Weekly Zoom meeting - May 27: A Young Surgeon's Experiences on D-Day

On June 4, 1940, speaking in the House of Commons during the Battle of France, Winston Churchill sought to steel the British people for the imminent conflict that today is known as the Battle of Britain. “We shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home,” his words rang out defiantly, “ride out the storm of war and .. outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary, for years, if necessary, alone. … We shall never surrender and if, which I do not for the moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old.” That moment came almost four years later to the day. On June 6, 1944, the Allied Expeditionary Force landed on the beaches of Normandy. Omaha Beach was the sector assigned to American forces. The primary objective there was to secure a beachhead 5 miles wide, linking the British landings at Gold Beach to the east and the VII Corps landing at Utah beach to the west. The fiercest fighting on D-Day occurred at Omaha Beach. The highest casualties were sustained there. Difficulties in navigation caused the majority of landing craft to miss their targets throughout the day. Under heavy fire, engineers in the first wave struggled to clear the beach obstacles; later landings bunched up around the few channels that had been cleared. Weakened by the casualties taken just in landing, surviving assault troops were unable to clear the heavily defended exits off the beach. This in turn hindered later landings. Small penetrations were eventually achieved by improvised assaults that scaled the bluffs between the most heavily defended points. By the end of the day, two small isolated footholds had been secured. The opening ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan vividly depicts the chaos that unfurled that day.

The D-Day beaches today are an easy day trip from Paris. Trains from the Gare Saint Lazare whisk visitors to Bayeux in just under two hours. From there, a half hour drive gets you to Omaha Beach. Ruins of German pillboxes overlooking the ocean are easily visible from the highway. The beach itself today is an utterly deserted stretch of sand in the upscale vacation resort of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. Nothing about the tranquil surroundings hints at the carnage of 1944 — until, that is, your eyes settle on the sheer cliffs overlooking it at Pointe-de-Hoc. German artillery pieces positioned there threatened to rake Omaha Beach with fire that potentially could have decimated the landing forces before they even came within range of the German bunkers lining the shoreline. The Second Ranger Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. James E. Rudder scaled the bluffs to neutralize that threat. Only 90 of its 225 members survived. They successfully defended the summit against determined German counterattacks until the beachhead below was secured

It was years after his father died that Skip Cambell, our speaker this afternoon, came across a scrapbook and three small notebooks describing his father’s experience on D-Day as a military surgeon. Darrel Campbell completed his residency in surgery at the University of Michigan. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Medical Corps. He led Team 13 of the Third Surgical Auxiliary during the assault on Omaha Beach when it came ashore at D plus 7 hours. Our speaker will tell us about the impact that this experience had on his father throughout his life.