Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
The overcast which had been persistent all morning was reluctantly giving way. The sun pierced the clouds occasionally, the light giving color to the land. It was cool and breezy, but this was June. And this was Normandy.
Places where violent death has occurred have the same feel. There is a quiet that is somber, yet meaningful. The same atmosphere exists in places like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shanksville, PA, where a group of airline passengers fought the first battle in the War on Terror. These are places where heroism was defined; where violence and valor defined the day.
We stood atop the windy bluff, my wife and I, looking down onto what, on another June day, had been designated Beach Easy Green. It was a bit of a misnomer, "Easy" being the phonetic expression for the letter "E". In truth, there was nothing easy about that beach on June 6, 1944. Today, we stood and watched as the waters of the English Channel whispered across the sand. In the quiet, we contemplated the meaning of courage.
71 years and 13 days previous, the quiet morning was rent by the roar of tens of thousands of guns, from officers' pistols to the giant naval rifles of the battleships. By the hundreds, landing craft hit the beaches, dropped their ramps, and for the first time in that war, Allied soldiers poured into Europe.
Superbly trained thought they were, only a few were professional soldiers. They were coal miners and cab drivers; farmers and financial managers; college students and cowboys. Also present in abundance were the boys fresh out of high school who would today lose their lives before they had even started. Some were cut down inside the landing craft, sawed by German automatic weapons before their boots even touched the sand. Some died on the sprint across the beach, others as they courageously fought to open the beach exits. Still others would die on the uplands behind the wall of pillboxes and emplacements, including the Airborne troopers who had jumped in the night before, some of them executed in their chutes as they mistakenly dropped into the charnel house of Ste. Mer Eglise.
But others -- many, many others -- would survive. They would cross the beaches, climb the hills, kill the enemy and start that long, bloody march that would end 10 months later in a ruined city called Berlin.
A World War II veteran once told me, "I cannot tell you about war. If you've never been there, you'll never understand." As the ranks of those veterans steadily thin, some are finally turning loose of those terrible memories, and at long last, weeping for their fallen comrades.
Throughout our history, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and guardsmen have faced terrible things, experienced what could only be called waking nightmares so the rest of us could sleep peacefully. They understand the job description. But standing on that beach, and looking up at those forbidding hills trying in vain to imagine the unremitting blizzard of lead; trying to think about watching the best friends they would ever have die, their young bodies cut to pieces, I wonder. How could anyone have survived that, let alone achieved that victory?
The Germans had poured tens of millions of cubic yards steel-reinforced concrete into what Hitler called "The Atlantic Wall." It was thought that the defenses were impenetrable, that the Allied invasion would die aborning on those beaches, and forced back into the sea. In point of fact, the Atlantic Wall lasted less than a day. There were still struggles ahead. The Bocage country that would slow the invasion to a crawl until August, when a brilliant plan called "Cobra" finally allowed the Allies to break out.
There were many crucial battles during the war. Midway, Guadalcanal, Anzio, The Bulge, but make no mistake. It was here on that day where events would determine the war's outcome.
We had hired a cab driver in Caen to give us a tour of the area. He drove us first to the American Cemetery where we entered the Visitor's Center. It is a grey building, not very imposing or beautiful. But inside there are a host of displays and film clips covering the events leading up to D-Day, the events of June 6th, and what happened immediately afterwards.
An Infinity Pool points toward the beaches.
The soldier's headstone.
It takes a while to get through this part, and because our time was limited, we almost used up the entire allotment before even getting to the cemetery. After leaving the building, we took the walk along a stone wall overlooking the sea. Ahead of us, a patch of beautiful green grass covered in snow-white crosses marked the final resting place of the valiant.
They lie here in peaceful repose, so different from the manner in which they died. There's no real order to the placement of their graves, officers and enlisted together. Among these 9,386 graves, along with the unknown and uncelebrated, are two sons of a U.S. president and a three-star general, But nobody gets any prominence. In death, there is no rank.
It can be easy for us who have lived the gift of freedom and plenty for which they paid with their lives, to not think about their sacrifice. To not consider the courage it took to cross that beach and climb those hills, or consider whether we could have done the same thing. We have largely forgotten what it means to have to fight for our freedom. And that is a tragedy.
Visiting a place like Normandy, or Gettysburg, or Antietam helps to bring that sacrifice into focus, if we can be bothered to pay attention. I, for one, cannot help but hear their whispers, the question that I am still ashamed to answer:
"I gave you my life; my future. Was my sacrifice in vain?"