius Ryan's "The Longest Day," the classic book about D-Day that should be on everyone's summer reading list.
Ryan, a native of Ireland, was a war correspondent when the Allies staged their massive invasion of Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944. Assigned to the U.S. Ninth Air Force, he saw the huge invasion fleet from a plane that day. Ryan thrived as a journalist, eventually moving to the United States and becoming a naturalized citizen.
In 1949, while attending a ceremony in Normandy marking the fifth anniversary of D-Day, Ryan got an idea to write a book about the invasion. He began researching what would become "The Longest Day.” The title comes from a remark from German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who correctly predicted that the outcome of any Allied invasion of Europe would be the war's turning point. Rommel sensed that “for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”
In drawing on the words of a German officer, Ryan signaled that he would tell his story from both sides of the battle. Another innovation of “The Longest Day” is its use of first-person accounts from rank-and-file warriors, material Ryan collected by placing ads in national magazines seeking the memories of survivors.
Veterans who responded to the ads got a questionnaire asking them to share basic details, including any memories of what had gone wrong on D-Day. Ryan wanted to convey that war, for all its best-laid battle plans, is a terrible, messy business, full of snap judgments and tragic miscalculations. The miracle is that in the midst of such chaos, brave souls carry on.
As part of his questionnaire, Ryan also asked veterans if any of their friends had died on D-Day. With a reticence typical of his generation, former Army officer William Rhinehart Washington answered with just one word: “Hundreds.”
The popularity of “The Longest Day” was extended when a blockbuster movie version came out in 1962. Many of us know the movie as a staple of summertime TV, its three-hour length something viewers embraced as an emblem of the season’s seemingly endless afternoons. Of course, it’s strange that any pleasure can result from a film about a terrible tragedy.
Ryan’s book embodies a similar irony. His subject is profoundly unsettling, but his writing is beautiful, combining the lyrical imagery of a novel with copious historical detail. A new edition of “The Longest Day” was recently brought out by the Library of America.
With a humility common among the men he wrote about, Ryan asked that a one-word description be etched on the headstone where he was buried in Connecticut after his death in 1974.
That epitaph, put simply, is “Reporter.”