I’ve been away awhile. Academic pursuits demanded my writing time. Today, though, it seems appropriate to remember. It will be enough, to just remember.
He was a grizzled fellow, as if he’d been at sea his entire life. He walked like Popeye, but lacked the character’s bulky forearms. Still, this ancient mariner strode confidently off the bus in crisp cracker-jacks with his first-class machinist’s rating badge and across the parking lot toward the cemetery grounds. He was one of many thousands returning to Normandy for the 40th Anniversary of D-Day, or rather, as the French say, the Liberation of France.
I was there as part of a joint military honor-guard. We were the ‘visible’ sign of a modern military presence and ‘security force’, meant to respond to the needs of the veterans visiting. Off shore lay a joint fleet of NATO allies, thirty-some ships centered around the USS Eisenhower. President Reagan was coming, along with a dozen other world leaders.
There was a familiarization session at the Omaha Beach Cemetery and Pointe du Hoc the day before. We spread out to look over the several acres of memorials and the walkways down to the beach. We were looking for obvious points of concern that would cause physical difficulties for the returning veterans. This 40th anniversary was likely to be the largest crowd ever for the event; most old enough to want to come back before they were too frail to do so.
This day, I happened upon two men traveling together. I walked with them down toward the stone stairs that went to the beach. They began recounting the routine; who they were, what their ratings were, what the tasks were for that infamous day so long ago. That five minutes was a gift to me and only a warm-up for them. When they began recounting who they were with, the larger of the two men broke into tears. It wasn’t long before he was in full on remorse and remembrance. His friend could not console him. They were back at D-Day. I said a simple thank you and stopped walking.
I was late getting back to the bus and the Army sergeant in charge and the Embassy officer in charge were none too happy with me. My ‘punishment’ was to be assigned to the Pointe du Hoc location the next day. Well, sometimes ‘punishment’ is a gift. That evening, in the nearby French village in Saint Pierre du Mont, my Air Force roommates and I had the pleasure of the company of Rangers who assaulted the Pointe on D-Day. Sixty-seven of the two-hundred men that came ashore that day returned to honor their brothers. They wore uniforms close to what their class ‘A’s were in 1944; khaki trousers and ‘blouses’, with the unit insignia on the shoulders. They wore long, narrow caps with ‘Ranger’ on the side and their VFW/American Legion insignias on the other. They were survivors, and they were there to meet with their French civilian count parts who also survived. What an honor to be there with them! It wasn’t the only one I’d be part of that weekend.
Walter Cronkite was a war correspondent during WWII and he was imbedded with the troops on D-Day. He was flying in the nose of a B-17 observing the landings. On this 40th Anniversary, he was broadcasting for CBS from the bluff above the English Channel at Pointe du Hoc. After the festivities and a mock rush of an old blown out bunker, I was able to make my way over to the tables where he and others were wrapping up their equipment. Shaking Mr. Cronkite’s hand was an unexpected honor.
I have one more person from WWII to remember each Memorial Day. My Uncle George was an aviation flight crew chief. After the war ended, shuffling the fleet of planes became routine work for the air corps and the Navy was no different. George was crew chief on a cross-country route from Norfolk to San Diego, ferrying a patrol observation plane from one coast to another. Corpus Cristi TX provided a refueling stop for the crew and the bird. The pilot took on an extra two passengers the morning of launch for the second part of their trip. He, his passengers, and my great Uncle died that morning when a malfunction occurred and the plane crashes after lifting off. Uncle George was our family’s military hero.
Before my own service, I learned of Korea in history books and I watched Vietnam on the television news from Mr. Cronkite. My own service saw shipmates and associate crewmen die on active duty. Just after I retired from the Navy, the United States suffered the 9-11 tragedies and entered the Second Gulf War. My son, nieces, and nephews have accomplished their service. They’ve lost their comrades. We each are links to the past and the future, with our chain of memories of family, friends, and shipmates to remember and to honor.
Will you join us, this Memorial Day? Before the picnics, before splashing the boats or starting out on the project for the camping trip, before striking the BBQ grill, will you pause with your own family and friends, perhaps visit the military memorial in your local cemetery, or join the parade, or go to church, will you stop for a moment and pray the souls who have gone before us, having given themselves to service for our country, will enjoy the blessings of heaven and support us as we continue defending our nation’s people. Please.
May the Grace and Blessings of God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ be carried to each of them, and to all of you, by the Holy Spirit. Amen.