FILMING IN NORMANDY 9.30 - 10.4.2009

On sunny afternoons, the French coastline north of Bayeux—especially those beaches known to history as ‘Omaha’ and ‘Utah’—are active places.  You’ll see youngsters tossing beach balls, sunbathing, or strapped to hangliders. 

Some people find this sacrilegious, thinking that the area should be preserved for posterity and off-limits to general summer frolicking, but chances are, folks that feel this way are not among the men who actually stormed ashore here sixty-five years ago this past June 6.

One of them, Captain Merle Barr, feels the opposite: “The freedom to use these beautiful beaches for recreation is exactly what we were fighting to restore.”
There may be no ‘typical’ soldier involved in the D-Day invasion, which was to culminate nearly a year later on May 8 when the Allies accepted the surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany, but Captain Barr comes close.  Born in rural Washtenaw County in 1922, his life was shaping up to be much like his father’s—steady employment at a local company, an eye on getting married and raising a family.   Like most of his contemporaries, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the War changed everything.  Inducted into the Army in late 1942, he was considered ‘officer material’ and left the three-month ‘condensed’ training school with a commission as a  2nd Lieutenant.   Barr volunteered for the 112th Combat Battalion, and found himself among the approximately 160,000 Allied soldiers who came ashore on D-Day. 
Barr’s story is one of incredible odds—a 2nd Lieutenant’s chances of surviving D-Day and the subsequent year of fighting were negligible—but also one of unassuming heroism.  When, out of dozens of candidates, Visionalist Entertainment Productions phoned Captain Barr and offered him an opportunity to return, for the first time, to the Omaha Beach sector known as ‘Dog Red’, he replied, “But, why me?  There were plenty of men who did more, sacrificed more…”

Not many, it turns out.  Originally attached to the 112th, Barr found himself, on the morning of the invasion, temporarily assigned to the 121st Engineers as a liaison.  His mission was to determine progress made by the 121st, then make his way back to his own battalion after the landing.  As it happened, he was the second man from his landing craft at H-Hour plus sixty minutes, and he’d barely made it into the neck-deep water when the ship was struck by an enemy 88mm shell, one of the most formidable weapons in the Nazi arsenal.  The ship exploded with a casualty rate that exceeded fifty percent. 

“The two men on board who had, a second earlier, wished me luck?  I turned to see them burning alive on the deck...”  Barr recounts solemnly.

This story, along with Barr’s excruciating journey inland, alone or attached briefly to a group of the 5th Rangers while pinned down by murderous machine gun fire from the overlooking pillboxes, made up one of the most riveting personal accounts we have heard in the filming of Detroit: Our Greatest Generation.  Having survived the initial invasion, and slept in one of Normandy’s soon-to-be-infamous hedgerows near the corpse of a fallen German officer, Barr returned to the beach the following morning to witness one of the most horrific scenes of Allied devastation of the war.
“The beach was littered with dead, hundreds upon hundreds of bodies, some still washing ashore.  I have never seen such wholesale human destruction anywhere in the world, before or since—not even at the Nazi forced labor camps at Nordhausen where I was assigned later.”

These memories remain at the forefront of Captain (he was promoted near the war’s end) Barr mind, but according to his son Brad, “Dad didn’t talk about it much when I was growing up.  It’s only been over the past few years that I realized the scope of what he experienced during the War.”

The elder Barr concedes this fact with a shrug.  “I was concentrating on other things; not reliving the past.  I had a family to raise and support, and the War seemed like one of those life experiences that we all have—some, maybe, more intense than others.”
Brad, a Desert Storm veteran and currently, a Staff Sergeant with the Air Force Reserves, was honored to accompany his father back to Normandy Beach early in October, 2009, to experience along with his father some of the  landmarks—Omaha Beach, St. Lo, Bayeux, that he knew his father had fought to liberate many decades ago.  “Dad began to open up once he knew the trip was a go.  I learned more about his war experiences in the past month or so than I have my entire life.  Even as a veteran myself, I am staggered what these men—boys, really—were able to accomplish in D-Day and the months following.  That my father played a role in the liberation of Europe from the opening of those conflicts until the end?  There’s no way to express my pride.”
The journey to Normandy by the Barrs was sponsored by Bob Gillette of American House Senior Living Residences, who accompanied the Visionalist crew to France to begin outfitting small museum of World War II-related artifacts for his planned ‘Greatest Generation Room’ at the Southfield American House, one of 27 retirement villages throughout Michigan.

Wixom-based historian Nate Strong, who will help lay out the room, agreed that there is memorabilia available here at ground-zero that can’t be found anywhere else on earth.  Paul Woodadge, an English ex-pat who runs tours to various sites in and around Normandy Beach via Battlebus, was another invaluable member of the production team, pointing out the ‘can’t miss’ locations related to Captain Barr’s wartime experiences.
Among them was la Chapelle de la Madeleine, just outside of St. Lo, where Nate and Paul helped to organize a reception to honor the ‘return’ of Captain Barr.  St. Lo was an important road junction town, whose capture would open up the possibility of a drive deep into the French interior.  The chapel/museum curator, Jean Mignon, spoke warmly with Captain Barr, and presented him with several gifts in gratitude for Barr’s service.  Fourteen years old at the time, Mignon was well aware of the precarious battle that had saved his town—and likely, his life.

Many museums dot the French countryside, some small like the la Chapelle de la Madeleine, others massive, like the Musee Memorial d’Omaha Beach, which contains a full arsenal of equipment, uniforms and memorabilia from the various battles that ensued following the Allied landing.

Nothing moved Captain Barr so intensely, however, than the American cemetery and memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking the beach itself, where more than nine thousand American soldiers have been laid to rest.  Of particular poignancy was the ceremony in which Captain Barr raised two American flags over the cemetery and later, the discovery of the grave of First Lieutenant Walter B. Bidlack, who had taken overBarr’s platoon following his reassignment as a liaison officer. 

“I have no doubt,” said Captain Barr, as he placed a flower on Bidlack’s grave, “that had I not received the order to attach to the 121st Battalion, I would be in this grave instead of Lieutenant Bidlack.”

Such vagaries of fate, which make up the history of World War II, are nowhere more obvious than in the initial mayhem, and subsequent success, of the Normandy invasion.
Sixty-five years after D-Day, the echo of artillery has faded, and so have many of Captain Barr’s memories.  He can’t, for example, recall the three digit designation of the LCI on which  he landed.  But the horrors of H-Hour and the days to come can’t pass away entirely. 

“Nor should they,” he relates in his soft-spoken, yet firm voice.  “Our object in Operation Overlord was a righteous one, and we persevered for the sake of freedom.  That must never be forgotten.”

Still, as he looks wistfully across the grey-green expanse of empty water which when he’d last surveyed it was thick with landing crafts, Higgins Boats, and dotted with the bodies of men who’d given their lives to liberate Europe, he says, “it’s nice to see the place looking so peaceful.”           




Contact Us