Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Longest Day Dawns

Cornelius Ryan (1920–1974)
From Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far

Members of an Army Engineer Special Brigade (identifiable by the insignias on their helmets) assist troops whose landing craft was sunk by enemy fire off Omaha Beach, near Colleville-sur-Mer, on June 6, 1944. Photograph by Louis Weintraub, Army Signal Corps. (National Archives)
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Daily Telegraph reporter Cornelius Ryan watched the invasion of Normandy from the relative safety of an American bomber. “I was the last correspondent to fly over the Allied Beachhead this evening,” he wrote in his dispatch for the London newspaper. Ryan had hoped to see the attack eight hours earlier, but the first plane he took had to turn back when it experienced mechanical difficulties five miles off the coast. “Unlike the earlier missions, we had excellent visibility and could see up and down the Channel for many miles. . . . The whole sky as far as one could see in any direction was just one mass of aircraft of every type.”

He and a group of former war correspondents returned to France in 1949 for the fifth anniversary of D-Day. Ryan later recalled how he walked along one of the invasion beaches and “began to look at the flotsam and jetsam of war still there: burned-out vehicles, weapons.” The experience of the visit inspired him to consider writing a book, and he began his research by reading more than two hundred published accounts of the invasion. He continued to work on the book while employed as an editor at Collier’s and turned to it full-time after the magazine ceased publication in December 1956. With financial and research assistance from Reader’s Digest, Ryan sent out thousands of questionnaires to D-Day veterans and conducted, either in person or through his assistants, several hundred interviews. “I have no less than 7,000 books on every aspect of World War II,” he explained later in his career. “My files contain some 16,000 different interviews with Germans, British, French, etc. Then there is the chronology of each battle, 5x7 cards, detailing each movement by hour for the particular work I’m engaged in. You may think this is all a kind of madness, an obsession. I suppose it is.”

Excerpts from the book appeared in Reader’s Digest in June and July 1959 and Simon & Schuster published The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 in November with a first printing of 85,000 copies. The book was reprinted numerous times as it spent twenty-two weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list. The French film producer Raoul Levy bought the film rights for $100,000 and hired Ryan to write the screenplay. When Levy was unable to secure enough financing for the project, he sold the rights to Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who retained Ryan as the screenwriter. Ryan’s insistence on historical accuracy clashed with Zanuck’s flair for dramatic license, and the producer eventually enlisted the help of associate producer Elmo Williams and several other writers to clean up the script and to write additional scenes. After the Writers Guild was brought in for arbitration, Ryan received the sole screenwriting credit, but “additional episodes” were credited to the novelists Romain Gary and James Jones, as well as David Pursall and Jack Seddon. The movie, featuring an all-star cast that included John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Robert Mitchum, became the second-highest-grossing release of 1962.

In the decades after the book was published Ryan received over 20,000 letters from veterans and their relatives and friends, and he incorporated some of their anecdotes in two magazine articles. (Both pieces are included in the just-published Library of America volume reprinting The Longest Day alongside his 1974 masterpiece A Bridge Too Far.) Ryan singled out one “heartwarming” letter that alone justified his ten years of research; a young woman who read the book at last came to terms with the death of the father she never knew: “Thank you for giving me my father after all these years.” One particularly memorable and haunting vision had been described by several eyewitnesses. At the height of the invasion of Omaha Beach, a French civilian and his young son were seen placidly maneuvering a boat off the coastline, “surrounded by small-arms fire,” while pulling aboard the dead and rescuing wounded soldiers from the sea. Major Elmore Swenson told Ryan, “Who they were or where they came from we never found out.”

For our Story of the Week selection, we present in its entirety the chapter detailing the experiences of troops and officers, both Allied and German, as dawn broke on the morning of June 6, 1944.

Notes: The five invasion beaches were code-named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” is a poem written in 1907 by the British Canadian writer Robert W. Service, known as “the Bard of the Yukon.”

Many of the details about The Longest Day’s publication history and movie adaptation have been abridged from “The Note on the Texts” and “Chronology” sections of the Library of America edition.

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Never had there been a dawn like this. In the murky, gray light, in majestic, fearful grandeur, the great Allied fleet lay off Normandy’s five invasion beaches. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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