Movies help us remember heroism of D-Day

For John D. Long, D-Day becomes real during the opening scenes of 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
A scene  from the film "Saving Private Ryan."
A scene from the film "Saving Private Ryan."

Categories: Entertainment, Life & Arts

For John D. Long, D-Day becomes real during the opening scenes of 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

“I’ll be surprised if they ever make another Omaha Beach movie because it would just become a pale imitation of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’” said Long, director of education at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.

The movie’s first 27 minutes shows the chaos and carnage of the Omaha Beach assault on June 6, 1944. It’s one movie people can watch to observe the 72nd anniversary of D-Day on Monday.

Long can suggest other movies, and can even suggest a D-Day Memorial program for D-Day viewing. He said the Memorial’s annual D-Day ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. EST Monday, live-streamed by local CBS television affiliate WDBJ.

WDBJ will also stay at the Memorial for the facility’s first-ever reading of the names of all 2,499 American troops killed during the Normandy invasion. That will begin at 12:30 p.m.

D-Day is always remembered. The bold military action landed 150,000 Allied troops along a 50-mile stretch of fortified French coastline during early morning hours to combat forces from Nazi Germany. More than 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft supported the invasion on five code-named beach zones: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

By the end of the day, the Allies had gained a foothold in France, but at high cost. According to the D-Day Memorial, nearly 10,000 Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded in the fierce fighting.

Movies help tell the story — and keep the memory of D-Day alive. Long said “Saving Private Ryan” succeeds because the film is so realistic. Long teaches a World War II history class, and once asked Memorial founder Bob Slaughter to watch “Ryan” beach scenes with his students.

“He told the students that was as close to real as anything he had ever seen and I know some veterans had trouble even watching it because it was so close to real,” Long said.

“Beyond that, I think they got it,” he added. “These are people to celebrate and honor what they did.”

People might not know the complete story behind the movie. In the film, Private James Francis Ryan’s three brothers have all been killed in action. James is missing in action in Normandy, and a group of soldiers are sent to find him and get him home.

“It wasn’t quite as dramatic, but there was a Private Niland — Frederick Fritz Niland of Tonawanda — who lost a brother on D-Day, another brother the next day and a third brother was missing in the Pacific,” Long said. “He was later found to be alive. At the time they thought three of his brothers had been killed. They didn’t have to do an elaborate search to find him, they just filed the paperwork for him to go home. The real story was saving Private Niland.”

More films

Other movies on Long’s list:

⇖ “The Longest Day,” from 1962.

“It’s a movie I love. It’s less graphic, but just as effective and it’s based on Cornelius Ryan’s book of oral histories. It is very true to life in the portrayals of the Allies and the Germans. It’s got a big cast, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum. Sean Connery, Eddie Albert, Henry Fonda and Red Buttons.”

⇖ “Band of Brothers,” from 2001.

“It’s a miniseries and it’s more than just D-Day. It’s also based on true oral histories of these guys.”

⇖ “The True Glory,” from 1945.

“It was introduced by General Eisenhower and it was more of a documentary about D-Day up until the end of the war in Europe, based on true stories. The tagline was, ‘The story of your victory, told by the guys who won it.’ It was pretty much a propaganda film. It wasn’t released until after the war was over, it came out in the U.S. in October of 1945, when there was no more need to drum up support for the war.”

⇖ “D-Day, the Sixth of June,” from 1956.

“It’s more of a romance, kind of a love triangle in the shadow of war that leads up to D-Day. It has Robert Taylor and Edmund O’Brien and it’s certainly much less bloody than ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ ”

The Memorial was established in Bedford because proportionally, the community suffered the nation’s most severe D-Day losses. It was dedicated on June 6, 2001.

For the Memorial’s D-Day observation, Long said no other museum or institute has compiled a complete list of men who died during the D-Day invasion. He said it’s taken 10 years, with researchers checking military and cemetery records.

Long added that 1,914 soldiers from other nations, such as Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom, also perished on D-Day. He said those names will be read on another occasion.

Long expects the American names will take about four hours to read. People such as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and “CBS This Morning” anchor Norah O’Donnell will participate in the remembrance.

One of several

And while D-Day and Pearl Harbor are days often recalled during World War II, Long said actions and bravery on other days should also be honored.

“I am always very careful to say D-Day doesn’t have a monopoly on valor, fidelity and sacrifice in World War II,” he said. “The soldiers who were storming the beaches at Normandy were no more brave or heroic than the ones at Guadalcanal or Sicily, the Marines at Iwo Jima or the sailors at the Battle of Leyte Gulf or any of the battles, but it was such an important fight and the complexity of the operations and the risks that were being taken — this was the path to victory in Europe.

“I always point out it really wasn’t a turning point in and of itself, because on June 5 we were winning the war and on June 7 we were winning the war,” Long said. “This wasn’t so much deciding who was going to win as deciding we are on our way to the final push to victory. But at the same time … this could have just as easily been one of the greatest defeats in American military history.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at

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