‘The Longest Day’ tells story of D-Day while respecting history

Ned Jilton • Aug 28, 2019 at 6:45 PM

With the “D-Day 75th Anniversary” event hosted by A Walk in Their Boots taking place Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, I’ve been thinking about movies based on D-Day.

Of course, today everyone thinks of “Saving Private Ryan.” But how many of you remember “The Longest Day?”

The 1962 epic featured a stellar cast including John Wayne, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery — just before he appeared as James Bond for the first time.

Both movies are action packed, with the battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” being far more realistic. But where “The Longest Day” shines is in its historical accuracy.

All the characters in “Saving Private Ryan” are fictional, while the vast majority of the characters in “The Longest Day” are based on the actual people who fought at Normandy.

Take for example Pvt. John Steele of the 82nd Airborne, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who was played by Red Buttons.

Steele was part of an unfortunate group of paratroopers who were dropped by mistake directly into the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Many were gunned down by the Germans before they hit the ground, but Steele’s parachute snagged on the church tower.

The wounded trooper hung there while the bells to call the villagers together to fight the fires caused by Allied bombing just before the attack kept ringing in his ears.

After he listened to those bells ring for two hours, the Germans finally captured Steele. But he would escape a few days later and rejoin his unit in time to take the village, capturing 30 Germans and killing 11 in the process. Steele would get the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his actions.

Everything up to Steele playing dead while hanging wounded from the tower is in the movie. You don’t see the capture or the escape of Steele, but you see his character again when Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, played by John Wayne, arrives with more of the 82nd Airborne to take the village.

We don’t get to see the 82nd take the village because the move shifts back to the action on the beach. In fact, throughout the movie the action shifts from the beach to the Airborne troops, back to the beach and then to the French resistance, each time telling part of a story of another person who was actually there.

Another example, this one from the beach, is Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, played by Robert Mitchum.

In the movie, Mitchum has the line, “Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the Fighting 29th.”

On D-Day, the real Cota arrived at Omaha Beach only to find that the men of the 29th Infantry Division had sprinted to the base of a low sea wall about 150 yards from the shoreline and took cover there, unwilling to move any farther.

As the story goes, Cota walked up to a group of soldiers who were mixed in with the 29th and asked, “What outfit is this?”

Someone yelled, “5th Rangers.”

To which Cota replied, “Well, damn it, if you are Rangers, then get up there and lead the way!” Thus creating the Ranger motto “Rangers lead the way.”

Then Cota turned to the men of the 29th and uttered the line used in the movie to inspire them to move. A few sources, however, say the line was, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.”

After engineers blasted a gap in the barbed wire with a Bangalore torpedo, an action used in both “Saving Private Ryan” as well as “the Longest Day” and just about every other D-Day movie, the men started to move through the gap and up the hill when the first one through the gap was cut down by machine gun fire.

Again the advance stopped as the men took cover, afraid to move. Cota jumped up and ran through the gap. Finding cover on the other side, he shouted for the men to follow him.

Once again, the troops followed the general and begin to move up the hill and off the beach through a minefield. Cota and a few men made it through and continued to take the objective. As more men arrived, they found Cota standing there, twirling his pistol like a movie cowboy and asking, “Where you been, boys?”

Cota then took a few men and captured a German machine gun position.

The next day, Cota was leading men into a village when he ordered a captain to take and clear a house occupied by Germans. The captain replied that he didn’t know how to take a house.

Cota, with a couple of men, then crept up on the house using a hedge as cover. Then, screaming like a demon, he ran toward the house, threw grenades through the windows, kicked in the door as the explosives went off and, with the other men, begin shooting.

A few surviving Germans ran out the back of the house.

Cota then returned to the captain and asked if he knew how to clear a house now. The surprised captain answered in the affirmative, to which Cota was reported to have said, “Good, because I won’t be around to do it again. I can’t do it for everybody.”

You don’t get to see the house clearing part in the movie. It stops with the action on the beach and shifts to another story.

For his actions at Omaha Beach on D-Day, Cota was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Order and the Silver Star. Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery pinned the DSO on him. Cota would also receive a Purple Heart and a second Silver Star for his actions later in the attack at Saint-Lo.

Not bad for a guy who was one of the oldest men on Omaha Beach that day. He was more than 50 at the time.

“The Longest Day” is a movie well worth checking out during the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It shows events from all perspectives, including the Germans’.

In fact one of my favorite lines in the movie comes from a German officer.

“You know those 5,000 ships you said the Allies don’t have? Well, they have them.”

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]