“Believe me, Lang, the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive … for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”
— Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day”
No sooner, it seemed, had my article about local photographer Larry Sullivan hit the newsstands Monday than the phone rang at The Star. I was not in the office yet, so Managing Editor Cynthia Cather Burton took the call.
The voice at the other end of the line was, let us say, very emphatic. “I was there, too,” he said.
And so Ronald Frantz (pronounced “Fr-ah-ntz”) had been “there,” much like Sullivan, at the shooting of the famous World War II movie “The Longest Day.” What renders it even more coincidental is that the movie was filmed in many locales, but Frantz and Sullivan, both in the military, were serving at the same place at the same time: Rochfort and La Rochelle on the west coast of France.
In fact, the two soldiers’ paths may have crossed as Frantz recalls seeing photographers in army uniforms taking shots of the action. His men, members of the 570th Transportation Co., played active roles in the film, both setting up props (e.g. cleaning out bunkers, erecting those famous German beach impediments, laying barbed wire, setting charges to make the combat scenes look real, and digging the same trenches as used in the actual combat) and then actually taking part in the action.
Frantz, acting buck sergeant to his platoon during the shooting, still chuckles at some of the errors made by his soldiers serving as actors. One did not remove his Specialist 14 designation — a rank yet to be established in World War II — and so was dispatched to the cutting-room floor.
Another was supposed to die on the beach, but as the cameras moved in, could not refrain from visibly breathing as his head bobbed up and down.
All told, Frantz’s “team” served for a month on the La Rochelle beach he says was “supposed to be the beach at D-Day.” He says he “enjoyed (the experience) enormously” and by the way his men acted so “enthusiastically” they did, too.
“After all,” Frantz, now 78, says, “my men were in a (Hollywood) movie ... They all enjoyed it.”
If Frantz and Sullivan disagree on anything about the experience, it is whether John Wayne, who played paratroop chief Benjamin Vandervoort, appeared on La Rochelle. The former claims he did; his men, he says, had to use a forklift to turn over an “exploded” Jeep in which Wayne was riding. Sullivan maintains “The Duke” spent all his time in the studio.
v v v
After leaving his Pennsylvania home at 16 to join the military — “I lied about my age” — Frantz ended serving most of his 20 years in Virginia, much at Fort Belvoir in Alexandria. After leaving the Army as an E-7, he joined the division of federal services that contracted carriers (North American, for example) that moved U.S. servicemen and personnel assigned to the government all around the world. Their ultimate goal: to make the new employees (no matter their position) and their families quickly feel at home.
Frantz retired as a supervisor and has lived in Frederick County since 1990. And here he’s been content to stay, having returned to Pennsylvania just once, a few months ago, for the funeral of his 90-year-old sister.
But those 18 months in France — he landed in 1961 — before President Charles de Gaulle decided he no longer wanted a foreign (read: American) presence in his nation — were days to remember. For they included, above all, “The Longest Day.”