Back in 1995, I presented at a conference on the cultural aspects of the 1994 D-Day celebrations. I observed that these ceremonies took place shortly after the completion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations, a treaty that French farmers saw as pure American imperialism. U.S. flags were burned in France’s campagnes, but many more flew over dwellings and public buildings on June 6, suggesting that only in France can one be virulently anti-American in March and totally pro-American in June. Such are my people’s foibles.
Researching the paper, I located D-Day veterans willing to talk about how they assessed the celebrations. Among those who agreed to answer my questions was, arguably, the most iconic Normandy veteran, PFC Ed Regan, 116th Regimental Combat Team, 29th U.S. Infantry Division, still at the time identified as the subject of one of photographer Robert Capa’s eleven surviving pictures of Omaha Beach. You have seen it: showing a GI trying to keep his head above water, this blurry, chilling snapshot captures the brutal chaos of combat as well as one man’s determination to reach the dry side of the beach.
An affable man already suffering from the cancer that would take his life in 1998, Ed Regan had chosen not to participate in the 1994 celebrations. He was unassuming about his contribution to Allied victory and did not allude to the Capa picture until I did. He stated that the photo did not make him “special” and observed that it did not convey the panic he experienced when it was taken. We talked for two hours, after which he gave me a signed copy of the photo. I never saw him again. The picture has become as invaluable to me as the two photos of my paternal grandfather somehow taken in a French detention camp days before his deportation to Auschwitz. They are interwoven in the same historical and emotional continuum.
The snapshot became a topic of controversy in the 90s as scholars contended that the struggling infantryman could have been one of two other survivors, Alphonse J. Arsenault and Huston Riley. Maybe these researchers were right. Is anyone, however, willing to blame Ed Regan for being unsure of his location at every second of his ordeal through the kill-zone? Could it be that he was focusing on other things, such as dodging bullets? Or maybe the picture represents none of the three men, but a GI buried at the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery. Who knows? What I do know is that Ed Regan was there, got shot at, and survived to fight another day. I am glad he got to go back home to Pennsylvania to later retire in Atlanta. Meeting a man of his caliber was my privilege, an experience I remember every June 6 as I light a memorial candle. Frankly, I could not care less whether my framed picture is that of Ed Regan or some other GI. I would not sell it for a million dollars.
As the memory of D-Day recedes and the number of witnesses dwindles, historians still speculate as to why Ed Regan and his cohorts fought as they did. They may have had only a vague idea of what Nazism was and probably waged war so that they and their buddies would go home. The “Greatest Generation,” as any group of fighting men and women from the beginning of time, was not composed solely of heroes. I, however, strongly believe that what they and their allies collectively achieved, from Belgium to Burma, is not a matter of speculation. The net outcome of their courage is that they rid the world of one of the most vicious ideologies to ever come out of a human mind. They just wanted to go home in a world that was a little better for their sacrifices. Too many of them did not. That is well worth a RIP and every possible scintilla of gratitude we can grant them.
A native of Paris, France, Laurent Ditmann has lived in the Atlanta area since 1991. A military historian at heart, he has worked in business, non-profit management, and consulting before returning to higher education at PC-GSU in 2015.