John Warner Smith is the second University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate in a row designated Louisiana Poet Laureate.
When a UL Lafayette filmmaker was asked by Louisiana Public Broadcasting to write a documentary script about a little-known battle that paved the way for World War II D-Day invasion, he jumped at the chance.
Charles Richard, co-director of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Creative Writing Program and an English professor, was intrigued by a clash long obscured by the larger events of D-Day. “Like many people, I had no idea about this small, pivotal battle.”
“Seize & Secure: The Battle for La Fière,” tells the stories of paratroopers and glidermen from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who descended onto the French countryside ahead of the amphibious Normandy beach landing of 150,000 Allied soldiers on June 6, 1944. D-Day was the start of four months of intense fighting. The Allied victory in late August ended Nazi Germany’s control of northern France.
The 82nd Airborne Division’s mission was to take the La Fière road and a small stone bridge over the Merderet River in Normandy. German troops had flooded surrounding fields, so control of the route was necessary for Allied forces to push tanks and armored vehicles inland. Had the operation failed, Allied forces likely wouldn’t have advanced much beyond the beach.
Members of the 82nd Airborne fought German troops for four days before taking the bridge. More than 250 U.S. soldiers were killed.
“It’s surprising La Fière is so little-explored, given how critical that battle was in getting our men up the beach and into the interior,” said Richard.
He collaborated with LPB editors and producers, writing a narrative that accompanied archival footage and interviews with veterans and military historians. The interviews had been collected by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans more than a decade ago.
The one-hour film features poignant, often harrowing stories of survivors who tell of watching their fellow soldiers drown under the weight of their gear after falling into flooded fields. They describe seeing comrades immediately cut down by enemy fire upon landing. And, they recount their horror upon realizing that cloud cover had obscured drop zones, resulting in soldiers being scattered inadvertently by confused pilots.
Some soldiers searched frantically – and often unsuccessfully – for their fellow soldiers across a dark countryside lined with thick hedgerows that perfectly concealed German soldiers armed with machine guns.
The documentary was broadcast nationally on PBS as part of the National WWII Museum’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Richard has written, produced or directed more than 20 documentaries. Most of the them center on Louisiana history and culture.
He wrote LPB’s six-hour documentary series, Louisiana: A History, which won an Alfred I. Dupont Columbia Award – TV’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize. He has twice earned “Best Historical Documentary” at the New York International Independent Film Festival.
Photo: Members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before parachuting onto the French countryside in the hours before the amphibious Normandy beach landing for the World War II D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. (Credit: National Archives)