Memorial Day 2010
We set aside one day a year to honor the fallen from our wars. It hardly seems adequate that for the great sacrifice these men and women have made we can only manage a single day to honor them.
Yet in the age of the Internet it remains a day that more people need to realize is not merely the first holiday weekend of summer. And while there will be a great many commemorations – large and small – in towns and cities, the vast majority of Americans will pass the day with little or no understanding of why they are having a long weekend.
Two years ago I had the privilege of escorting a group of patriotic Americans on a brief, two-day battlefield tour of Normandy. Our stops included Mère-Église, where the 82d Airborne fought on D-Day and where paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment became entangled in the steeple of the church.
Steele hung there for two-hours pretending to be dead before he was eventually captured by the Germans –later escaping. (He was portrayed by Red Buttons in the film The Longest Day.)
Among our other stops was the Pointe du Hoc, situated between Omaha and Utah Beaches, where Lt. Col. James Rudder’s 2d Rangers scaled the steep cliffs to take out a 155 mm artillery battery of six guns that was found to have mysteriously been moved inland some five-hundred yards before D-Day and abandoned. At an enormously high cost the brave Rangers carried out their mission of destroying these weapons that posed a serious threat to the invasion force.
We also spent some time on Omaha Beach collecting sand and attempting without much success to picture how different that strip of sand must have looked in June 1944. It was a glorious summer day and the beach was filled with beachgoers, vendors, automobiles and tour buses. As children played in the sand and romped in the water it proved impossible to superimpose the hell that was Omaha Beach on D-Day. On that day Omaha became the most deadly place on Earth. Many drowned in the rough seas; others were cut down by fire from atop the steep bluffs overlooking the beach. It was absolute bedlam, and for some hours it appeared Omaha could not be held.
Then an extraordinary thing happened. American G.I.s, ranging from private to general took matters into their own hands and sometimes individually or in small groups they rallied. And after many hours of bloody fighting they triumphed. They held Omaha and by so doing not only insured that the invasion would succeed, but that the war would be won. It was a triumph of courage over fear. And it made a liar out of Adolf Hitler who had boasted that American citizen-soldiers were too soft and untrained to best his exalted Wehrmacht.
Their commanding general, Omar Bradley, called Omaha a "nightmare" and after the war returned often to honor those who died there. He said: "They should never be forgotten. Nor should those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins. Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero."
By far the most poignant stop on our tour was the American military cemetery atop the bluffs of Omaha at nearby Colleville-sur-Mer where 9,387 Americans are buried, 307 of them unknowns. There are thirty-eight sets of brothers buried next to one another.
Perhaps less well known is that each these graves is aligned so that it faces west – toward America.
Among those buried in the Normandy cemetery is Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., one of three buried there who won the Medal of Honor. On Utah Beach Teddy Roosevelt won America’s highest military decoration for his heroics on D-Day. His men quickly realized if a general could unflinchingly face combat waving a cane, so too could they. In no other nation could you find the son of a president and ordinary soldiers making common cause on a battlefield.
A visit to this cemetery (as it is to any of the American Battle Monument’s Commission sites) is a moving experience. There is a sense of solemnity and tranquility that seems to affect all who come here. One comes away with an indefinable but very real sense that those who lie there are at peace. My wife and I strolled randomly through the cemetery, often stopping in front of a grave. From the dates of their deaths one can generally surmise which battle they were killed in. What makes such an indelible impression is how young most of them were. Many visitors also linger viewing the memorial and the large maps cast in stone that depict the flow of the Allied campaign form Normandy to the end of the war. Others pause at the small chapel in the center of the cemetery or by the reflecting pool. The only sounds heard while walking through the cemetery were the reassuring music from birds in the trees.
On this summer’s day the large parking lot was filled to overflowing with automobiles, campers and tour buses. People come from near and far to visit this place, well over a million annually. In 2007 a sparkling new visitor’s center opened outside the gates to the cemetery.
At the Memorial one of our party, a retired three-star Air Force general, laid a wreath in the semi-circular colonnade. As Taps was played over the loudspeaker nearby visitors stopped in their tracks in deference. Among our group more than a few tears were shed.
In the garden where there is a wall of the missing containing 1,557 names, the assistant superintendent told us how each day this special place brings forth a poignant tale of some kind. He related that on one recent occasion an elderly veteran appeared and asked how he could locate the name of a missing comrade who had died when the troopship they were aboard was torpedoed off Cherbourg in December 1944 with an enormous loss of life. He and his comrade had been bunkmates – his friend died and his body was never recovered while he somehow survived. When his friend’s name was located on the wall, the veteran stood at attention, removed a bugle from his jacket and solemnly played “Taps.” It was one of the most moving gestures (among many) that has ever occurred at the cemetery. The veteran had waited more than a half-century before visiting to pay a final tribute to his comrade.
At the Overlook above Omaha Beach I read the group what I consider the finest D-Day remembrance ever published. It appeared in my local newspaper and elsewhere on June 6, 1990. Written by a syndicated columnist for the Cox news service named Howard Kleinberg, it is called:
“The Sun Never Sets on the Longest Day”
I have been going through a strange ritual on this day, one my children always believed, and still do, to be a bit archaic. They liken it to something Archie Bunker would do.
On this day each year, I play the recording of Paul Anka’s theme music and words from the 1962 motion picture “The Longest Day.” I play it loud, real loud – almost as loud as the music that blasts out of young people’s automobiles.
When they were younger, the kids thought it amusing. I would play the music and then subject them to a short re-telling of history. But as the years wore on, they came to consider my ritual as somewhat of an ordeal: “Oh, God, today’s D-Day. That means the old man is going to pull out that scratchy record again.”
Probably I have overdone it. Don’t we all at times? Anyhow, I don’t play the scratchy record anymore. I made a scratchy tape of it and play that.
I was going on 12 years old on June 6, 1944, an age when significant events forged lasting impressions upon me. D-Day was one of those events because, as I barely understood then, but fully do now, that day was a monumental time hack in the history of civilization.
It was the day the Western Allies invaded Nazi-occupied Europe. Younger generations, having been weaned on the controversy over Vietnam and, more recently, Central America, probably do not fully appreciate the significance of the day.
There was little debate about World War II. There were clear-cut good guys and bad guys. It was a war we had to join or continue to see nations killed in gas chambers, through ghastly medical experimentation, before firing squads or more slowly through slave labor – all in the name of racial purity.
So each June 6 I pull out my tape and play it:
‘Many men come here as soldiers,
Many men pass this way,
Many men will count the hours,
As they live The Longest Day.’
One of my few attributes is a deep sense of history. I am enthralled by the past. Ten years ago, I visited the beaches of Normandy in what my wife correctly analyzed was a pilgrimage. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. The Allied cemeteries in Normandy are permanent testimony to the price the world had to pay for survival. The German cemetery is testimony to its madness.
It was a Sunday morning painted to order. A deep fog covered the stark beaches; a foghorn sounded in the distance. There was stillness about the scene, a foreboding that led you to the cemetery atop the cliffs. I walked the beach and imagined what it was like that day – and privately mourned those who did not survive it.
‘Many men are tired and weary,
Many men came here to stay,
Many men won’t see the sunset,
When we end the Longest Day.’
I remember the day. Summer break had not yet happened. The school principal called a special assembly and I think we all said a prayer for the men on the beaches. People had not yet challenged prayer in the school. I don’t remember what we prayed but I do remember that the principal was crying. She had a son stationed in England, and he was probably now pinned down by on the beach called Omaha. The sight of her trying to hide her tears remains indelible in my mind.
The kids are correct. The record was scratchy, so is the tape. But I play it anyway. Before my youngest son left the nest several years ago, I attempted to play the record on his super-sophisticated stereo. “Not on your life, Pop, it will ruin my system.” So I went out and bought an old-fashioned record player, one that doesn’t have all the red lights and gauges – just on/off and volume. Now I have a basic tape recorder.
The kids are all gone, grown up. When I sift past Ella Fitzgerald, George Gershwin and Broadway show tapes to find “The Longest Day” today, there no longer will be adolescent cries of “Sheesh, there he goes again!” My wife will understand how I feel about the day. She will pretend to listen along with me to the tape.
‘Many men, the mighty thousands,
Many men to victory.
Marching on, right in to battle.
In the Longest Day in history.’
And I will eat dinner and turn on the TV set to watch a ball game or a movie. I can do this in 1990 because of what “the mighty thousands” did in 1944, the ones who survived it and particularly the ones who didn’t.
What Howard Kleinberg could do in 1990 hasn’t changed one iota except that the sacrifices we expect of our military continues to grow with each passing year. We haven’t had any D-Day’s lately but as of this writing America has lost more than 6,500 of its sons and daughters in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, I ask each of you to take just a moment this Memorial Day to reflect on the sacrifices made by the more than 41,790,000 participants in all of America’s wars and the more than 1,096,000 who have died in its service. They have made the ultimate sacrifice and all they ask of us is that we honor and remember them.